Leapfrogging into 2030 – Options and Opportunities for Timor-Leste
21 September 2023
Funmi Balogun, UN Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste
In 2015, governments of all nations, civil society, and humanity as a whole took a giant stride by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - ambitious, forward-looking, and to be achieved through partnerships and consensus - with the aim of lifting people out of poverty, reducing inequalities, and addressing other issues that limit our potential; of safeguarding our planet, our only home, from climate change and human-induced disasters; of achieving prosperity for all, reducing inequalities, rebalancing consumption patterns, promoting equity and justice so that all individuals, regardless of their circumstances at birth, can thrive and prosper; fostering peaceful coexistence and a world without conflicts; and all of this to be accomplished through partnerships – equal, respectful, without distinctions based on the size of a country, with everyone having a voice and a stake in the future.
This week in New York, from 16 September 2023, the world is again gathering to mark the halfway point of the SDGs and discuss ways in which to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs. And within the backdrop of the very depressing conclusion that we are completely off-track in achieving the SDGs. Globally, there has been the COVID pandemic, which shut down the world, ruined economies and demonstrated starkly our interconnectedness; new and escalating wars; the rising distrust of multilateralism and consensus to resolve the world’s most urgent crises; the emerging threats of the overthrowing of democratically elected governments; increasing lack of confidence in elected governments; growing intolerance; huge debts burden; unemployment and inability to absorb young people into economies. We are witnessing a growing backlash on human rights that we all thought were settled; dissemination of fake news and misinformation through social media, with dangerous ideologies becoming ‘facts’; unending climate change-induced tragedies and clearly a dissatisfaction with global state of affairs and growing inequalities – within countries, among countries and within people. Then there is the grim figure that it would take us another 500 years to achieve gender equality and truly see women and girls as human beings with equal rights.
Even with all the bleakness around us, there is no better time to be alive – technology has presented astounding opportunities and transformation to invent, innovate, connect, that did not exist just 50 years ago; there are more children in school than any time in history; more democracies; changing of social norms that are more progressive and rights-based. We have seen the rise of Artificial Intelligence and the opportunities it presents, the overwhelming global consensus and genuine desire to save our planet; new opportunities for green and sustainable economic growth and the emergency of new blocs of power in the Global South, speaking up and challenging historical injustices, while demanding fairer playing ground – in financial negotiations, including for the restructuring of global financing institutions, on trade and on climate justice. Those whose rights have always been marginal – women, LGBQTI+, people with disabilities, young people – are all fighting back, against violence and discrimination.
As His Excellency, the President of the Republic, Jose Ramos-Horta, is engaging in the global conversations and positioning Timor-Leste’s leadership in New York for the SDG Summit, this is a good time to reflect on the opportunities for the next 7 years. My belief since I got to Timor Leste 9 months ago, and after two decades of independence and dedicated rebuilding of a then wrecked country, is that Timor-Leste is one of the few countries with the opportunities to leapfrog and achieve development growth in time for the 2030 agenda. Timor-Leste, despite a difficult history, is peaceful and stable, with a trusted leadership, enabled by regular and uncontroversial elections with the country’s last successful parliamentary elections and the establishment of the IX constitutional government under the leadership of HE, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. Timor-Leste continues to demonstrate respect for human rights, has strong institutions, including for governance, its position and influence in international affairs despite its size, a valued member and adherent to international standards through membership of United Nations, the CPLP, founder/member of g7+, strong bilateral relations with countries across the world, and its current observer status of ASEAN. It has the resources from a properly managed Petroleum Trust Fund, to test innovative solutions to development.
Timor-Leste was also among the first countries to commit to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and since then, the country has conducted two voluntary national reviews (VNR), the latest of which was presented at the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in July of this year.
There are, however, major issues that will need to be addressed. While the focus rightly has been on the ‘what’ of the issues – a flat rate of growth for human capital from 2002 to 2022; 70% dependency on food imports, 40% rate of unemployment, 48.3% multidimensional poverty that aggravates food insecurity and a high malnutrition rates, 47% of children under 5 suffering from stunting, poor education outcomes, challenging infrastructure and connectivity, there has not been enough focus on the ‘how’ – systems review on how all the challenges interact, through an integrated and coordinated approach. This is to guide how resources are deployed to not just achieve efficiency and effectiveness, but in scaling up interventions through solutions that will result in scale of outcomes, necessary to achieve the SDGs. The challenge is not about identifying the problems, but in identifying what systems need to change and how to intervene differently.
There are a few ways in which Timor-Leste can leapfrog and make the next 7 years count.
