A warm Timorese welcome at Raifun Primary School.
This week I’ve been in Timor-Leste visiting ChildFund’s programs for children. Not many people have even heard of the place. Timor-Leste is, in fact, a remote and small country in Southeast Asia. There are only a few flights daily to its capital, Dili, so it made me smile when starting our descent, the captain announced we would be delayed due to congestion on the airstrip.
Timor-Leste celebrated its status as a new nation only 12 years ago after a bloody conflict with Indonesia. In that short time, it has made great strides, given the scale of the development and security challenges it has faced. As a result of the violence that followed the 1999 vote for independence, most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed, the economy was devastated, and there were no functioning government institutions left. The country was essentially starting from scratch. Countries emerging from conflict can take 30 or 40 years to get to middle income levels and, as my experience in Somalia shows, many never make it, falling back into conflict.
Timor-Leste has come a long way, although it still faces many challenges. Despite the country’s growing petroleum wealth, the country is still one of the poorest in the world. Many people still lack basic services, particularly outside the capital. Private sector development remains constrained by a poorly educated population, weak public institutions and unreliable electricity, transport and telecommunications. These factors have made it difficult for Timor-Leste to move away from its dependence on oil and create jobs for its growing population.
But there are signs that things are improving. The number of people living below the poverty line is falling. More children are being vaccinated, and the country is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal for reduced child mortality. More women are receiving care from skilled health workers during pregnancy and childbirth, and the number of children enrolled in school is increasing. Thousands more people have better water and sanitation services, relieving them of the back-breaking task of collecting water of dubious quality.
ChildFund assists communities in remote areas, and no visit is complete without a long drive on a bad road. West of Dili, the coastal road twists and turns, with jungle-laden hills to the left and bronze-colored beaches to the right. Today, I am visiting Maliana, where ChildFund sponsors 1,600 children. In this poor farming community, most parents grow rice, cassava and corn, and raise pigs, cows and chicken. Children have other ambitions. They tell me they don’t want to become farmers and work in the fields; they want to study at university in Dili.
Carlos, age 16 and sponsored through ChildFund, tells me he wants to go to university to study economics. Abaya has similar dreams. She tells me she wants to go to university in the capital, where three of her brothers are already studying, to study medicine and become a doctor. In Libania’s wooden house, I notice a computer. She says, “ChildFund provided my family with a cow a few years ago. Now we have eight cows. We recently sold one to buy a computer. It’s very important I learn how to use a computer if I am to get a good job.”
A visit with Libania and her mother.
Youth unemployment is a huge issue in Timor-Leste. Many young adults drop out of school with no skills. ChildFund provides market-driven training opportunities to help youths develop vocational skills so that they can provide for their families. In Maliana, ChildFund supports carpentry training, where I meet Felipe, a confident 25-year-old.
“I was keen to learn a new skill because I didn’t want to become a farmer like my parents,” he says. “The training gave me a way out and confidence. When I successfully completed the course last year, ChildFund gave me tools and equipment to start my own business. At first, it was tough. I had no money to buy wood. Now I employ two young people and pass on to them what I have learned. There is great demand for my skill. I make doors, beds and other furniture using local wood. I have made a profit of $1,800 in the last six months, which is a great help to my family. I hope to take on more staff in the future.”
Felipe, a participant in a carpentry program.
In Tunubibi village (literally “barbecued goat”), it looks like everyone has turned up for my visit. I’m here to inaugurate a new early childhood development center. In Timor-Leste, only one in 10 children has access to pre-primary education, and improving access and quality of early years development is one of ChildFund’s priorities in the country. As I cut the ribbon and open the new center, I am happy to see the bright classrooms, with running water and clean toilets. We are providing teacher training, educational materials, desks and chairs (produced by the youth carpenters!).
I also distribute shoes to excited children. The shoes were provided by TOMS Shoes, with whom ChildFund partners. TOMS’ One for One™ program gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold. And TOMS plans to send shoes for the children not just one time but repeatedly, as they grow. Today the children can barely contain their excitement as I fit shoes on their feet. “I go to school barefoot,” one child told me. “My friends will not laugh at me anymore.”
“I like my new shoes. I like the black color,” another child exclaimed. “Thanks to TOMS, I got a new pair of shoes.”
Trying on shoes.
Parents also voiced their appreciation. “ChildFund is doing a lot for our children. This will help retain our children in schools and fewer children will suffer from foot disease. Most parents are unable to buy a pair of shoes for their children,” one parent told us.
ChildFund is doing some great work in Timor-Leste, and I was happy to visit for the first time and see our programs. For such a young country, it has already made great strides.