Notes from the Field

The Silent Crisis in Timor-Leste’s Development Trajectory

September 4, 2013

As International Literacy Day approaches, the matter of literacy remains an enormous challenge around the world, including in Asia’s youngest nation, Timor-Leste. Amid the competing development agendas for this democratizing, fast-developing, and oil-rich nation, education, and literacy in particular, too often falls by the wayside.

Timor boy reading

World Bank research found that 70 percent of first grade students in Timor-Leste were unable to read a single word of a simple text passage randomly selected in either of the country’s official languages, Portuguese or Tetun. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

While the government has made remarkable progress on establishing basic government structures, and continues to espouse good governance practices, it has made far fewer gains in actual improvements in quality of educational outcomes. Despite listing access to basic education as a priority in the 2013 state budget, this goal remains largely unmet outside a five percent rise in enrollment from 2010 to 2011.The emphasis of the government’s Strategic Development Plan and 2013 state budget remains focused on increased expenditures from the Petroleum Fund for physical infrastructure projects (over 50 percent of the state budget) and trying to move the country into an upper middle-income country by 2030, while investing only 8.4 percent on education, which is less than accepted international norms for expenditures on health and education.

Government expenditure, however, is only part of the story in a nation still debating its language policy. A more fundamental challenge lies in the overwhelming lack of a reading “culture.” While many worthy entities have taken up this cause, including former First Lady Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, and local and international NGOs, the question remains: how do you promote the intrinsic value of investing in education when results are not likely to appear for perhaps a generation to come?

World Bank research found that 70 percent of first grade students in Timor-Leste were unable to read a single word of a simple text passage randomly selected in either of the country’s official languages, Portuguese or Tetun (there are about 30 ethnic languages spoken by populations in various regions of the country). Second and third graders did not score much better, with 40 and 20 percent, respectively, scoring zero on the same test. Low literacy rates among young learners have translated into an adult literacy rate (age 15 and above) of only 58.3 percent, ranking Timor-Leste 134th out of 186 nations, according to UNESCO.

A recent attempt by the government to increase literacy rates for children who speak something other than the official languages through a pilot project on Mother Tongue Based Education (MTBE) has fueled a highly politicized debate about the virtues of MTBE in establishing literacy and numeracy in young children. While both sides of the debate strongly argue their position, neither stance has resulted in a clear roadmap for achieving widespread literacy among children. More evidence is required before establishing MTBE as the appropriate solution for Timor-Leste, but the fact remains that, at present, the majority of children who enter schools in Timor-Leste speak neither of the official languages, hampering their ability to learn to read and count. Whether through MTBE, or a more concerted effort at training and equipping teachers, children, and parents with official language educational resources, much work remains.

Timor Teaching Training

Working closely with Alola Foundation, and with support from USAID’s All Children Reading Program, The Asia Foundation is developing much-needed Tetun language books and teacher training.

Perhaps more concerning is the view from the Timorese themselves. A Public Perception Survey conducted in March 2013 by The Asia Foundation, found that education consistently ranks far below other, competing priorities. When asked what was the biggest problem facing Timor-Leste at the national and local levels, lack of education/literacy did not even rank in the top eight responses. At the local (village) level, education ranked third, but far behind roads and water, and only just above health and agriculture.

Addressing this disparity clearly requires a multi-stakeholder, multi-dimensional approach to dealing simultaneously with issues of public finance management, curriculum, language, and a host of other issues. But it also requires a fundamental shift to foster an inherent interest in reading and learning.

The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program is aiming to do just that. Working closely with our national partner, Alola Foundation, and with support from USAID’s All Children Reading Program, we are developing much-needed Tetun language books for first through third grade to be used by students, parents, and teachers. The project will support policy-makers and the country’s education system to find the best teaching model for assisting children in the acquisition of basic literacy and numeracy skills. It also involves training teachers on proven methods of learning transference and the production of attractive and effective visual classroom materials in Tetun.

The human capital development needs for Timor-Leste to become an upper middle-income country remain tremendous. The country requires thousands of skilled public servants, private developers, lawyers, doctors, and educators. The one thing that they all have in common is the critical requirement to be able to read, analyze, produce, and use information. This outcome starts with the basic foundation of reading skills in primary school, and depends on the tools that will form an educational foundation for the next generation.

On September 8, The Asia Foundation will partner with the Ministry of Education, Alola Foundation, and educational institutions from around the country to celebrate the gift of literacy at our annual International Literacy Day event.

Susan Marx is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Timor-Leste and Mario Pinheiro is a program officer there. They can be reached at smarx@asiafound.org and mpinheiro@asiafound.org, respectively. 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. Fernanda Borges:

    Congratulations the Asia Foundation in particular, Susan Marx and Mario Pinhero for producing this work and highlighting the shocking education outcomes in East Timor. Thanks also for your efforts in publishing tetum books and providing teacher training.

    I appeal to all parents to make education the FIRST PRIORITY in the country. Education is the only safe way out of Poverty!

    For our children,

    Fernanda Borges

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