Review of “Timor-Leste: The History and Development of Asia’s Newest Nation”

Abraham Joseph and Takako Hamaguchi, Timor-Leste; The History and Development of Asia’s Newest Nation, (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2014), 189 pp.

Reviewed by: Ashok Nigam (United Nations Resident Coordinator (UN RC) and United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative (UNDP RR) Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (2014 to present); Formerly UN RC & UNDP RR for Myanmar (2011-2013); and Senior Adviser UNICEF.)

Timor-Leste: The History and Development of Asia’s Newest Nation provides interesting insights into the political history that led to the birth of Timor-Leste as an independent nation. The book examines the fundamental principles of Timor-Leste’s constitution, the economic and social challenges that it faced, and the critical decisions that policymakers took since its birth.

Woman Collecting Water, Timor-Leste. photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Timor-Leste, a country with just over a million people (70 percent of whom live in rural areas and are engaged in agriculture), has a fertility rate of 5.7 births per woman and population growth of 2.4 percent. Agricultural output is unable to keep pace with the demand for food. Thus, many suffer from hunger. The country is faced with significant capacity constraints. These constraints start from primary school, where the high drop-out rate is 70 percent. A high drop-out rate indicates that investment in education will be critically important. The authors narrate these and other challenges. At the same time, they show the great potential that the country has and the progress it has already made.

Timor-Leste has significant growth and human resource potential – with 53 per cent of the population below the age of 19. The country generates US $ 2.5 billion annually in oil and gas revenue. Its per capita gross national income has risen from US $837 in 2005 to US $ 2817 in 2010, but with significant fluctuations in oil income given its dependency on external factors. Non-oil GDP is only US $1 billion. This illustrates how important oil revenue is to the development of the country. The authors show the policy options that the country faced in managing its huge per capita oil revenues; how much to invest today to reduce poverty, how much to put into a natural resource fund for the future; how to manage the fund; how much to invest in infrastructure, in agriculture, and social sectors; how to decide on investments in human capital required for long-term growth; how does the nation factor in the environmental concerns; and so on. These are some of the choices that the leaders of Timor-Leste have had to make. Such policy choices are not unique to Timor-Leste. However, how this small country chooses between them can serve as a lesson for many other larger resource rich countries. The authors have covered the landscape comprehensively given their complementary backgrounds – with Abraham being a development planner and Takako having worked on children’s issues with UNICEF.

The authors show how the people and the leaders responded to the breakdown in law and order in 2006. They

Timor-Leste Holds Parliamentary Elections. photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

demonstrate that post-conflict transition is not necessarily without bumps. Abraham and Takako show how partnerships are critically important for any nation, particularly a small one, and how claims over the ownership of off-shore oil and gas can and need to be resolved expeditiously and peacefully. They narrate how the Timor-Leste’s government responds to the many challenges and policy options to achieve its long-term Strategic Plan to 2030. It is worth mentioning that beyond all the challenges and priorities President Ramos-Horta has declared that “[n]othing is more important in a new nation than providing children with an education.” (p 175).

Although each post-conflict country is different, with its unique set of complexities, Timor-Leste is an example of how resource-rich countries can transition from decades of conflict and occupation to a sovereign democratic state.  Timor-Leste’s transition also demonstrates the importance of democratic good governance.

Timor-Leste Celebrates Anniversary of Independence Referendum. photo credit: UN Photo/Martine Perret.

The authors of Timor-Leste: The History and Development of Asia’s Newest Nation have chronicled very well the early years of development of Timor-Leste as a sovereign state.   Beyond those interested in learning about the development of Timor-Leste since its independence, the book will be useful for political leaders, development planners, policy makers, and those working for international organizations in post-conflict countries. No country’s journey ever ends, so it will be interesting to follow Timor-Leste’s development to 2030. This book provides a baseline for putting into perspective what is to come.


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