My working experience in Asia had been limited. A quick two days in Jakarta to cover the 2016 Islamic State attack in central Jakarta was the start and end of my time filing from this part of the world.
So with a pristine coastline hugged by mountain ranges and a compelling national history, East Timor offered an entirely different experience from the gritty, tense and violent vibe that lingered in the wake of shootings and grenades in downtown Jakarta.
But there were some striking parallels East Timor has with another country I’d spent a lot of time reporting from: South Sudan.
Blessed with oil and gas reserves, a small population, and the kind of youthful exuberance of a nation finally in control of its own destiny, East Timor is brimming with energy and opportunity. Not just because it’s the world’s now second youngest nation, but also because the majority of the country’s population are like their nation ... young.
East Timor’s leaders had the sense of mind to set up a petroleum fund as a way to ensure all the money generated from their vast oil and gas reserves is funnelled into a sort of savings account. It follows the same model as Norway. Cash only leaves the fund to be spent by projects the government deems worthy. But local think-tanks are warning that the government’s spending rates will see the current cash pile of US$16 billion (what’s left in the petroleum fund) spent within 10 years.
When the camera operator John Fleming and I landed, Dili had a very Bali-esque feel about it but without the swarms of Aussie tourists. There were lines of schoolchildren walking home, looking very smart in their clean uniforms. We spoke to educated, driven young Timorese who were proud of their transition to democracy, and had high hopes and aspirations for their country’s future. One of whom was our fixer, a local journalist who also writes for the Associated Press, Raimundos Oki.
We also saw a lot of poverty and desperation. We didn’t see any hospitals or signs of adequate healthcare and instead, local NGOs are stepping up to provide the only source of medical help. There were lots of small children playing on the road when they should be at school. With US$16 billion in the petroleum fund and a population of only 1.1 million, no one should be going without clean water, food, education and shelter like nearly half of the population are. I’ve spent years reporting on humanitarian issues in the developing world where the toxic combination of violence, poverty and greed breeds ugly outcomes for people and families. It stems from the top. But the East Timor leaders – some of whom relied on the generosity of their people to hide them and feed them while they fought in the struggle for independence – seem more focussed on fancy big-ticket infrastructure projects than providing the basic needs for their people.
As Charles Scheiner told us when we spoke to him at his La’o Hamutuk offices in Dili: “Timor Leste’s greatest resource is not oil, gas. Or hypothetical minerals or resources it could find in the future. It’s the people.”
For its part, the government says it is pumping money into the right areas to attract foreign investment and push the country’s infrastructure forward. The Minister we spoke to was confident the money won’t run out. He says the government understands the need to diversify the economy.
Over the next 10 years – like South Sudan, the country that took over its mantle as the world’s newest nation – East Timor may learn that oil doesn’t guarantee prosperity.
I don’t see East Timor plunging into the horrific cycle of violence, war crimes and grinding hardship that is currently swamping South Sudan. But there could be mass starvation and hunger.
My hope is that there is a big course correction at a political level. East Timor doesn’t need to follow the path of so many other resource-rich nations before it – many of which are in the African continent – where it is beset by the paradox of plenty. I want it to buck this trend and instead, one day soon, the people will actually benefit from their country’s natural resources rather than be left watching as the money and their quality of life is washed away.
Journalist Caitlin McGee used an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant to report from Timor Leste for The Nation.
– Asia Media Centre