[Marxism] East Timor, "free" but poor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 11 07:35:50 MST 2006


Free but hungry
Mar 9th 2006
 From The Economist print edition

Destitution in the world's youngest country

LIFE has only become more wretched for the 1m inhabitants of Timor-Leste 
(formerly East Timor) since it achieved full independence from Indonesia in 
2002. The country was born the poorest in South-East Asia: and its economy 
has shrivelled further as the United Nations' peacekeeping operations have 
wound down, reducing demand for everything from hotel rooms to transport. 
It is set to shrink yet further after the mandate of UNOTIL, the UN office 
in the country, expires in May.

The pity is that the country can afford to do much better. A report 
published this week by the UN Development Programme shows that revenues 
from offshore oil and gas fields could reduce poverty dramatically—if the 
government spent the revenue wisely.

The UNDP sets the poverty line for Timor-Leste at 55 American cents a day. 
Around 40% of the population has less than this, so hunger is widespread. 
Only half of rural households have drinking-water on tap, and only a tenth 
have electricity. With health clinics few and far between, almost one in 
ten babies die before their first birthday.

Timor-Leste's population is small, at about 1m people. So relieving the 
worst of the poverty should, in theory, be cheap. The UNDP calculates that 
it would cost $18m a year for everyone below the 55-cent poverty line to be 
brought up to it. Even achieving the UN's Millennium Goals for relieving 
want (including better education and health) by 2015 would cost Timor-Leste 
$203m a year at most. This, too, should be affordable given the aid on 
offer and the growing oil and gas income. The country receives energy 
revenues of around $158m a year, and their sustainability has been 
underpinned by a recent deal with Australia to divide the proceeds from a 
big gas field in the sea between the two countries.

However, the government has so far spent most of its money in Dili, the 
capital. Only about a fifth of state-provided goods and services go to 
rural areas, where most people live and where poverty is concentrated. 
People in the rural areas urgently need micro-credit and training to 
improve and diversify their crops, as well as better sanitation and roads. 
Unless this changes, the Timorese will remain, as the UNDP puts it, 
politically free but chained by poverty.

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