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Improving health and education in Timor-Leste

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Foreign Minister Bob Carr last week paid his first official visit to Dili and saw first hand some of the activities funded under Australia’s development partnership with Timor-Leste.

Since 1999, Australia has contributed more than $1 billion in humanitarian and development aid to Timor-Leste to help the country get back on its feet after decades of conflict.

During a visit to the National Eye Centre, Senator Carr inspected the facility that was constructed in 2011 and equipped with Australian support. Senator Carr met with the Timorese Health Minister, Dr Sergio Lobo, as well as specialists from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) who are working closely with their Timorese counterparts to pass on much-needed medical skills and expertise. One such doctor is Marcelino Correia, Timor-Leste’s first ophthalmologist, who completed his Masters in Ophthalmology at Sydney University in 2009 under an AusAID scholarship and has benefitted from several years of RACS mentoring since returning to Dili.

‘I was thrilled to meet with Dr Marcelino and other Timorese doctors and see them working so closely with Australian-funded specialists to deliver quality health care to patients who desperately need help,’ Senator Carr said.

‘To me, this type of cooperation symbolises the Australia – Timor-Leste development partnership. It’s about Australians and Timorese working together to help the poor and most vulnerable.’

More than 40,000 Timorese over the age of 40 continue to live with avoidable blindness typically caused by cataract blindness, glaucoma and poor nutrition. In rural Timor-Leste, where large extended families often rely on a sole breadwinner, the loss of an adult worker to avoidable blindness can plunge dozens of people into poverty. In such cases, the impact is dire as access to food and healthcare drops and children are removed from school early.

Australia is working to help fix this problem. In 2012, AusAID provided $572,000 to RACS and the Fred Hollows Foundation to deliver eye-health care at the National Eye Centre and to provide outreach services to the districts, delivering treatment to the three quarters of Timor-Leste’s population who live outside the capital.

This support builds on the $2.6 million Australia has contributed to eye-health care in Timor-Leste since 2002. This support has enabled more than 5,000 sight restoring operations, tens of thousands of screening examinations and the distribution of thousands of pairs of glasses to those in need.

Education support

Senator Carr also paid a visit to the headquarters of the Alola Foundation, a Timorese NGO, to see how AusAID support is making a difference to the delivery of quality education in Timor-Leste, particularly for young girls.

While there, Senator Carr awarded a group of girls with scholarships to study at high school and complete their secondary education. These girls are part of a group of 208 who are receiving Australian assistance in 2012.

‘Australians can be proud that we are helping give these girls an opportunity to pursue their education and improve their lives,’ Senator Carr said.

Under a three-year agreement, AusAID is providing $1.45 million to the Alola Foundation to improve the lives of women and young girls.

This funding supports scholarships, teacher training and the publication of primary school books in Tetum and other indigenous languages to help children learn in their mother tongue.

In addition to supporting Alola, AusAID is also a significant contributor to Timor-Leste’s education sector, supporting the Timor-Leste government to improve the quality of schooling for young people. ‘Australian support has helped build or repair more than 2,000 classrooms, distribute more than a million learning materials, install thousands of desks and chairs and provide scholarships to study in Australia for hundreds of Timorese students,’ said Senator Carr.

Yet despite increased attention from the Timorese government and its partners, education outcomes in Timor-Leste continue to sadly under-perform, particularly for women. Only half of Timorese women are literate and only about two girls in every ten go on to study at high school.

Reversing this trend is a priority for Australia, in partnership with the government of Timor-Leste. This is why Australia continues to increase its support to education and will double its current contribution by 2015.

‘This increased funding to education reflects Australia’s commitment to the future of Timor-Leste. It will allow more kids to go to school, stay at school and learn more effectively.’
The hope is that the children Australia is helping today will follow in the footsteps of people like Dr Marcelino and become Timor-Leste’s leaders of tomorrow.

More information
Australia’s aid program with Timor-Leste