Introducing Timor-Leste

I arrived in Timor-Leste about a week ago to begin a Kiva Fellowship, and you might be wondering where the heck that is. So I'll try to fill you in on some background while I ease into the place.

I like maps. Here's one of the world:

It's Way Our There
Timor Is Way Out There (Unless You Live in Australia)

The Regional Context - Southeast Asia

I've traveled through SE Asia quite a bit, and I really like the region. It is exotic. Some places are truly Paradise - there are apples, serpents and even the occasional sinner seeking (or transferring) knowledge.

A few cities are westernized and modern, and it's hard to remember you're in Asia. But most places have a very different feel. The various cultures have lived in relatively close proximity for... well, forever, but travel has been difficult, so there are still very diverse regional identities - language, food, beliefs, traditions, even the weather.

The region has seen empires come and go, waves of invaders and colonists, been in the middle of world conflict, and shared in more peaceful cross-cultural exchanges as international trade has blossomed. But some places are still nearly untouched.

Hang On, Another Map Is Coming

Timor is in SE SE Asia
Timor is in SE SE Asia

Even if you haven't been to the area, or can't find them on a map without searching a bit, you have heard the names. The Asian Tigers - the economic tigers - of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have done well in the global economy.

Like the rest of the world, income and wealth distribution is very uneven. The per capita GDP's of Singapore (intellectual and manufacturing hub) and Brunei (think oil) are higher than the USA. Malaysia, the third largest regional economy, earns 1/3 the US figure. Thailand's is half of that. Indonesia, with a roaring economy (16th largest GDP, and the fourth largest world population) has a per capita GDP that is half of Thailand's - one tenth that of the US.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are rich places for some people, but poor for most.

Timor-Leste - the first new country of this century - ranks nearly last, economically. Among all of Asia, its 2011 per capita GDP of  US$4.50 per day (3% of the US figure) places it just ahead of Myanmar, Afghanistan and Nepal, and just behind Bangladesh. And this figure is inflated due to the large UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) presence, of which I am a part. It also includes oil wealth which is the only means the government has to fund itself.

More maps:

The Indonesian Archipelago

                   The Indonesian Archipelago
Finally, Timor
Finally, Timor - A Crocodile?

Here Comes Some History to Complement the Geography

Partly due to history, but perhaps mostly due to geography Timor has always been a backwater. The island is the 5th largest of the 17,000 islands making up  the Indonesian archipelago and is near the far eastern end (almost in Papua New Guinea).  About the size of Massachusetts, or a bit smaller than Belgium, it never figured very large in Dutch or Portuguese colonial ambitions. There wasn't much to take except sandalwood - the only place on earth where sandalwood forests exist today.

Remnants of the Portuguese
Remnants of the Portuguese on Dili Harbor

The only lasting legacy the Europeans left behind was the political division of the island into east and west (and some influence on the local language). The Dutch on the west end of the island had a toe hold in Kupang, and the Portuguese in the East at Dili. Their colonial administration centers were just too far away to care - the Dutch were in Jakarta/Batavia 1200 miles to the west; the Portuguese center in Malacca on the Malay Peninsula was even farther.

Fast Forward a Few Centuries

A major consequence of Japanese expansion in WWII was the dismemberment of European colonial control. Local populations were startled at how easily the Japanese swept out their oppressors. So, after the war independence fever hit the region defying European return - Malaysia, Singapore & Burma/Myanmar (British), Vietnam & Cambodia (French), Philippines (US), and Indonesia (Dutch) ultimately became independent nations.

When the Dutch formally acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949, the western end of Timor went with it.

Independence for the East?  .... Not Yet

The eastern end of the island remained in Portuguese hands until the 1974 military coup (Portugal's "Carnation Revolution") ousted dictator Antonio Salazar and brought democracy to Portugal. One reason for the coup was continued conscription to fight wars in the colonies.


But 1975 did not bring freedom to East Timor. Indonesia had ambitions on the entire island and the absence of the Portuguese and lack of international interest allowed them to enforce a long and bloody occupation. There were pro- and anti-Indonesian militia factions warring among themselves, civilian massacres of thousands and a civilian exodus of hundreds of thousands. A 1997 Asian financial crisis increased social unrest prompting the UN to send peacekeepers (mostly Australian). In 1999 a referendum on independence only fueled factional violence.


Independence was finally achieved in May of 2002 - Repúblika Demokrátika Timor-Leste becoming the first new nation of the 21st century.  But internal rankling and a presidential assassination attempt kept the country in an anxious state into 2008. The UN just left in December of 2012 after a long transition of security control to local forces.


Timor-Leste is poor and always has been. Today, oil and gas account for half the exports. Coffee  - Starbucks buys 80-90% of it - makes up a quarter. There's a small traditional crafts industry, and a small tourist market - mostly for Scuba divers plunging into the rich waters just offshore (you can drive to some nice dive spots).

But most of the population live as subsistence farmers. You remember that $4.50 per day per capita GDP (which includes oil and gas exports)?  Well, about 70% of the population earns less than $2 per day.

And that is why Kiva has sent me here.

Specifically, I'm working with a local micro-finance institution called Tuba Rai Metin. In the local Tetun language that means "Stand Firmly on the Ground"  which is an apt monicker for only one of two micro-finance institutions to adapt to, evolve and survive the violence and uncertainty of the last decade. From its beginning in 2001 with support from Save the Children Federation it has grown to have a loan portfolio of about $5M serving 7,000 borrowers (all women) and offers financial products such as business and agricultural loans, micro-insurance, and deposit savings.

You'll be hearing more about this.

Headquarters - Tuba Rai Metin
Headquarters - Tuba Rai Metin

About the author

Rick Beck

Rick grew up and spent most of his professional life in the eastern US - New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania. Even though he worked in what might be viewed as a stodgy industrial business in the US for 18 years (designing and manufacturing electrical distribution equipment) he has always traveled and now claims to have visited more than 100 countries. From mud-crawling in the caves of Costa Rica in 1982, his most recent extended adventure was a 4300km solo cycling trip from Malta to Dublin including the length of the Pyrenees. He just got the first entry stamp in his fourth (or is it 5th?) passport on a birding trip to Belize. His work for a US manufacturing firm took him for short trips with joint development partners to South Korea, France and Germany, and to manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic and Brazil. More recently he spent two years developing an engineering design center in Suzhou, China to design products for the Chinese market. Working and getting things done in a foreign culture have brought the best rewards, and he is looking forward to applying his managerial skills to assisting Kiva partners. Besides all that work, he is an avid photographer (since back when there was film!), skis, snowshoes, and flies airplanes.