Timor-Leste Success

Why It Won't be the Next Failed State

East Timor's students celebrate the country's seventh independence day anniversary in its capital, Dili, May 20, 2009. (Lirio Da Fonseca / Courtesy Reuters)

The headline of Madhu Narasimhan’s recent piece (“The World’s Youngest Failed State,” August 12, 2014) is dramatic, but his assertion is unfounded and untrue. Over the years, more than a few armchair critics have prognosticated the demise of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, also affectionately known as East Timor. But nation builders do not indulge notions of failure.

Just 12 years old, Timor-Leste, which emerged from 24 years of brutal occupation and four centuries of colonial exploitation, is at peace. It has a stable, democratically elected government, and it is in the process of economic development. Timor-Leste has the fastest-growing economy in the Pacific, with an 11.5 percent five-year compound annual growth, according to 2014 figures from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. In 2014, the United Nations raised Timor-Leste from a “Low Human Development Country” to a “Medium Human Development Country” in its Human Development Report, alongside South Africa, India, and Indonesia. In the past decade, more than 2,000 schools have been built and rehabilitated across the country, and life expectancy has risen to 68 years, an increase of 11 years since independence. In just nine years, Timor-Leste’s sovereign wealth fund has grown to $16.6 billion, and prudent management has yielded higher returns. By almost any measure, these are not manifestations of doom. Like any developing nation, Timor-Leste faces many challenges. But is it a failed state? Certainly not.

A WEALTH OF RESOURCES

Timor-Leste is blessed with natural resources that give it the means to develop. We in the country’s government do not take these gifts for granted, nor do we assume that Timor-Leste’s oil and gas will last forever. But to cast a pall over the entire country, proclaiming that the end is nigh just as Timor-Leste makes progress in building itself up, is vicious and counterproductive. Pronouncements that Timor-Leste is imminently running out of oil and time are ill informed and illogical.

In fact, off Timor-Leste’s southern coast, in the Tasi Mane (the Timor Sea), are rich hydrocarbon reserves that Timor-Leste is tapping alongside Australia. It is estimated that the Timor Sea will yield an additional $60 billion in goods and services. Timor-Leste has begun the multiyear Tasi Mane Project to further develop its domestic petroleum industry and eventually generate hundreds of thousands of valuable jobs.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis