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Timor-Leste Country Office

In September 2004, the UNDP Timor-Leste Country Office marked its 5th year of operations, five years which have seen great changes in this young country.

"The announcement that East Timor was not only the newest nation in the world but also…among the poorest…was a sobering headline," says Antonio Assuncao, a UNDP Program Officer at the time of the simultaneous declaration of independence by the Government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and the release of the UNDP's first Human Development Report for the country in May 2002.

The HDR found that some 41% of the population lived in income poverty, health and education standards were low, and food security remained a major issue, particularly in rural areas. A poor nation indeed, yet many would also say it is one of the most beautiful. Timor-Leste's natural environment is marked by stunning mountains, beautiful beaches and reefs, lush forests and (depending on the season and district) rushing rivers or wide, dry river-beds.

But the richness of Timor-Leste's natural environment is also one of the main impediments to its development. Mountains that reach from the coast to a height of 3,000 metres, seasonal monsoons, and a small, sparse population mean that delivering basic services such as transport, health care, education, power and water to rural populations is a major challenge. In addition, an estimated 85% of essential utilities and buildings across the country were damaged or destroyed and some two-thirds of the population displaced by the violence and instability following the 1999 independence vote.

Such were the challenges facing Timor-Leste when the UNDP arrived in September 1999 to assist in the long rebuilding process. Initially operating out of an old high school classroom with a staff of around ten people, the Country Office's early program focus was on the urgent rehabilitation of the country's shattered infrastructure (power stations, water and sanitation systems, irrigation networks, ports and roads) and on short-term poverty reduction, employment creation and community development projects. By the end of 2002 over US$50 million was disbursed.

After the initial stabilisation period, the next few years brought a fresh set of challenges as Timor-Leste grappled with the task of strengthening the civil and democratic institutions of newly independent Timor-Leste. Jochem Ramaker, a program officer, says, "You're building a nation, and all elements of governance are intertwined," and recognising this the UNDP established many projects to build the capacity of the National Parliament, local governance, civil society organisations (NGOs), the justice sector, police, and civil service.

Finally, as we look towards a sustainable future for Timor-Leste, ensuring the country's environment and natural resources are well managed becomes of vital importance. Hernani da Silva, head of the Environment and Natural Resource Management created in March 2003, says that with agriculture and its support industries employing more than 85% of the workforce and contributing 30% of national GDP, the future of the country is still very much dependent on the good management of its natural resources. The Environment and Natural Resource Unit, has therefore focussed on rural energy strategies, housing policy, natural disaster management, and conventions on climate change, biodiversity and desertification - areas indicative of the long-term measures being implemented to ensure a sustainable future for this young nation.

The future for UNDP Timor-Leste Country Office

Reflecting the country's transition from urgent crisis recovery UNDP has developed a focussed Country Programme, based around the three focus areas of poverty reduction and community development (link to page 8), governance and capacity development (link to page 7) , and environment and natural resource management (link to page 9). This programme is supported by a dedicated operations team, as well as a strategic planning unit and a media unit.

"This is only natural," says Haoling Xu, former Senior Deputy Resident Representative and Country Manager, "as Timor-Leste emerges from the 1999 crisis and looks to implement programs which will ensure a sustainable future, so we also move through this transition and into a more focussed, stable and sustainable structure."

In terms of the sustainable future of the Office, Ludivic Hood, a former Program Officer, stresses that, as in the nation itself, self-sufficiency for East Timorese is of great importance. In the future, he says, the Office will come to rely on its national staff to shoulder more of the program load, "so all the national staff capacity building in the past five years is the key to the future of the CO."

Indeed, the number of national staff working in management, as program officers and in operational support roles has been steadily rising over the last few years. Lina Bernardo, as Human Resources Management Associate and the Office's longest serving national staff member knows more about this change than most. "Three or four years ago there were no substantive roles for East Timorese," she says. Now, as the skills of national staff improve through training and mentoring, she says, "there is more trust in their ability, more responsibility, and more opportunity to advance."

On the program front, it is important to maintain donor partner interest in projects in Timor-Leste, particularly as the country has moved into a period of relative stability and the world's attention has shifted to other crisis areas around the globe. It is also critical to ensure appropriate programs are in place to meet the needs of the Government of Timor-Leste as it looks toward a sustainable future.

Indeed, there is still much to be done to assist this young nation in its development, however, UNDP Resident Representative and UN Resident Coordinator Sukehiro Hasegawa believes the Country Office's emphasis over the past five years on rebuilding the country's infrastructure, assisting in the establishment of government and civil institutions, and helping to create sustainable livelihoods for its people has laid a solid foundation upon which to build.

"If this country achieves a just and fair society based on transparent and accountable governance, there is no way it can be undermined," he says.

926,000 East Timorese hope he's right.