Agriculture in the Timor-Leste stands at a critical juncture.

By UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Roy Trivedy

(Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)

This weekend the people of Timor-Leste go to the polls to cast their vote for the Eighth Constitutional Government in the 12 May parliamentary election. Over 784,000 people across the country’s 13 municipalities are eligible to vote and will be able to choose from a total of eight political parties and coalitions.

Regardless of who forms the new Government after the election, important challenges lie ahead for the country. There is no doubt that a great deal has been achieved in Timor-Leste since independence in 2002 including the building of state institutions and the ability of the country to organise free and fair elections; notable progress in improving living standards, including against key health indicators; and a significant reduction in the proportion of Timorese living in poverty from 50 per cent in 2007 to an estimated 42 per cent in 2014. Economic growth, though heavily dependent on oil revenue, has been relatively strong averaging 5.6 per cent per annum during the period since independence.

There are however many areas that will require immediate consideration and concerted action. Incoming ministers will need to focus very quickly on the need to diversify the economy and enable this young nation to move beyond its over-reliance on oil and gas reserves. With the offshore Bayu-Udan gas field, which brings in 95 per cent of Timor-Leste’s oil and gas royalties, estimated to become exhausted by 2021 and negotiations regarding the processing of gas and oil from Greater Sunrise likely to be ongoing for the foreseeable future, investment in other key areas including renewable energy need to be urgently prioritised, looking at alternative and complementary issues able to generate employment and support tourism development.

The need to accelerate private sector led growth will be another vital challenge. At present the economy is heavily reliant on the public sector. More private sector jobs and opportunities need to be created and this will require significant action to reduce and barriers to establishing and maintaining businesses in the Timor-Leste, ranked 178 out of 190 countries by the World Bank against the indicator of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ on its Doing Business Index.

Another high priority area is on development of Timor-Leste’s most valued resource: its people, including men, women, girls and boys. The Timor-Leste National Human Development Report 2018 released in April 2018 found that inadequate investments in education and training are resulting in a large pool of unemployed youth, many of  whom feel unprepared for the jobs market and lack the skills required to access decent employment. For Timor-Leste to maximise opportunities for sustainable growth and reap the benefits of a demographic dividend the country requires the right investments delivered in a timely and relevant manner.

Incoming Ministers will need to carefully consider the report’s main recommendations including: allocating 25% of the national budget to education and training coupled with behavioural change; improving the quality of education; incentivizing the private sector to invest in more training and creation of “decent work” opportunities; improving the provision of safe water and sanitation facilities throughout the country; and widening access to primary health care and family planning.

Agriculture in the country also stands at a critical juncture. It is the primary source of livelihood for approximately 80 per cent of the population, however most farmers - both male and female - have limited access to irrigation, appropriate seed and pesticides required for sustainable, productive and efficient agricultural production. Increased investments are urgently required in this area, as well as in the fisheries, tourism, entertainments, sports, arts and leisure and other sectors to help diversify the economy and create new employment opportunities for people throughout the country.

Other key priorities that the new government will need to consider include how best to tackle the high level of malnutrition in the country – with over 40 per cent of children, especially girls, suffering from stunting or wasting – a huge contributor to poor learning outcomes and low productivity of the workforce.

The need for greater accountability, transparency, and efficiency in respect of public expenditure is likely to be tracked carefully by the electorate. As calls for faster decentralisation of powers continue to grow, the next government will need to seize the opportunity to strengthen anti-corruption, transparency and public-sector accountability and service delivery at national and municipal levels.

Like many citizens of the country, I believe that the performance of the next Government will determine the future of the country over the next decade and more. While the country faces some stern challenges, it also has great opportunities. Job creation, effective delivery of services, improvements in the well-being of all citizens and effective decentralization will be imperative in ensuring that people’s lives really improve and that no-one is left behind and that Timor-Leste's path to a developed nation is assured.

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