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Small Screen, Big Ideas: Debating Timor-Leste’s Economy on TV

June 5, 2019

By Laura McDowell

Almost 90 percent of Timor-Leste’s annual budget comes from oil and gas, making economic diversification an urgent priority for the young nation’s development. The government’s 2011–2030 Strategic Development Plan identifies two key industries for the future of the non-oil economy: agriculture and tourism. But there has been limited public engagement with the complex question of how Timor-Leste should pursue its goal of economic diversification, a question with significant implications for every citizen.

Scenic and productive: rice fields surrounded by mountains in Timor-Leste’s enclave of Oecusse

“The challenge is that there is hardly any public policy debate in Timor,” says The Asia Foundation’s Carmeneza dos Santos Monteiro, who leads initiatives promoting government accountability through social audits, and who previously served as a liaison officer for the Office of the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste. “There is just no mechanism in place.”

One group working to address this lack of public debate is the Policy Leaders Group (PLG), a working group of Timorese activists, policymakers, bureaucrats, and academics. The Asia Foundation provides the PLG with technical support under the Australian government’s LEAP program (Lideransa Emergente Apoio Polítika / Emerging Leaders Supporting Public Policy), with Monteiro leading the team.

The mountain town of Maubisse in Timor-Leste, a small hub for tourism and produce markets

Television: A Tool for Public Debate

In 2019, the PLG brought its campaign for public engagement to the people, using their favorite medium: television.  

“We decided to host a series of public policy debates on television,” says Monteiro, “because, according to our last six public opinion surveys, the majority of people in Timor-Leste are watching TV.”

“We wanted to show that it’s OK to disagree with each other respectfully and present different points of view. We hope this can lead to a culture of public debate.”

Each hour-long debate featured a three-guest panel representing different areas of expertise. Monteiro says the medium of television allows viewers, both citizens and policymakers, to let down their guard and entertain new ideas.

“The debates aired in the evening, when families and decision-makers are relaxing, eating dinner, and watching some TV,” she says. “We are not demanding that they watch, but they are choosing to. They don’t feel targeted or like we’re telling them what to do, so they listen. After the debates, we had a lot of positive feedback. A lot of people who we’d been trying to reach called us and wanted to talk.”

High Hopes for Tourism 

(Left to right) Herminia Martins, Bella Galhos, and host Guteriano Neves debate development of the tourism economy.

So far this year, the PLG has presented two nationally televised debates on economic diversification—one focused on tourism and the other on agriculture. “Tourism has a lot of potential,” said panelist Bella Galhos, who owns the Leublora Green School and Eco Resort in the mountain town of Maubisse and is an advocate for increasing tourism. “I want to invest in this sector in my village because I believe that visitors will come.”

“Timor has two essential attractions: our people and our history,” said economic policy specialist Acacio Pinto, also part of the tourism panel, who warned that tourism needs to be developed in the right way. “We have a lot of potential. But the important thing is the policy—how we develop all this potential that we have.”

While tourism alone will not fully replace revenues from the oil and gas industry, the sector has a lot of potential for much-needed job creation, says Monteiro. “Our research shows that tourism has the potential to create thousands of jobs, which is really important, especially in our rural areas,” she said.

Building on a Tradition of Agriculture

Meanwhile, Timor-Leste has great promise for agricultural development, with a strong farming tradition and plenty of untapped potential: more than 60 percent of Timor-Leste’s adult citizens currently earn their living through subsistence farming.

Host Guteriano Neves with panelists Carmeneza Monteiro, Acacio Guteres, and Gil Mauberismo debating the potential for agriculture

“The agriculture sector is very important, because the majority of our population’s lives depend on it,” said agriculture panelist Dr. Acacio Guterres of Timor-Leste National University. “Good management of agriculture can lead to two things: increased quantity of production and better quality.”

Roads, Food, and Cultural Respect Link Debates

The televised debates highlighted the connections between agriculture and tourism, including a top priority for both sectors, better roads—to link farmers to markets and tourists to destinations. (Not surprisingly, road improvements were also the number one priority of Timor-Leste citizens in general in The Asia Foundation’s 2018 Tatoli! public opinion poll.)

The two industries are linked in other ways as well. A modern and prosperous agricultural sector would enable tourism operators to feature local food for visitors. A strong tourism sector, in turn, would be a new and lucrative market for small farmers.

In the unique political and social context of Timor-Leste, however, the development of both agriculture and tourism is likely to be complex and contested. Panelists warned against ill-conceived development initiatives that could harm the environment, damage Timor-Leste’s unique farming traditions, and create winners and losers. The challenge will be finding the right path.

“We need to give value to how people live to ensure the sustainability of agriculture as a sector,” said Gil Boavida from the nongovernmental organization HASATIL (Hadomi Agrikultura Sustentavel Timor-Leste / Love Sustainable Agriculture Timor-Leste). The path to agricultural development must suit Timor-Leste’s traditional collectivist culture, he argued. “If we want sustainability in the agriculture sector, we must embrace this sociocultural aspect: this can transform and add value to the sector through the contributions of everyone, working together, from all relevant areas, including farmers, families, government, NGOs, and the private sector.”

Guests Acacio Pinto, Herminia Martins, and Bella Galhos and host Guteriano Neves speak with The Asia Foundation’s Cameneza Monteiro after the TV debate on development of the tourism economy.

Bella Galhos, the tourism entrepreneur, argued more generally that successful economic diversification requires valuing the contributions of those working the land. “The main challenge for the tourism sector is that we may not value people working in agriculture, but rather only the people who work in big city buildings or the people who become ministers,” she said.

The agriculture panel discussed the need to create a more profitable environment for farmers by providing better food storage, processing facilities, and paths to market, and they called for programs to help farmers respond to the threat of climate change and adapt modern farming techniques to Timor-Leste’s unique cultural and environmental context.

The debate highlighted other key challenges as well: the lack of human resources in the hospitality industry, high airfares, limited ATM services outside the capital of Dili, and poor water and sanitation infrastructure in smaller municipalities.

Future Debates

The Policy Leaders Group is now planning more televised debates about developing Timor-Leste’s non-oil economy. Upcoming shows will focus on how best to develop manufacturing and the labor force, examining both the economic potential for domestic manufacturing and the growing number of Timor-Leste citizens who work abroad and send home remittances. Another hot topic will be gender, including the challenges for women in power and how to help girls achieve their full potential.

Monteiro hopes increased public engagement with these issues will lead to creative solutions—and ensure that political promises are kept.

“There is a danger that people may be too easily satisfied, so those in power won’t be held to account,” she said.

“Through the TV debates, we will continue to provide space for different state organizations to talk about their roles and policies, so that we can know them and question them and see how much of their talk has been applied in practice.”

Laura McDowell is a communication consultant for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at laura.mcdowell@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Timor-Leste
Related programs: Economic Opportunity

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