Timor-Leste: Where Philanthropy Packs A Punch


APC member Simon Flint shares his thoughts on APC’s recent site visit to Dili and Atauro Island in Timor-Leste–aka how all trip reports should look like!

I seriously questioned Xanana Gusmao’s judgment when he punched me (hard), only to hug Stanley like a long-lost brother, plant a lingering kiss on Elaine’s hand, and lovingly rub Thomas’s scalp. Still, it was all of a piece with the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurial philanthropists.

Yet, despite Xanana’s sparkling charisma and drive, delivering development will be an immense challenge. Timor’s Human Development Index will be at the foot of the ASEAN table – if the country is admitted in 2025. And, the Prime Minister has inherited one of the largest government deficits on earth, at one-half of annual GDP. This extraordinary fiscal cliff can only be scaled through exploiting Timor’s natural resources.

The most exquisite of these natural wonders surround the magical Atauro Island. On day two of our trip, a mixed pod of melon-headed whales and dolphins languidly broke the horizon. Indeed, Atauro boasts the greatest variety of reef fish, whales, dolphins, and corals on earth. The island must be cherished and protected.

This is precisely why Kath and Thomas have partnered with Conservation International. With their help, Atauro’s marine protected areas now teem with turtles and vibrant reef fish. Yet, as we discovered as we toured the villages – if they are to preserve nature, the people must have the opportunity to enjoy an alternative livelihood. Sustainable tourism is only a part of the answer. Timor-Leste is remote, and faces competition from superb Indonesian sites in Raja Ampat and Komodo.

Villagers cherish their environment, and passionately want to branch-out. However, they have few resources to do so. They welcome tourists – but have little or no training and experience. They make beautiful crafts – but lack the tools and the time to generate a stable income.They harvest seaweed – but don’t have rope to bind their harvest. They produce coconut oil by hand – unable to afford to buy the simple machines needed to process the nuts. They need fresh water both to improve their farm yields, and to enhance their health.

Education too demands urgent improvement. Almost half the Timorese population is below 18-years old. With a youthful population where nearly half are under eighteen, the dearth of qualified educators is alarming. Many teachers departed for Indonesia post-independence, leaving a vacuum that has stifled educational achievement. In 2018, a quarter of kids had to repeat grade one. Local experts, like Veronica, have the answers. Teaching in local languages from skilled teachers has huge potential, and is the foundation of Veronica’s EMULI program. Her approach is enthusiastically endorsed by the Minister of Education — who was also excited by Stanley’s suggestion that Teach for All could venture to Timor.

In Dili, a lunch with eight young leaders shimmered with ambition and ideas. My personal favorite was Carole, an Agricultural student whose dream is to create her own experimental farm to tackle Timor’s pressing food security issues. Almost seven-in-ten Timorese are engaged in agriculture, and yet Timor imports 60% of its food. This is one of many reasons why half the kids are stunted. Carole knows that a vast amount needs to be done, but she’s going to give it a shot. Along with the other seven young leaders, she promised to take USD50k of Stanley’s money to help prove herself and her ideas. 

As you can see, Timor-Leste is perfect for risk-loving philanthropists. It’s a young nation burning with the desire to develop – and do so in a way that preserves some of the most gorgeous places on earth. You want to see it? You’re in luck. Stanley is planning a return trip over Sept. 4-9, don’t miss out!

Since joining APC in 2016, Simon Flint has been laser-focused on child nutrition. He is now expanding his efforts to explore how human flourishing can be made compatible with climate risks and sustainability.