On Sunday 20 May, East Timor will celebrate ten years of independence. As a nation born from the ashes of destruction, its first decade has been marked by problems and set-backs. Many in East Timor, not least its outgoing president, Jose Ramos-Horta, lament a lack of development since independence. Ramos-Horta notes that the international community has spent billions of dollars in East Timor, yet most East Timorese remain amongst the world’s poorest people. But a little over a year ago, Ramos-Horta said that the country had never been better. The question is, in part, whether the metaphorical glass is half empty or half full. It is also, in part, whether the speaker – in this case Ramos-Horta – had a political score to settle. In early 2011, Ramos-Horta was still firmly in Gusmao’s political tent. A year later, he is an ex-president outside that tent. Many East Timorese have also been disappointed with independence.
Timor-Leste has emerged from its dark past and extremely low levels of development with some cause for optimism. A range of human development indicators, from infant mortality to longevity and education, have all begun to trend more positively, government programs have alleviated some of the worst effects of poverty and infrastructure is being developed.
But Timor-Leste still faces significant challenges, which its new government, no matter who is elected this year, will have to deal with. These challenges fall into three categories; the environment, the resources curse, and human capacity.
At one level, Timor-Leste has a physical environment that is set. The soil is relatively poor, especially on the north coast, its capacity to produce crops is limited and its rainy season is usually brief, in regional terms, but often very heavy. Added to the mountainous nature of the land, cropping is difficult, poor seasons are common and torrential rains can wash away crops in a day.
As East Timor heads to the polls this year, starting with the presidential election next month, it will be embarking on a new and hopefully more positive phase of its often troubled development. East Timor now appears to be moving along a path of stability and hope, but a number of major issues await its new government but.
First among the issues to confront East Timor’s new government will be how to handle the withdrawal of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force later in the year. East Timor is now much more stable since the 2006 crisis and looks to remain so, but its police are still poorly trained and underlying problems continue, including poverty and high levels of unemployment.