On a recent visit to Timor Leste, UNICEF Ambassadors Gareth and Joanne Morgan saw first-hand the enormity of the challenge of providing childhood education in isolated villages where children are currently missing out.

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Over June and July this year Joanne and I rode our motorcycles from the top of Sumatra along the length of Indonesia and finished our journey in Timor-Leste. One of our social development engagements along the way began in that country’s capital Dili, where we were briefed by UNICEF on the range of in-country services they are providing there in conjunction with other NGOs and the government of Timor-Leste.

Health Services

From the capital Dili, we ventured out into the back country to engage with the villagers in the Ermera District and inspect a UNICEF-funded health centre and accompany its field workers administering preventative health care services in the homes of villagers. Child nutrition is a challenge in the country and it was noticeable, having just arrived from an extensive tour of the back country of neighbouring Indonesia, how much less developed and prosperous Timor-Leste is. The health services are challenged trying to ensure no child falls into the abyss as a result of inadequate care, but large families and broken families commonly as a result of economic stress, lead to inadequate child care.

It is encouraging to see the health services increasing the number of trained paramedics who can do this field work and make the arduous journey from the regional health centres to reach the people in need, often along trails that are beyond the reach of vehicular traffic. Interestingly Cuba has played a significant role in providing the training as part of its contribution to the development of East Timor.

The other common deficiency in child health support is at the pre- and post-natal stage where mums are out of reach of adequate help with both the birth and the support to ensure their breast-feeding succeeds. Again, because the health centre is beyond the reach of villagers, the health professionals are trained to intervene in this very early stage to ensure as many children as possible get the best start in life.

Overall the health centre in Ermera compared well with others we have visited in Vanuatu and the Solomons in terms of professionalism, productivity, effective engagement with the community, and training of locals to the paramedic stage. The challenges are huge, but we were impressed by the efforts of this project.

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Water and Sanitation

As is common in many developing countries access to adequate supplies of safe water is a challenge for the population. Timor-Leste is no exception with water reticulation being particularly underdeveloped in the rural areas. The village of Poeana in suco Homboe is one of several situated on the side of a substantial mountain that took us a couple of hours to traverse by 4WD (the roads are awful!).

Clearly with each village’s access to the limited supply of water being dependent upon prudent access to the resource by those villages further uphill, there has been an unprecedented amount of social negotiation and cooperation required. 

In this district the villages have cooperated to construct a water reticulation network centred on a pipe from the headwaters of a stream, high on the hillside. The pipe passes through all of the villages and water is tapped from it to constructed public toilets in the village centres (there are no watered toilets in the homes and huts of these villages) as well as to taps where the villagers can collect water for their other needs. The project has been a good example of cooperation between the NGO-funders and the people in that all the construction work has been carried out (with technical support from professionals) by the villagers, while the NGOs have funded most of the materials. 

Clearly with each village’s access to the limited supply of water being dependent upon prudent access to the resource by those villages further uphill, there has been an unprecedented amount of social negotiation and cooperation required. This type of pan-village cooperation is not that common and as a working model nowadays it is being demonstrated to other districts as a viable model. So often in cases of limited resources, villages compete with each other – and that gives rise to all manner of tensions.

Based on the success of this project the same villages are now looking at further opportunities to cooperate rather than compete. They all grow and process coffee for instance as a source of cash income. Cooperation on processing and transport of the product to market is now being discussed by the relevant village councils.

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Education

Here we visited the Lauana Groto School which again sees its pupils having to walk up to 2 hours each way just to attend. And the daily lunch which is supposed to be provided hasn’t been for a couple of months due to funding challenges. Combine that with the pressures on the families to keep the kids at home to help with the farm work that feeds the family and you can see pretty quickly the enormity of the challenge of child education.

So much research in developed countries points to pre-school education as being of crucial importance in determining a child’s ultimate success, it is a stark reality to confront that in a country like Timor-Leste such a facility is rare.

The school itself compared favourably with others we have assessed around the world on donor visits. Sanitation facilities and training are in place, adequate learning materials are available and the teachers are enthusiastic. But it is a cultural challenge in these villages to have the children away from fields for so long and deny the family its labour resource – especially at harvest time. That tension was very evident when we visited as the harvest was on. Indeed teachers and support staff were spending significant time working with the families to ensure that their children attended school as much as was practicable for the family. With the consequences of a poor performance on the farm being pretty dire for the families however, this is matter for negotiation.

Then we visited something that really is quite rare in this district – a pre school. So much research in developed countries points to pre-school education as being of crucial importance in determining a child’s ultimate success, it is a stark reality to confront that in a country like Timor-Leste such a facility is rare. The one we visited was parent-conducted, no professional help in terms of permanent on-site staffing, but clearly UNICEF and other NGOs were assisting in terms of material and some training of the local volunteers. Attendance by the parents as observers was also noticeable – it is a very popular development.

In summary, our donor assessments of health care, water and sanitation and education projects that UNICEF is conducting in Timor-Leste confirmed that tailoring assistance via a needs-based consensus with communities, ensuring the locals have skin in the game, and respecting the constraints they are under in meeting the demands that interventions require to be successful, are the same rules of engagement here as we have seen in other countries. But every constituency is just so different, that this tailoring process and capitalising on the experience from elsewhere to get the tailored solution in place as quickly as possible is the key to effective assistance. While the size of the challenge is enormous, and there are limits to the success imposed by the economic progress the recipients are achieving anyway, allocating the limited resources UNICEF or any government or NGO has to get best bang for buck is still the over-riding determinant of effort.

As a result of our donor assessment visit to Timor-Leste we have decided to invest in pre-school education and invite others to join us.

Click here to find out more about the work UNICEF is doing in Timor Leste, and to make a donation to support bringing early education to disadvantaged children.

Page last updated: 13 Oct 2016 11:21am
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