First, setting development objectives, including support from development assistance, must be strongly coordinated under government leadership. An integrated and whole of government/development partners coordinated approach to planning, prioritizing, identifying the most in need populations and municipalities, guiding financing and scale must be an absolute priority. For example, planning and interventions on rural housing cannot be undertaken without an integrated analysis of how the provision of rural housing can also be used to simultaneously achieve rural access to water, sanitation, access to health care and education, using strong data and evidence of what works, including attracting different types of investments and technology to achieve the goals. Efforts at reducing child and maternal mortality, including reducing malnutrition and stunting, must have at the very least, women’s empowerment at its core. For example, there are an estimated 40,000 pregnant women per annum in Timor-Leste, and with right coordination, planning and allocation of USD28M a year, 28,000 women representing 70% will receive ante-natal care, 32,000 representing 80% will be attended to by skilled birth attendant, 36,000 representing 90% will receive post-natal care and access to family planning services which will lead to achievement of SDG targets on maternal mortality of 70/100,000 maternal mortality by 2030 and if the women receive family planning to space their children, will reduce stunting by 50%.
A coordinated development planning will require consistency, additional technical expertise of which UN agencies bring to the table and must be done with all relevant government institutions, bilateral development partners and UN agencies – to undertake joint planning, identify responsibilities based on comparative advantage, identify sources of funding, how to attract additional financing, agree jointly on what to track, how to track and most importantly, what will achieve scale.
Second, opportunities for financing for development must not only rely on public finance. Other sources of financing for development goals must be identified in a coherent, strategic and targeted way. While the government budget for the next 5 years has identified priorities and budget, this alone cannot finance the achievement of the SDGs. There will still be a need to undertake the cost of/financing for achieving the SDGs within a 7-year period and what additional financing can be accessed/mobilized. This will not only fast-track results and economic growth but will ensure stability for the Petroleum Fund. UN has a track record in convening conversations around innovative financing, including on outcome-based financing, where investors repay the government for the achievements of specific outcomes on education and health targets. These dialogues are to bring together traditional partners and private investors, multilateral financing institutions on identifying where it makes sense to invest in Timor-Leste, not just to create jobs but to create local entrepreneurship (franchising, value-chains, access to technology, resources, skills, digitalization) that will concurrently address social challenges. The conversations would also identify concrete roadblocks to investments and financing, with clear targets and strong political will, to remove the blocks. For example, UNDP has developed SDG Investor Maps for countries in Asia (Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc.), helping these governments identify opportunities for private investments to achieve SDGs and identifying potential private/social investors while supporting governments to create an enabling environment.
Third, there must be a concerted effort and seed resources for digitalization and skills linked to job creation. A plan around job creation for young people must be centred on creating digital jobs. The plan must be designed around an adaptive framework in identifying the technical and digital skills needed and the number of people available for these skills, to accelerate economic empowerment, recognizing the perennial challenges in systems and infrastructure, developing a technical and digital skills training framework, from the start, identifying where these skills would be deployed and sustained and a strong monitoring system that is deliberate – is the plan working?
Fourth, the protection of human rights and bridging inequalities must be central to decision-making around development. Accessing quality services and ability to have the skills and tools to improve livelihoods, especially for the most vulnerable, are fundamental rights that citizens must be able to demand, and the government as duty bearers, must provide as the foundation for achieving development objectives and engendering sustainable peace in an inclusive and non-discriminatory way.
Finally, all the above cannot happen without governance reforms – an agile, capacitated and fit-for-purpose public sector with the ability to guide political decisions while remaining consistent and apolitical. A public financial management system that tracks government spending around achievement of targets and not just expenditure and delivery of services and enables quick decision-making at the highest level of decision making, supporting quick changes in approaches when necessary and reduction in duplication of not just activities but in functions and institutions.
I would like to end by re-emphasizing some ways in which the UN and its specialized agencies can continue to support the government and people of Timor-Leste in achieving SDGs. UN's comparative advantage lies in its extensive knowledge base from Timor-Leste and globally, to provide impartial and neutral policy advice, including using big data (census for example). UN agencies, under the coordination of an empowered Resident Coordinator, can support the government to facilitate additional financing, including through social investments, to convene facilitate regional and global partnerships, scaling up pilot projects– on health, nutrition, food systems transformation, ending child stunting and maternal mortality and in the provision of skills on job creation. UN’s normative role and support to government are key to ensuring the government continues to fulfil its human rights accountability, promotes gender equality and empowerment of women while also reporting on UN conventions of which Timor-Leste is a signatory – all critical to enabling the achievement of the IX Government Programme leading to the SDGs.