Notes from the Field

Timor-Leste’s President Calls for Redoubling of Nation’s Commitment to Education

September 14, 2011

On September 8, The Asia Foundation commemorated International Literacy Day for the first time in Timor-Leste. The Foundation partnered with the Secretary of State for Youth and Sport, Alola Foundation, Care International, and Timor Aid to host a book fair for primary and secondary students. More than 4,000 books were distributed to schools in Dili. Since 2004, the Foundation’s Books for Asia program has donated more than 115,000 books to schools and other institutions throughout the country, a nation sorely in need of a culture supportive of learning and resources such as public libraries.

Timor-Leste International Literacy Day

Since independence, Timor-Leste has increased literacy levels to 50 percent; an impressive achievement in less than one decade. Above, children with new books donated by Books for Asia during International Literacy Day celebrations.

When Timor-Leste achieved independence in 2002, only 32 percent of the nation’s populace over the age of 15 was literate. Moreover, the violence that ensued after the people of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia destroyed 80 percent of the nation’s infrastructure, including schools – making Timor-Leste one of the poorest nations in the world with basic income, health, and literacy levels on par with the nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

Since independence, Timor-Leste has increased literacy levels to 50 percent; an impressive achievement in less than one decade. During this time, Timor-Leste has significantly increased access to primary education (89 %); despite possessing one of the world’s highest population growth rates where the average mother has six children. The country’s National Development Plan sets a clear, ambitious goal that by the year 2020, the people of Timor-Leste will be “literate, knowledgeable, and skilled.” However, many challenges remain and much needs to be done.

Linguistic diversity is enshrined in the nation’s constitution, which designates Portuguese and Tetum as official languages, while English and Bahasa Indonesia are working languages. However, only 2 percent of the population knows Portuguese and many Timorese teachers struggle to teach standard Tetum as there are as many as 15 different vernaculars in the language. Consequently, a significant number of Timorese adolescents and adults are learning to read and write often in a second or third language. While the Timor-Leste government is making great strides to improve literacy, this challenge will have considerable impact on the nation’s success leading up to 2020.

Another challenge will be to provide the requisite literacy skills for unskilled adolescents and adults. About half of the country’s 1.2 million population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment and underemployment is alleged to be as high as 70 percent. Ninety-five percent of state revenues comes from the sale of maritime gas and oil reserves, making Timor-Leste the most petroleum dependent nation in the world. However, while the oil and gas sector has contributed to a high level of economic growth, it employs few Timorese as few possess the requisite technical skills the sector demands.

Illiteracy and lack of education hinders key areas of development, adversely impacts a nation’s health, and mitigates against a culture of learning, sustainable economic activity, and participatory governance, while placing significant constraints on local development and poverty reduction. Access to education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality, and lays a solid foundation for sustained economic growth. As Nobel Laureate and Timor-Leste’s President José Ramos-Horta said last week, “Education is a core value of human development. … International Literacy Day is a wake-up call to redouble our commitment to provide a good quality of education for all Timorese.”

The nation should heed its president’s words as the country strives to transform itself into a prosperous, peaceful nation in the coming decades.

John J. Brandon directs The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound.org. He has spent the past three weeks in Timor-Leste. Roselia Pinto and Dores Vilanova are the communications officer and program officer for the Books for Asia program, respectively, in Timor-Leste. They can be reached at rpinto@asiafound.org and dvilanov@asiafound.org. They were responsible for organizing the Foundation’s Book Fair in commemoration of International Literacy Day last week. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors  and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

One comment on this post:

  1. Ken Westmoreland:

    The name of the Indonesian language in English is Indonesian, not ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, and even critics of the Portuguese language policy would put the figure of Portuguese speakers as low as 2 per cent.

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