Weekly Insights and Analysis

From Timor-Leste: Fostering a New Generation of Leaders

October 3, 2007

By Katherine S. Hunter

In May 2002, Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor) became the first new nation of the 21st century after more than four centuries as a Portuguese colony and a quarter-century under Indonesian administration. As a young nation, with a literacy rate of only 50%, the country is struggling to establish institutions, provide basic public services, and create an informed citizenry. With limited access to educational opportunities and 53% of the population under 17 years of age — and 34% between 12 and 29 — a priority concern is reaching children and youth. To respond to these challenges, The Asia Foundation recently funded two local initiatives to spur literacy, promote understanding of democratic principles, and strengthen civic participation: a youth essay contest on the constitution and a reading contest for all school children in Aileu District.

On May 20th, in recognition of Timor-Leste’s Independence Day, the Aileu Resource and Training Center — in cooperation with the Ministry of Education — organized a Reading Contest for children in 49 schools. The Aileu Resource and Training Center organized the contest with teachers and school children from primary, pre-secondary, and secondary schools in the four sub-districts of Aileu Kota, Laulara, Liquidoe, and Remexio. Accompanied by their teachers, students read selected passages in either Tetun, Portuguese, or English and then responded to questions from the jury on vocabulary and meaning. Among the finalists’ awards were donations of special collections from the Foundation’s Books for Asia program to their schools. The Aileu community displayed astounding commitment to this contest, most notably the primary school winner and her teacher who walked more than four hours to participate in the finals.

The Xanana Gusmão Reading Room in Dili, founded by the former first lady of Timor-Leste, Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, serves as the capital city’s de facto public library. To cultivate interest in the country’s constitution, the Reading Room organized the “Community and the Constitution Essay Contest.” More than 40 children wrote 500-word essays in the local language of Tetun on topics including formal and non-formal education, economy, leadership, family, health, national security and law. A jury of respected Timorese leaders judged the essays and the winners read their prized essays at an award ceremony last month. Soon, the essays will be published into a small book for national and community radio stations across the country. The contest has sparked interest in creating a permanent forum for ongoing debate amongst Timorese youth on the constitution and other critical issues.

Related locations: Timor-Leste


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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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