“Supporting the Presidential Vision for Timor-Leste’s Development”
President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
2022 Timor-Leste and Development Partners Meeting 10 June 2022
First and foremost, I thank the Prime Minister for the invitation extended to me to address this TLDPM and commend his ministerial colleagues and staff for the excellent arrangements for this timely meeting.
I wish to express my warmest gratitude to all our development partners, neighbors and non neighbors, large and small, the United Nations system, programs, funds and specialized agencies, for the two decades of steadfast support and engagement with our people.
As an island State, a small community of people, we are many times more vulnerable, are not immune to global pandemics and war induced catastrophes, irrational intrastate and interstate wars in many parts of the world, and drought or deluge caused by Mother Nature’s reaction to centuries of abuse perpetrated by humankind. Climate change caused by human activities and global pandemic that spreads as fast as human beings travel the world always reach our shores.
The gains made over the last two decades on poverty eradication globally have been reversed with hundreds of millions of fellow human beings across the globe falling back into poverty, having lost their livelihood to lockdowns and the breakdown of the supply chain. Child labor and child slavery have increased exponentially.
Wherever we may be located on this beloved Planet, we feel the impact of catastrophes not of our making.
Our people are also feeling the impact of these multiple global crisis and I’m afraid the worst is still to come and will hit the miserable shacks of the poorest.
But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel even when times are darkest if we all coalesce around a national vision and agree on actionable goals. The Grande Opções do Plano para 2023, Art. 3o. gives us a wide angle view of what the Government proposes for 2023 and following years.
I believe that we can attain modest prosperity by investing more on
green and blue economy with a sustainable community-based tourism, one whose main attraction is not only our exceptionally rich biodiversity, our majestic mountains and history, but also our tolerant, all embracing society making this island an oasis of tranquility and harmony in diversity.
In partnership with neighbors and friends, near and far, we can all be pleased with the progress so far….we have built a functioning democracy, we have a lively free media, an unrestrained civil society, a country at peace, a people reconciled, wounds of past conflicts mostly healed.
On the other hand, we might not have always set our priorities right, we might not always invested wisely and sufficiently in what we should all cherish the most, our mothers and babies.
Your Excellency Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak,
Representatives of UN agencies
and civil society organizations,
Ladies and gentlemen,
At our 20th independence anniversary we should rightly celebrate the progress we have made thus far, but with courage and humility we should also reflect on our failings. And the “we” I mean us Timorese leaders of all seasons, how we have failed the mothers and babies of this country.
We must ask ourselves how at 20th anniversary of Independence, the country of this size with reasonably adequate financial resources has half of our children living below the poverty line (more than adults), the highest neonatal mortality in the region. With every second child malnourished, this being the third highest child malnutrition rate in the world, it is simply unacceptable.
We invested heavily in electricity which now reaches 96.1% of our people, we have invested in national roads and rural roads, we did invest in Human Capital. Average life expectancy at birth improved by more than 10 years since 2002. In 2002 we had 20 Timorese doctors, today we have over 1100.
But somehow in the race to development we left our children and mothers behind. Their care and needs from us, as the leaders and policy makers of this country, have been almost an afterthought when it comes to passing necessary legislations, and allocating adequate government budget for the 42% of this country’s population – our children.
My plead to our Government, Parliament and our Development Partners is let’s work together, all without exception, Government and Opposition, Catholic Church and all other religious leaders, private sector, civil society, Chefes de Suku, to have a Timor-Leste where no child dies at birth, and where every child is healthy, well-nourished, learning, and safe.
To achieve this vision, I propose our government and development partners to have a targeted focus on two priorities:
1. The first priority is to reduce child malnutrition, especially in the first 1000 days between a child’s conception to the second birthday. As we all should know, after a child turns two, it is almost impossible to reverse the effects of malnutrition. Breast feeding has been declining alarmingly and this is due to ignorance and the unscrupulous promotion of formula milk. I urge the Govt to urgently adopt the WHO Breast Feeding Code that has been languishing in the Health Ministry for almost a decade. The combination of poverty, ignorance and unrestrained commercial promotion of artificial milk formulas play a critical part in the spread of the scourge of stunting among our children.
2. The second priority is to provide access to pre-school education for every child – to build a strong foundation for our children so they achieve their full developmental potential, don’t drop out of schools and finish their studies.
Let me unpack why I have chosen these two areas as my top presidential priorities.
First, as we know, almost half of the Timorese children are malnourished and therefore:
– They are 4 times more likely to die,
– They have impaired brain development,
– They are more likely to keep getting sick due to weak immune system,
– They are less likely to complete their education, due to lower IQ and cognitive ability, and
They are likely to earn less.
This means that if we do not do something today, the potential of half of our future generation will go to waste. We will not have the ‘human capital’ needed to develop this country, to take on jobs, to start businesses, and to contribute to the economic development of Timor-Leste.
A second priority is to ensure that every 3- to 5-year-old is enrolled in a pre-school. It is critical because in the first five years of life, more than one million neural connections are formed each second – a pace never repeated again in our lives.
The quality of a child’s early experiences makes a critical difference as their brains develop, providing either strong or weak foundations for learning, health and behaviour throughout life.
Currently, 75% of Timorese children do not attend pre-school. 56% of children under five years of age are not on track in health, learning and psychosocial well-being.
We do not have to go far to witness examples of successful countries that invested in the health and education of their children and are now enjoying the returns of their investments.
Take South Korea, for example, a country that I know well. South Korea has achieved remarkable success in combining rapid economic growth with significant poverty reduction. The country’s achievement is even more
impressive considering that less than 25% of the country is usable for agriculture or other economic activity and that South Korea possesses very few natural resources. Like Timor-Leste, South Korea also experienced a devastating civil war in which a major part of its infrastructure was destroyed. One of the main achievements of the Korean government during the 1950s was the eradication of illiteracy through a rapid expansion of educational institutions.
In conclusion, let me propose 2 practical steps to turn around the dire situation of Timorese children and achieve my vision:
One, the government should allocate more budget to combat child malnutrition within the overall nutrition sector.
I congratulate the Prime Minister who recently launched the “National Health Sector Nutrition Strategic Plan for 2022 – 2026”. Now the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Health should ensure that budget is allocated to the implementation of this Strategic Plan.
I also propose that the Ministry of Health considers establishing a Nutrition Directorate in the Ministry in order to move the nutrition agenda to the right level. I have also nominated a Senior Adviser on nutrition and food security to support this cause.
Second, every Suku should have a pre-school. I understand that UN agencies have successfully piloted cost-effective models such as community pre-schools.
The Ministry of Education must reach 100% enrolment of children in pre-schools across the country.
Let me take this opportunity to also share that as a first step in this direction, I will launch a model pre-school at the Presidential Palace. I have also directed my team to establish an Early Childhood Development Group, to be chaired by the President’s Office, which will include all line ministries, development partners and civil society organizations.
I believe that all the development partners present here, and the government of Timor-Leste, will support my vision to have a Timor-Leste where no child dies at birth, and where every child is healthy, well-nourished, learning, and safe.
I pledge that I will do everything in capacity to stand with you in this endeavour.
I thank you.