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Voices of Timorese Citizens: Findings of the Tatoli Survey

May 13, 2015

By Dicky Dooradi and Carmenesa Soares

“What I want is to get done what the people desire to have done, and the question for me is how to find that out exactly.” – Abraham Lincoln

The science of public opinion research has developed tremendously in the last three decades. Advanced statistical methods now allow researchers to reliably infer the opinions of millions of citizens from representative random samples, and the public opinion survey has become an essential tool in the toolkit of democratic governance. With the power it conveys to understand citizens’ desires and demands, some scholars argue that public opinion research is democracy’s “fifth estate.”

Infrastructure in Timor-Leste is one of the concerns revealed by citizens in the Tatoli Survey. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Infrastructure in Timor-Leste is one of the concerns revealed by citizens in the Tatoli Survey. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Since Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, local and international organizations have worked to strengthen its fledgling democracy and civil society through public opinion research. Earlier this year, The Asia Foundation released the findings of its fourth nationwide Tatoli Survey. (Tatoli means “message” in Tetum.) The survey represents the opinions of citizens age 17 and over, collected from November to December of 2014. The Tatoli Survey adheres to international standards of statistical sampling and quality control, and has a margin of error of ± 3 percent.

The survey captured eight key messages from the Timorese people:

Governance: The survey found that citizens had a high regard for most state institutions, including the prime minister’s office, the president’s office, Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the national police force, and the defense force. People were generally satisfied with these institutions, and believed that they were doing a good or very good job of promoting the public welfare. Respondents also reported an overall positive view of conditions in general. (Curiously, these results indicate that the recent resignation of Premier Xanana Gusmao and the government reshuffle occurred during a time when the government was generally popular.)

Healthcare: People were generally satisfied with their healthcare. A majority of respondents reported satisfaction with the price and availability of medicines, and the price and quality of healthcare services. Sixty percent were satisfied with the condition of healthcare buildings.

Education: The education sector also received generally high ratings. A majority of citizens rated teaching methods in both Tetum and Portuguese either good or very good. They gave positive ratings to the cost of education, books, and teaching materials, and to teacher attendance and quality. A slightly smaller majority of 54 percent rated school buildings and facilities good or very good.

Economy: Citizens were divided in their opinions on economic issues. Forty-seven percent of respondents thought that opportunities to make money were good or very good, while 49 percent thought such opportunities were poor or very poor. Similar divisions appeared in opinions on business conditions, job opportunities, and the availability of staples. Regarding the state of family incomes, negative opinions outnumbered positive, 62 percent to 38 percent. The aspect of the economy that received the most negative views was the price of staples, with 73 percent of respondents saying this had been poor or very poor in the last six months.

Agriculture: The public sentiment towards agricultural development in Timor-Leste was largely negative. Although 53 percent of respondents rated the availability of seeds good or very good, fewer than half, 48 percent, had a positive opinion on the availability of agricultural extension officials, or extensionistas; 34 percent on the price of crops; 27 percent on the availability of fertilizers; and just 23 percent on the quality of irrigation. This overall negative evaluation of agricultural development should be a matter of concern, as the majority of Timorese – 63 percent according to the 2010 census – earn their living from agriculture. Perhaps a change of spending priorities would produce a greener picture in this sector, which currently accounts for just 2.2 percent of the national budget.

Infrastructure: Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to infrastructure development, people remain dissatisfied with the nation’s infrastructure, with the exception of government buildings (58 percent satisfied) and district offices (68 percent satisfied). A majority of respondents called the condition of market buildings, bridges, inter-district roads, and bus/mikrolet terminals poor or very poor. The most negative evaluation – 94 percent negative – was given to district-to-village roads.

Access to electricity: More than 90 percent of respondents reported that they now have access to electricity. This is both welcome and expected, since electrification has topped government spending priorities for several years. Despite increased access to electricity, however, 81 percent rated the quality of electricity poor or very poor, suggesting that the government needs to complement electrification with structured maintenance and quality assurance.

Dili vs. non-Dili: There was a significant disparity between those living in Dili, the nation’s capital and largest city, and those living elsewhere, with Dili residents reporting significantly higher levels of satisfaction overall. This suggests a development gap, or an unequal distribution of prosperity, that warrants special attention from the government. In particular, the current “frontloading” strategy of drawing down the country’s petroleum fund to jumpstart infrastructure and other development may merit some scrutiny. Appropriate decentralization of administrative and fiscal agencies is needed to prevent “frontloading” from degenerating into mere “Dili-loading.”


The belief that authority ultimately rests with the people, and that the purpose of government is to serve them, is the foundation of democratic governance. Over one million people live in Timor-Leste. To echo Lincoln, how can we know what they really want? The results of the Tatoli survey represent an opportunity for Timor-Leste’s leaders to craft policies that are genuinely responsive to the needs and desires of the Timorese people.

Dicky Dooradi is coordinator for public policy and surveys and Carmenesa Soares is a survey program officer for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Good Governance


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