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Vicki Poole: Timor-Leste finding its feet as world’s second-newest country

Timor-Leste, given its location between Indonesia and Australia, is a bridge between Asia and the Pacific, says Vicki Poole. (Photo: NZ Defence Force/Flickr)

Timor-Leste is committed to building a nation based on values of democracy and human rights as it finds its feet as the world’s second-youngest country, says Vicki Poole (New Zealand Ambassador to Timor-Leste).

Tell us a bit about Timor-Leste.

Vicki Poole: Timor-Leste is the second-newest country in the world. In 1999, the New Zealand Defence Forces went in with Australia and other countries to help liberate Timor-Leste. The Indonesians had been occupying the small country for 25 years. So they had three years of a transition. New Zealand police came in as well to help boost the peace and security in the country.

In 2002, they set up a new government, so they are only 16 years old. It makes them pretty new, and they were starting from a very low base.

In Timor-Leste now, there’s really high levels of malnutrition ... poor levels of education; it’s not a good base to start growing the country on. Having said that, they’ve got a $16-billion trust fund. They’ve got oil reserves. So it is not a poor country either.

What support is Timor-Leste drawing from New Zealand?

Timor-Leste is a small country that has a huge commitment to democracy and human rights – which, compared to many other countries in the Southeast Asia region, is unusual at the moment. But they start from this low base.

So a lot of it is about institution-building in a small country. A lot of people in Timor-Leste look to New Zealand and say: ‘How, in a small country, do you run such a great government?’ They’re seeking our support. Lots of Timorese come to study in New Zealand.

“New Zealand is supporting Timor-Leste to join ASEAN.”

What aid programmes does New Zealand run?

We’ve got a reasonably strong engagement on the development side; our aid programme is around $15 million. A big part of that is scholarships for Timorese to study in New Zealand. And we’ve got this really cool partnership called short-term training awards.

A young guy called Cesar went to New Zealand to learn how to set up his own food business. He was based in Queenstown but travelled around New Zealand, looking at street-side food carts. He’s set up the first street-side food cart in Timor-Leste in Dili. It’s funky, for young people.

He said: “I learned this from New Zealand. My way of doing business is the way I learnt to do it in New Zealand.” So that sharing of our small, cool New Zealand way of doing things, is very transferable.

Cesar Trinito Freitas Gaio (Photo: NZ Embassy Timor-Leste/FB)

Cesar Trinito Freitas Gaio with Dili’s first mobile Dilicious Timor food truck. (Photo: NZ Embassy in Timor Leste/Facebook)

As part of New Zealands efforts to help Timor-Leste diversify its economy, we’ve been investing in the coffee sector. We’ve been working with a co-operative and helping Timorese farmers to prune trees, increase their production, and get greater income.

The knock-on effect is the increased interest in Timorese coffee in New Zealand. Theres an owner of a café in Takaka, Golden Bay, selling single-origin Timorese coffee. There are some neat offshoots of some development projects we’ve started.

New Zealand is also looking to help Timor-Leste in tourism. It is really nascent. But what is in Timor-Leste is really authentic; it’s how the New Zealand tourism industry itself started. So we’re talking with the Department of Conservation and the New Zealand tourism authorities on how we can share some of the learnings of building a tourism industry that is authentic, that values the environment, values cultural traditions, but brings in revenue.

Another area New Zealand is engaged in is early childhood education. It’s really foreign to Timorese. We’ve been working with the government. The president and the prime minister are now talking about the value of early childhood education. Young kids are now going to pre-school. So that about the time they start primary school, they know how to learn, how to sit in the classroom, they understand a bit about reading and problem-solving, and they’re learning the value of play. One of the things New Zealand is doing is building playgrounds.

Another area New Zealand is supporting Timor-Leste is in the community policing programme. New Zealand has helped the country move from quite a military-style police service to one that engages in the community, and is about preventing crime rather than dealing with crime.

What is in Timor-Leste’s future?

Timor-Leste’s future is facing towards Southeast Asia. That’s where economic growth is, that is where their future is. Timor-Leste currently is not a member of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. It is the only Southeast Asian country that is not a member of ASEAN.

New Zealand is supporting Timor-Leste to join ASEAN. And that involves training them – for instance, how you attend meetings; and it also involves working with other ASEAN members to discuss, ‘What can we do to help Timor-Leste become a member?’. We in New Zealand know, as a small country, how important it is to be part of a bigger region.

The big thing to remember is that Timor-Leste is a new country. It’s got so many challenges, from economic development, feeding its kids and getting them into school, and building up the capacity of government.

Vicki Poole is New Zealand Ambassador to Timor-Leste.

– Asia Media Centre