January 24th, 2014

Timor Leste: Leading the Asia-Pacific to a hunger free future?

Consistently ranked in the top 3 countries for high child malnutrition, but without receiving the extensive media attention we have become so accustomed to in other countries suffering the same problem, Timor Leste has been described as a country ‘suffering in silence’. 250,000 children inhabit the country and past statistics have seen some areas, such as Bobonaro, hitting child malnutrition rates above 75% with extensive evidence of stunted growth or chronic undernourishment in mind and body. Whilst, in recent years there have been significant improvements seeing overall malnutrition rates fall from 44% to 38%, a lot of work remains. Combating malnutrition has no quick-fix solution!

The causes of consistently high levels of malnutrition are not immediately apparent. Typically, malnutrition is caused by heavy drought or sustained, unfavourable climatic conditions, neither of which hinder the fertile soils of Timor Leste.  Some suggest malnutrition originates in the country’s brutal historical struggles and its long fight for freedom. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, freedom lasted a record-breaking nine days before becoming occupied by Indonesia.

In 1999, a referendum resulted in over 80% of the population voting for independence; however resistance from Indonesia led to thousands of deaths and over-flowing refugee camps. Afterwards, Timor Leste remained in a state of UN administration for 2 years, before declaring complete independence in 2002.  Serious civil conflict once again broke out in 2006 leaving over 150,000 people displaced, leading to a severe humanitarian crisis. The Australian government was called in to restore order and in 2012, troops were officially pulled out, declaring the country was stable.

This chaotic history has left Timor Leste with poor infrastructure, health services and a hand-to-mouth existence for the majority of the population as observed during HART’s visit in 2012. This lack of public investment has led to knowledge gaps in the understanding of nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet. For example, cultural taboos prohibiting certain foods (e.g. eggs) or promoting alternative eating habits (e.g. low calorie intake whilst pregnant) are not questioned, becoming widely accepted and exacerbating child malnutrition.

On the 9th January 2014, Timor Leste became the very first Asia-Pacific country to launch a national campaign under the UN Zero hunger challenge, representing significant progress for its development objectives.  The 2011 World Development Report estimates that post-conflict countries take 15-30 years on average to become a fully functional state, but Timor Leste has surpassed this expectation with rapid development, largely due to petroleum reserves  that contribute to 90% of development investment. It is also an active member of the g7+ group who are countries affected by conflict and work toward the next stages of development. This leaves plenty of room for optimism and progress in terms of Timor Leste’s development targets.

HART’s extensive work and continued support in its partnership with HIAM Health endeavors to eradicate child malnutrition. HIAM Health provides support, training and equipment to educate children, mothers and communities on nutrition and alternative cooking/farming practices to enhance a varied, balanced diet. The newest project is the ‘Community Garden Project’ which has evolved from the success of the ‘Family Garden project’ which provides valuable agricultural, hygiene and dietary knowledge. It also strives to promote sustainable practices to help the economy.

There is much hope for a brighter future in Timor Leste – reflected in successful projects and partnerships like that of HART and HIAM, and in Timor Leste becoming the first country in the Asia-Pacific to launch a zero hunger campaign. With continued hard work, commitment and funding, there is huge potential for Timor Leste to lead the Asia-Pacific to a successful future, free from the high levels of child malnutrition we see today.

Elizabeth Stanton

By Elizabeth Stanton

Elizabeth is currently interning at HART for three months having recently graduated from Durham University where she studied Physical Geography. Her interests include women’s empowerment and the relationship between environmental processes and development.

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