UN leaves, but E. Timor still facing rampant poverty
by Raimundos Oki
Dili, Dec 28, 2012 (AFP) - The UN winds up its peacekeeping mission Monday after 13 years in Asia's youngest nation East Timor, with the country hoping to overcome its bloody past and rampant poverty to stand on its own feet.
East Timor this year conducted largely peaceful elections, voting in a new president and parliament, as the country marked a decade of formal independence and paved the way for the foreign forces to leave.
But as the last remaining UN police and troops trickle home, the fragile democracy is still struggling with widespread malnutrition, high unemployment and maternal mortality rates that are among the worst in the world.
East Timor was occupied by Indonesia for 24 years, with some 183,000 people dying from fighting, disease and starvation before the half-island state voted for independence in 1999 in a bloody referendum, prompting the first UN mission.
There is little concern about renewed violence in the immediate future, yet few employment opportunities, crushing poverty and a rapidly expanding population could still threaten peace in the long term, analysts say.
"There's always in this situation the potential for something serious to go wrong," George Quinn from the Australian National University told AFP.
More than 40 percent of young Timorese are jobless, according to AusAID, and although the predominantly Catholic nation has a small population, the fertility rate of 6.5 per woman is the world's fourth-highest, UN data shows.
Despite $1.5 billion of aid pouring into the nation of 1.1 million people over the last decade and abundant offshore oil and gas reserves, some 41 percent of the population live on less than the local poverty line of 88 cents a day.
In and around the capital Dili, barefoot children can be seen eating scraps from the ground in slums, and the pace of life remains slow, with vendors making a pittance at fruit and vegetable markets.
World Bank data from 2010 showed 45.3 percent of children under five were malnourished, up from 40.6 percent in 2002, while on the UN's human development index, East Timor ranks 147th out of 187 nations, below Pakistan and Bangladesh, and well below the regional average.
East Timor's economy has also become visibly two-tier since 1999 -- there are those raking in US dollars from government infrastructure projects in urban areas, while the majority are subsistence farmers in far-flung villages.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao insisted after his July re-election that energy revenue would transform East Timor "from being an undeveloped, low-income country by 2030, by making use of all our material and human potential".
While the country's Petroleum Fund has swollen to $10.5 billion and makes up between 80 to 90 percent of government revenue, critics point out the reserves are fast falling as they call for diversification of the economy.
Rural Timorese also complain the money has not changed their lives, saying the funds are channelled to the city through infrastructure projects.
"East Timor has always had a problem with properly disbursing its income, and that problem still persists," Quinn said.
Despite the problems still facing East Timor, the departure of the remaining UN forces -- which numbered 1,600 at the mission's peak -- nevertheless underscores the progress the country has made in recent years.
The withdrawal has been welcomed by most, especially leaders who insisted on the country's ability to handle its own security well before responsibility was handed back to national police in October.
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