East Timor is changing, but not fast enough

This shopping mall, Timor Plaza, is a sign of progress, but many East Timorese returning from abroad still find themselves overqualified for the jobs available.
Paula Bronstein

DILI, East Timor — Grace Gunawon, 22, remembers Dili before East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, when it wasn’t safe to play in the streets after dark.

But like most of the world, she witnessed the worst of the violence — the clashes in the lead-up to the 1999 referendum on independence and the 2006 gang riots — from a distance.

“My family went to Indonesia when things got really bad,” she explains one balmy Saturday night at an outdoor street soccer tournament she helped organize with some friends. “We had to leave.”

Gunawon spent the rest of her childhood in Indonesia, and went on to study marketing at a university in Jakarta. Then in March, as East Timor approached its 10th anniversary of independence, the Gunawons decided it was time to return home. “We knew we would come back one day. Everyone does. Now the situation is more stable; things are getting better.”

Better socially perhaps, but on the economic front there is still a long way to go. Gunawon would have liked to pursue a career in marketing, but those roles don’t yet exist in East Timor, where the private sector is still in its fledgling stages. That’s why she has spent most of her free time over the last few months organizing this street soccer event.

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The country is in the midst of major changes and, after a decade or more overseas, many East Timorese are now repatriating. The parliamentary elections on Saturday will be the country's first without United Nations assistance, and in December, the organization is set to withdraw its peacekeepers entirely. Australia says its stabilization mission is also nearing an end.

But unemployment is high, and East Timor is still one of the region’s least developed countries. Of the 1 million-plus people in East Timor, two-thirds are under the age of 30, and officials say between 50 and 60 percent of those are out of work. About half of the population lives in poverty, according to the United Nations, and the literacy rate is among the lowest in Asia at less than 50 percent.

Things are changing, but not fast enough for Gunawon and her peers. The education and experiences they collected overseas have prepared them for opportunities their home country can’t offer.

“Dili is changing. I got back two years ago and even since then it’s different,” says Ricky Osorio, 25, who also spent many years in Indonesia. He chats enthusiastically about the country’s first shopping mall, Timor Plaza, which opened earlier this year, and mentions the development of the seafront.

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“But, Dili can be so boring. Doesn’t it seem quiet? And it’s so small you can walk from one end to the other. When we were students in Jakarta we went out with our friends. Mostly we just hang out at each other’s houses here,” he says.

“Actually I mainly look forward to holidays in Bali so I can go out,” Gunawon laughs. The Indonesian resort island is just two hours away by plane and — along with Singapore and Darwin in northern Australia — is the only international destination linked by commercial flights.

Osorio lives in the family home with his brother who is also in his 20s. He has an MBA and his brother is a qualified civil engineer. But, like Gunawon, they haven’t heard of any jobs they’d like to apply for.

The government is the main employer in East Timor and the only other opportunities are in the oil industry or with the NGOs that have been set up since around the time of independence.

Gunawon and Osorio are more fortunate than the majority of their peers. They will never be forced to flog cigarettes and bunches of fruit on the street like the children of the city’s poorer families. They are privileged to have been educated abroad.

Schools in East Timor were regularly disrupted by the conflict. Classes were delivered in a confusion of Indonesian, occasionally Portuguese, Tetum and other local languages. Even today, the schools suffer from a lack of funding and there are rarely enough chairs for all the students in a class.

But the staggering youth unemployment rate does not discriminate.

“It is very hard to find work,” says Tonilia De Fatima Dos Santos, a researcher with the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis, La'o Hamutuk. She stayed in East Timor throughout the unrest and found herself competing for roles with many who grew up and studied overseas.

“I always hear and I always see that there are families with maybe 12 children and in that family no one has work. This is not a small number, it’s the majority.”

Despite being among the brightest in her class, De Fatima Dos Santos sent off countless job applications before getting even one reply.

“The government does not realize how important this is for the stability of East Timor,” Gally Araujo says of creating opportunities for young Timorese. He recently returned from Portugal. His family fled there in 1991, after the Santa Cruz massacre in which troops fired on mourners attending a funeral, killing more than 250.

Araujo has ambitions to start an eco-tourism business, and currently coaches a youth soccer team in his spare time. Like most Timorese, he is concerned about the influence of gangs in Dili. At the time of the 2006 riots, there were at least 13 gangs operating in the capital. There may be fewer now but local youth organizations suggest that seven out of 10 young men will still end up joining one.

“There is nothing for young people to do," Araujo says. "There are too few opportunities. They need structure, they need motivation, otherwise it becomes a problem.”