Programs and Placement: Timor-Leste Country Strategy

  1. Background
  2. Program Focus
  3. Education
  4. Current Education Statistics
  5. Education Objectives
  6. Education Strategies
  7. Health
  8. Current Health Sector Statistics
  9. Health Sector Objectives
  10. Health Sector Strategies
  11. Agriculture and Rural Development
  12. Current Agriculture Statistics
  13. Agricultural Objectives
  14. Agricultural Strategies


On the 2007 – 2008 United Nations Human Development Index, Timor-Leste is ranked 150th of the 177 countries ranked. Almost 50% of the adult population is illiterate, and half the population live on less than USD$1 per day1. According to the AusAID Country Strategy (2009 – 2014), the Millenium Development Goals are unlikely to be achieved by 2015, with the possible exceptions of universal primary school attendance and empowerment of women.

Timor has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, with women having an average of 6.7 children each. The fertility rate is also putting further stress on an education system that is still struggling to recover from the destruction of infrastructure, and the loss of qualified teaching staff in 19992, when virtually all Indonesian teachers left the province, and some 70-90% of school buildings were destroyed.

Food Security is a big issue in East Timor, AusAID reports that some districts indicate up to 80% of households are affected by food shortages. 20% of the population of East Timor (over 200,000 people) are reported to be currently food insecure, with an additional 24% vulnerable to food insecurity3. With 73% of the Timorese population living in rural areas (86% of the poor live in rural areas), addressing the needs of rural communities, particularly around food security and education initiatives is paramount. Compounding this, AusAID has identified that people living with a disability are very often marginalised, and Palms’ partner organisations working in the disabilities field have consistently reported that this marginalisation is more prevalent in the rural areas.

East Timor still faces a myriad of health challenges including high maternal and infant mortality, illness and death from preventable diseases, high prevalence of malnutrition, poor reproductive health and poor access to safe water and sanitation.4 It is estimated that the people of Timor-Leste on average visit health facilities less than twice a year.

Beyond the statistics in individual areas, it is worth considering that Timor is still a fragile post-conflict state. Following the violence and widespread destruction in the wake of the referendum, East Timor has suffered a number of crises, including the conflict between the military and police in 2006 that spiralled out of control, and the shooting of the prime minister in 2008.

Since 2008 East Timor has been stable, and the Timorese government has adopted a focus of “growth and development for all”5 In operating in the fragile environment that exists in East Timor, Palms Australia is committed to working in coordination with Government Agencies (both Timorese and from abroad), and with local and international NGOs, to help ensure that today’s aid to East Timor does not cause future financial difficulties for the government of Timor-Leste.

Program Focus

In light of these conditions, the Timor-Leste government has grouped its National Priorities into six key areas which it hopes can contribute to long-term national sustainability and order6:

  • Public Safety and Security
  • Social Protection and Solidarity
  • Addressing the Needs of Youth
  • Employment and Income Generation
  • Improving Social Service Delivery and,
  • Clean and Effective Government

Within this framework, Palms Australia has identified three key areas of strength where Palms can contribute directly to achieving positive outcomes for the people of East Timor:

  • Education
    • Supporting the English Language Curriculum through the provision of qualified ESL teachers (ensuring that all positions involve a large component of training and mentoring for local English Teachers).
    • Supporting the preparation and training of school teachers through administrative and teaching support at teaching training facilities.
  • Health and Social Well-Being
    • The provision of skilled community nursing volunteers to work with local health staff to develop their skills, with a focus on child and maternal health outcomes.
    • Health related education projects such as hygiene and sanitation initiatives.
  • Agricultural and Rural Development
    • Addressing food security issues through training in farming practices and program management of food sustainability programs.

The objectives enshrined in the Palms Australia Mission Statement are central to all the work that Palms Australia, and Palms volunteers engage in. These objectives are to:

  • Build the capacity of individuals and strengthen institutions through the exchange of knowledge and skills.
  • Engage Australian and partner communities through Global Volunteers so that each increases their awareness and enthusiasm to encourage just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful development.
  • Advance mutually enriching and challenging relationships of understanding, acceptance and care, to the point of sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own.

