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Education & Development

Empowering Young People in Timor-Leste

By Benjamin Sullivan
Timor-Leste Research Intern
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On the 20th of May 2002, the international community recognized the first new sovereign state of the 21st century, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (formerly known as East Timor). 

In its recent history, the nation struggled with foreign rule from Portugal and Indonesia, eventually resulting in a successful referendum for independence in 1999. Their struggle to achieve independence had been turbulent, but many observers believe the democratic transition post-independence has been successful.

Even though Timor-Leste is a very close neighbour of Australia, the quality of life between nations couldn’t be more different. Timor-Leste still faces significant development challenges, and has an overwhelmingly large youth population: 46% of the nation is aged 18 years and under! With a rapidly growing youth population, there is a pressing need to better engage these future leaders and include them in important decision-making. 

2017 will be an important year for the Timorese, with citizens recently attending the polls for the presidential election and national parliamentary elections scheduled for July. Over ⅓ of voters in this election cycle will be first time voters, so the future of Timor-Leste will be largely influenced by the voting patterns of young voters.

Lack of civic education, political engagement and parliamentary youth representatives are looming youth issues we’re seeing in Timor-Leste. The key political players tend to be the independence resistance heroes, and the national parliament is assembled by a largely older demographic. There is a growing disconnect between their priorities and the priorities of the millennial generation that are lacking representation in parliament.

Due to the slow transition of power from the older generation to the younger generation, Timorese youth are becoming increasingly disenfranchised with politics. We know that when youth feel excluded from decision-making, they are likely to be involved in civil unrest. The 2006 Timor-Leste political crisis led to civil unrest, and the resulting negative stereotypes of young people has halted the willingness of the older generation to share power with the younger population. 

Improving young people’s access to quality education is the cornerstone of our vision here at Oaktree. In the context of Timor-Leste, improving youth education not only increases young people’s capacity to gain meaningful employment, but it also feeds into improving their civil and political understanding.

Oaktree's partner Ba Futuru ensures young Timorese have access to secondary education.

We recently compiled a survey at Oaktree with the help of the Centre of Studies for Peace and Development (CEPAD), a Timorese non-government organization. Across all municipalities where the survey was distributed, many young people were unable to correctly identify current political issues – over 1/3 of these participants were university students. The majority of respondents agreed that school is the most effective service for improving political awareness and to teach leadership skills. This is reassuring to us, as these young people understand the importance of education and its potential to improve employability skills and necessitate improved political engagement.

While Timor-Leste has seen improvements to primary school education,  improvements in secondary education have not followed the same trajectory. In collaboration with our Timor-Leste partner organization, Ba Futuru (Tetum for ‘For the Future’), we are currently implementing a project to improve the teaching quality and learning environment for secondary school students across the country. The project, Inspiring Young Learners through Quality Education (QE), aims for students to acquire the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace and to access higher education.

Oaktree is committed to empowering young people in Timor-Leste, particularly through education initiatives and strengthening youth leadership. Support Oaktree’s work now by signing up for or donating to Live Below the Line.


Want to keep reading? Check out Being Bold for Change in Timor.