For Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's fight against poverty is a total failure
About half of the population lives on less than US$ 1.90 a day, and half of all children under five suffer from malnutrition. “If I had been a prime minister for 10 years, I would have focused all those 10 years on quality education, on rural development,” the former president and Nobel Prize winner said. Uncertainty prevails ahead of parliamentary elections on 12 May.
Dili (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “The study by the UN on our social economic indicators, particularly on malnutrition and children’s growth are extremely negative, I’d say total failure over the last 10 years,” said Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel laureate 1996 and former president (2007-2012) of Asia’s proportionately most Catholic country (97 per cent).
A recent UN study estimates nearly half the population lives below the extreme poverty line of US$ 1.90 a day and half of the children under five suffer moderate to severe physical and mental stunting as a result of malnutrition.
“If I had been a prime minister for 10 years, I would have focused all those 10 years on quality education, on rural development and that means water and sanitation for the people,” Ramos-Horta said.
The former president criticised the political leaders of the continent’s youngest democracy ahead of next month's parliamentary elections, especially in crucial areas such as reducing child malnutrition and providing clean water.
Ramos-Horta is not running for office himself but has backed the Fretilin party, which at the beginning of this year tried to form a minority government and whose collapse caused a serious political and institutional crisis that threatened the country’s stability.
The dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, ordered by President Francisco Guterres on 26 January, put an end to the impasse.
The 12 May vote, the second parliamentary elections in East Timor in less than a year, pits Fretilin and a minor party against an alliance of three parties led by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) headed by independence hero Xanana Gusmao who was the country’s first president, from 2002 to 2007, and prime minister from 2007 to 2015.
Analysts say that neither Fretilin nor Gusmao's party alone can win an absolute majority, but Gusmao seems to have an edge in forming an alliance with smaller parties.
After the 2012 elections, won by the CNRT but without an absolute majority, the two parties had created a government of national unity.
Although partisan, Ramos-Horta's comments underscore the challenges facing the country, which over the past ten years has focused on infrastructure projects and a dwindling oil fund to boost its economy but has made little progress in addressing poverty in rural areas where nearly 70 per cent of East Timorese live.
Ramos-Horta has acknowledged that, since independence in 1999, the nation of 1.3 million has made "tremendous progress" in establishing consistent rule of law and consolidating its democracy.
Last year's presidential and parliamentary elections were the first without the supervision of UN peacekeepers.
However, in other areas it has gone astray, he said, such as not focusing the education system on vocational training that would give young Timorese skills that are useful for a developing country.
“You will be better paid with a vocational certificate in electricity or plumbing than if you show up with your Ph.D. in humanities. So it has been very wrong from the start, since independence. I hope the next government can change that,” he said.