Palms Australia’s focii on education, health and rural development specifically support Timor Leste’s National Development Goal (NDG) of improving social and human development through education and health.7 The centrality of education and health to overall national development cannot be overstated and has been acknowledged by the Timorese government: “A healthier, better-educated population can make a more productive contribution to the country’s economic growth and poverty reduction goals.”.8


Timor’s rapidly growing and extremely young population (as evidenced in the graph below) is cause for concern with regard to educational outcomes.

Before 1999, education was underdeveloped in Timor-Leste. Primary education attainment of young people who grew up under Indonesian administration was below the Indonesian national average: in East Timor9 in 2001 the literacy rates of 15-24 year olds was only 50%. Approximately 80 percent of the 16-18 age group had completed three years of education, compared with Indonesia’s nearly 100 percent, and the decline after Grade 3 was much steeper than Indonesia’s. Since 1999, primary education levels have been at around 60-70%; in 2007, however, it dropped to below its 1999 figure of 65% to 63%10.

Destruction throughout the country prior to independence included the burning either partially or completely, of 80% to 90% of school buildings and related infrastructure11. Meanwhile, about 20 percent of primary teachers and 80-90 percent of secondary school teachers, who originally came from other parts of Indonesia, left the country. In addition to this many other migrants who had higher levels of education and skills also fled.

Current Statistics on Education in Timor-Leste

  • In 2006 45% of Timorese were less than 15 years of age.12
  • The Base Law for Education approved and promulgated in 2008 ensures all children below 17 years of age access to free Basic Education. However, people living in remote areas often find it hard to reach a school, with many rural children walking two hours or more to and from school13.
  • The 2004 Census describes 50% of males and 41.8% of females as being ‘Literate’ in one of the languages (Portuguese, Bahasa, Tetum or English). The overall ratio of literate males to literate females is 1.23 with a range of from 1.1 in Oecusse to 1.35 in Emera14.
  • In 2007 74% of urban adults in Timor were literate, however only 52% of rural adults were literate. Male literacy in Timor is higher than female literacy15 .
  • In 2007, 85.1% of people aged 14-24 were literate; male literacy is higher than female (87.8% and 82.1%) with the MDG aiming for 100% literacy across both genders by 2015.15
  • While the literacy rate for those under 24 is increasing, it remains low for adults, at an average of 58% (MDG Timor-Leste 2009)15
  • With 46% of the adult population having had little or no schooling, 30% only primary, 12% junior secondary, 10% senior secondary education and 1.4% higher education, well-educated persons are few, and even fewer are qualified to teach and manage.
  • Only 56% of students who enrolled in grade 2 in 2003 reached grade 5.15

According to the UNDP MDG report on East Timor (2009), the following efforts are required to address these challenges:

  • Improve primary school facilities and pertinent supporting facilities including human resources, in line with the growth of the primary school-aged population.
  • Improve access to quality basic education in rural areas to address disparity with urban areas.
  • Increase the opportunity for the entire population to obtain an education.
  • To improve the adult literacy rate there is a need for an out-of-school (informal education) policy to assist adults with reading and writing skills.

Education Objectives

To place appropriate educational professionals with requesting communities:

  • To strengthen secondary, tertiary, special education and vocational institutions and community education projects.
  • To improve the quality and effectiveness of teachers at all levels of the formal and informal education system through teacher training, professional development and curriculum development.
  • To increase the accessibility, gender equity, relevance and quality of education.
  • Where teacher shortages exist, in particular Information Technology teachers, provided that these teachers are also involved in teacher training and mentoring.
  • Provision of ESL teachers, where the learning of English is attached to a specific purpose. (E.G. where a tourist project is being developed that will rely on communication with English speaking tourists.)


Palms Australia is working with Catholic Teachers’ College (CTC) – Baucau in providing qualified teachers to train primary school teachers and to assist in the development of bilingual didactic materials: Tetun-Portuguese for primary school teaching and Melayu-Portuguese for pre-secondary school teaching to accompany the implementation of language of instruction policies.

Palms Australia volunteers are also engaged in mentoring and supervising the work of Timorese teachers in the Maths and Science Department, assisting with planning of courses, lectures/ tutorial preparation and teaching methodology, directly contributing to the development of a “teacher training curricula”.16

Through the provision of training for Timorese staff in accounting/payroll procedures, office administration, maintenance and security Palms participants further strengthen the administrative capacity of CTC.

Palms Australia is working with secondary and vocational schools in Venilale and Maliana to enhance the employment opportunities of students through the teaching of English, Information Technology and sustainable food production (Permaculture). This supports Timor Leste’s “pragmatic policy on the language of instruction”,17 as well as assisting in developing the skills via education and vocational training that the 2020 Report indicates is vital to opportunities for national growth.

Palm’s strategies will aid the Timor Leste government’s goal of introducing and implementing a “policy of free basic education and nine years of compulsory attendance in school”.17


The 2009 Millennium Development Goals report for Timor-Leste describes the under five mortality rate as being an indicator for the general social and economic conditions of society, along with the possibilities for people to living in a healthy, hygienic and comfortable environment.

East Timor has been improving health outcomes in areas like under five mortality rates, however there is still significant work to be done to achieve the MDG targets for health in East Timor.

There is also still a significant divide between the health services available to those living in urban areas, as opposed to those living in rural areas. The graph below clearly illustrates this divide.

It will take time and effort to reduce this divide, to ensure that rural people have equitable access to health care, and that all people in Timor-Leste have adequate access. Palms Australia’s health program in Timor-Leste has been designed to assist the government and people of East Timor to address and resolve issues such as these.

Current Statistics in the Health Sector

The World Health Organisation Statistics (2008)18 offer the following data:

  • Current national annual population growth rate of 3.2%
  • Healthy life expectancy for men is 48; for women 52
  • Of every 1,000 children born alive, 55 will die before they turn five.
  • Whilst the level of infant mortality has dropped since 1990 (when it was at 138 per 1000 births), it remains high at 77 in 2007.
  • Fertility statistics are very high in East Timor, with 6.7 live births per woman (of child bearing age).
  • The most common childhood illnesses leading to death for under 5 year olds are diarrhoeal disease and pneumonia, as well as neonatal causes of death.
  • 55.7% of children under five are stunted for their age, and 40.6% are underweight.
  • Tuberculosis is a major public health problem, with an estimated 8000 active TB cases nationally.
  • Timor-Leste has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the region, at 380 deaths per 100,000 live births with few pregnant women receiving preventive prenatal care.

Health Sector Objectives

To place appropriate health professionals with requesting communities:

  • To reduce mortality & morbidity rates, improving maternal health and expanding opportunities for development and full participation in community life by improving the access to, and quality of health & social services.
  • To improve the quality and availability of health and social services in rural areas by strengthening the capacity of health and social work professionals through support and training.
  • To work in HIV/Aids education programs through the provision and improvement of health services in rural areas.
  • In line with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health’s policy of Integration19, to assist in providing equitable and sustainable direct health service delivery thus increasing access to health services for the most vulnerable groups in East Timor. This “emphasises working with community leaders to strengthen service delivery and outreach to local communities”.19
  • To build the capacity of individuals and organizations that work in partnership with people with disabilities.


Palms Australia have partnered with the Rotary Club of Morialta and Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Health (MoH) to send to volunteers to work in Bobanaro district. Volunteers are working directly with MoH staff providing training and skill exchange to local mid-wives, and also working with local tradesmen on the construction of clinics and other medical related infrastructure in the district.

Palms have focussed on community and preventative health as a means of reducing the burden on East Timor’s health infrastructure. To achieve this focus, Palms has partnered with the parish of Atabae, and Friends and Partners of Atabae (based in Brisbane) to provide a community nurse and project manager. This couple have been working closely with the parish and MoH staff since 2006 to improve the health outcomes for the people of Atabae.

