Quick Facts

Official name: Republica Democratica Timor Leste (RDTL). Also known Timor Lorosa'e (Timor of the Rising Sun in Tetum)
Location: The eastern half of the island of Timor. The western half is part of Indonesia.
Capital: Dili
Time: GMT 9
Population: 926,000 (2004 Census data)
Religion: Catholic, with a very small Muslim minority
Official languages: Tetum and Portuguese (working languages: English and Indonesian). Also numerous local languages.
Currency: US dollar
Main export: Coffee, potential for oil
President: Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao (Independent)
Prime Minister: Mari Alkatiri (Fretilin)
Governing party: Fretilin
Life Expectancy: 57 years
Per capita GDP: $478

Timor-Leste Today

Timor-Leste is the newest nation on earth, and also one of the world's newest democracies. As such, it is facing monumental challenges. The difficulties of building a new democracy alone are massive: Timor-Leste has never before been fully independent, and the process of running a country is new to almost all of its politicians. In addition, Timor-Leste, is still coping with the legacy of a generation of brutal occupation and the vicious violence of 1999 that followed their decision to vote for independence. This legacy is evident on many levels, from the trauma that remains for those who suffered physically and emotionally to the destroyed buildings that still litter the Timor-Leste countryside.

The problems that would be faced by any new nation are compounded by two major factors. One is the lack of physical infrastructure. When the Indonesians left in 1999 they systematically destroyed or seriously damaged about 85% of the country's infrastructure. Hospitals, power stations, schools, offices, houses, market places, water systems, the port and property such as cars all suffered. As a result, much of UNDP's early work concentrated on the reconstruction of essential facilities such as power stations. In addition to this physical damage, Timor-Leste also faces a critical shortage of skills in almost all areas. In Indonesian times, few East Timorese people were allowed to rise to positions of any importance in most significant professions. For example, there were no East Timorese, in the upper levels of the Civil service, and nor were they allowed to practice law or sit as judges. As a result, when the Indonesians left, Timor was left with no judges, practising lawyers or senior civil servants. This is a consistent problem in all sectors, from education to the police service, from medical professionals to those skilled in running key facilities such as the power station.

An additional problem for Timor-Leste is the level of poverty. The first UNDP National Human Development Report found that Timor-Leste is officially Asia's poorest country with a per capital GDP of just $478. The vast majority of its population live in rural areas and have livelihoods based on subsistence agriculture. In some areas, barter still forms the basis of the economy and economic development is at a primitive level. At the moment it has little to export beside coffee: the sandalwood for which it was once famous was massively depleted by the Portuguese and Indonesians and the tourism, for which it undoubtedly has potential, is seriously hampered by the lack of infrastructure. This is a situation that could change in a few years when revenue begins to flow from the exploitation of oil resources in the Timor Sea, but until then Timor-Leste remains hugely dependent on the international community just to meet its annual budget requirements. As a result of the lack of industry living costs are high as everything from cooking oil to cars has to be imported, and unemployment is a rapidly growing problem.

For all this, however, Timor-Leste remains a country filled with hope. The need to provide emergency aid - food, shelter, clothing etc - that was so important immediately after the crisis of 1999 has now largely subsided, and has been replaced by major long-term commitments by agencies such as UNDP to skills training, the provision of expert advice to the government and poverty alleviation. As Xanana Gusmao wrote in the introduction to UNDP's National Human Development Report, "For many long years, we dreamed of independence. Our dream has become a reality. Now we must all play a part in developing a country. Government, the private sector, civil society and communities must work together to reduce poverty and promote economic growth that is sustainable and equitable."