In a country that in 2004 had less than one dentist per 10,000 people20, Palms have sent a dental hygienist to work with the Bhakita Centre in Eraulo, Ermera district to help improve dental health through regular check-ups of school age children and dealing with dental issues before they become big problems.

Palms Australia also partners with the Ahisaun Disabilties Foundation. The Foundation’s aims are to alter public and government perceptions and reactions to people with a disability through developing the skills and building the self-esteem of people with a disability. This goal is achieved through a mix of advocacy, and physical therapies, training and skills transfer (including disabled members of Ahisaun training able-bodied members of the broader community in computer usage and programs).

Agriculture and Rural Development

Most East Timorese live in rural areas and are employed in some sub-sector of agriculture of a subsistence and traditional form. This includes many women and children who traditionally have carried out many aspects of farming, especially on household farms.

Not only do 50% of Timor’s population live on less than US$0.88 each per day, 80% of Timorese rely on agricultural activities for their livelihood.21 Despite this, the agricultural sector only provides 30% of Timor’s non-oil GDP, indicating a low level of productivity.

In order to combat the poverty that results, the MDG report from 2009 recommends agricultural policies that lead to food self-sufficiency.

While the people of Timor have adapted to the climate and vagaries of their land, some traditional farming methods have contributed to present day environmental problems. Practices such as ‘slash and burn’ with short rotation cycles, burning of grasslands and bushlands, unregulated livestock grazing, and uncontrolled cutting of fuel wood and timber in conjunction with external factors such as droughts, floods, poor market access and prices, and lack of agricultural inputs, have greatly influenced household incomes.

Current Statistics in the Rural Sector

  • Agriculture makes up 30% of the non-petroleum GDP21
  • 73% of the total population live in rural areas22
  • 80% of the population relies on agriculture, forestry and fisheries21
  • 86% of the poor live in rural areas23

Rural Sector Objectives

To place Palms Australia Global Volunteers with requesting communities:

  • To enhance income generation schemes, agriculture development and build capacity to effectively manage natural resources with appropriate technology for sustainable development.
  • To promote secure livelihoods in rural areas where the majority of the poor live and where resources, opportunities and infrastructure are limited.
  • Promote access to market for agricultural produce through business development models and improved transport infrastructure.


Palms has partnered with the Ahisaun disabilities foundation since 2005. In that time three sets of volunteers have worked with the organisation to assist its growth and ability to support and promote the rights of people in East Timor living with a disability.

The latest volunteers to work with Ahisaun are an accountant and project manager, who will work with Ahisaun to set up an agri-business designed to achieve food self-sufficiency and to sell excess produce at market to generate income.

Both volunteers will be working closely with Ahisaun staff members, sharing their skills and expertise to ensure that gains made during their placement will be sustainable in the long term.


1 United Nations Development Programme: Millennium Development Goal Report:
2 See “Building from the Ground Up: Education in New East Timor”, Curt Gabrielson, ICWA letters ( & Gavin Jones: East Timor: Education & Human Resource Development (
4 Human Development Report. UNDP May 2001
5 AusAID Timor-Leste Country Strategy (2009-2014)
6 2008 National Priorities: Working Together, Timor-Leste and Development Partners’ Meeting, 28-29 March 2008, p. 5
7 United Nations Development Programme: Millennium Development Goal Report:
8 2008 National Priorities: Timor-Leste and Development Partners’ Meeting (TLDPM)
28-29 March 2008 (
9 page 47
10 page 25
11 page 48
13 Observations from Palms Australia volunteers
14 Pradet (© 2006)
15 2009: The Millenium Development Goals, Timor-Leste publications/MDG Timor-Leste_2009 (English version).pdf
16 2008 National Priorities, p. 11.
17 2008 National Priorities, p. 10
18 (date of data is specified for each statistic)
19 National Priorities, p. 11.
21 2009 MDG Report (

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. - Emile Chartier