December 18, 2015

When it comes to global politics, the small nation of Timor-Leste is a relatively unknown entity. Having achieved independence from Indonesia just 13 years ago, it’s considered a “fragile state” that is still working to unravel the effects of centuries of colonial rule and decades of armed conflict.

But to development practitioners, such as those enrolled in SIPA’s Master of Public Administration in Development Practice program (MPA-DP, for short), Timor-Leste represents a rare opportunity to learn from and contribute to a nation that is rebuilding itself from the ground up.

“We sent our first student to Timor-Leste in the summer of 2011,” recalled Glenn Denning, a professor of practice in international and public affairs who directs the MPA-DP program.

That student, Maria Wang MPA-DP ’12, worked in the Ministry of Finance, where one of her outputs was a teaching case on national food security that Denning still uses in his Global Food Systems course. All told, 12 of Denning’s students have undertaken their three-month summer placements in Timor-Leste over the past five years.

“It’s a powerful and unique opportunity to observe and serve a young nation grappling with the challenges of achieving inclusive and sustainable development,” Denning says.

During the summer of 2015, four MPA-DP students undertook their field placement in Timor-Leste, working with nonprofits and government in a variety of sustainable development capacities.

Timor-Leste is “a microcosm of a relatively successful post-conflict development,” said Eliza Keller MPA-DP ’16, one of the students. “And because it’s so small, there’s a real opportunity to have an impact, particularly working in government.”

Emerging from conflict

Keller understands this firsthand, having spent the summer as a policy fellow for the g7+ Group of Fragile States, based out of the Ministry of Finance in Timor-Leste. The g7+ is a voluntary assembly of countries that are either experiencing conflict or have recently emerged from conflict, convened to share experiences and advocate for shared development goals. Last summer, Keller supported this advocacy work around the fragile state agenda for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which were ratified by the General Assembly in September.

Keller was drawn to this specific field placement because it provided a useful counterpoint to her previous experience working at a U.S. foreign aid agency.

“It was different—very different—coming from the donor perspective, and being dropped into a governmental organization,” she said. “I’ve learned that patience and respect for local country goals and processes is key to making progress.”

Toward food and nutritional security

One such objective for the nation of Timor-Leste is to create food and nutritional security for all its citizens. Timor-Leste has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world; more than half of its children under five years old are stunted.

Seeds of Life, an initiative of the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, is a critical stakeholder working to improve agricultural production.

“As long as there’s been Timor-Leste, there’s been Seeds of Life,” said Alexander Fertig MPA-DP ’16, who supported the program during his summer field placement. The program aims to “promote food security through seed security, so they focus on introducing high-yielding, high-quality seeds to food producers, small-scale farmers, stable food producers in East Timor.”

Fertig explained that the program was conceptualized in three phases over 15 years. The first consisted of developing and testing a core group of seeds that could serve the country’s food needs. The second was to get these seeds into the hands, and fields, of as many food producers as possible. The third phase—of which Seeds of Life is in the final year—is the sustainability phase.

“The idea is to commercialize this product they had developed over the last 15 years,” Fertig said.

Fertig’s primary responsibility for the summer was to conduct an assessment of this commercialization phase. He did this by synthesizing survey and focus group data from food producers around the country. And as part of his final deliverable for the field placement, Fertig chose to complete a short documentary film about the program.

To support the effort, Fertig collected more than three hours of interviews with farmers around East Timor and Seeds of Life staff. In the end the film touched on the history of food production in Timor-Leste, Seeds of Life, and its impact.

“It ended up being both an interesting documentary and a useful promotional tool for Seeds of Life,” Fertig said.

Video: Seeds of Life (12:34) 

Empowering disabled individuals

Another organization that works to develop Timor-Leste’s economy is the National Disabled People's Organization of Timor-Leste, or Ra'es Hadomi Timor Oan (RHTO), in the Timor language of Tetum. Angela Kohama MPA-DP ’16 helped the group implement a needs assessment on how well it was executing its mission, to empower disabled individuals to start their own businesses.

“Typically people with disabilities, or people with disabilities in their family, have a lower income than people without disabilities, especially in developing countries,” said Kohama, citing the importance of RHTO’s model, which is a network of self-help groups that deliver microcredit to local entrepreneurs who are disabled or have a disabled family member.

Kohama said she was surprised by the diversity of enterprises she encountered during her assessment. “People were creating flowerpots using organic materials, selling them next to flower stores, there were different groups that were starting inland fish farming, just different stuff that I didn’t expect. I thought it would be very traditional, it just wasn’t at all, and that was really cool,” she said.

Kohama also emphasized how productive an environment Timor-Leste is for development practitioners.

“It’s so small, and you know everybody personally, and when you need some kind of cross-sectorial capacity-building, or help for your organization, you can tap those resources,” she said, citing the example of the work RHTO does to help organizations like WaterAid improve their interactions with beneficiaries with disabilities.

Improving sanitation

A more entrenched development issue that MPA-DP students helped to tackle this summer was the country’s poor sanitation and hygiene conditions, which contribute to poor health and the high levels of child stunting. Arja Dayal MPA-DP ’16 worked with the Ministry of Health’s BESIK program to tackle the problem of open defecation. (BESIK is an acronym for Bee, Saneamentu no Ijiene iha Komunidade, which translates roughly to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene In Community.)

“BESIK incorporated community-led sanitation intervention,” said Dayal, “where they actually want to make the community a little disgusted about open defecation, which would trigger a change in their behavior and make them build their own latrines.”

The Ministry is hopeful that changing mindsets, rather than subsidizing the construction of latrines as they had done previously, will have a longer-lasting effect on Timor-Leste’s sanitation and hygiene.

Dayal’s main project for the summer was to conduct a sustainability analysis to determine the efficacy of the program: “After two years of being open-defecation free, are they actually sustaining that label?”

Dayal added that “it was not only a quantitative analysis that we were trying to build, but also the motivations and values behind” why people were or were not using latrines.

Dayal’s relationship with the project is ongoing; she is supervising the team from afar as they continue to gather data, and is planning to return to Timor-Leste in January for two weeks to assess their progress. After she returns to SIPA in January, she will spend next semester analyzing the data and putting together a final report for the Ministry of Health.

As part of this analysis, Dayal used some very specific skills she honed at SIPA, one of which was the creation of a proportional random stratified sampling, which she learned in her quantitative analysis classes.

Classes like these, she said, are helpful in that they “really teach you on one side, going into the technicalities, and on the other side, how do you communicate that in a very layman language.

“I was not at all surprised when BESIK asked Arja to continue supporting the project after her summer placement” said Denning, the MPA-DP program director. “Our students come to Timor with very practical skills and a great attitude, a combination that is highly valued by the local institutions”.

Denning added that BESIK, Seeds of Life, and the g7+ have all requested repeat placements following their initial experiences hosting MPA-DPs.

Learning inside and outside the classroom

Each of the MPA-DP students cited the relevance of their SIPA training to the work they did in their field placement.

“One of the assets of the MPA in Development Practice program is that there really is a focus on practical application of development theory,” said Keller. “My professors at SIPA were essential resources for me in the field. Over the summer I was in close contact with a few professors, who served as sounding boards to help me address challenges that came up in the work.”

Kohama cited the importance of learning that takes place at SIPA, but outside of the classroom. Learning can come from anywhere, she said, “whether it’s through brown bag lunches, or because your friend is showing you something you’ve never heard of before, instead of doing your econ problem set.”

Another example of a unique SIPA learning opportunity was when the prime minister of Timor-Leste, Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo, visited Columbia for the World Leaders Forum in September. The four MPA-DP students who had spent the summer in Timor-Leste were able to have a private meeting with the prime minister after his speech.

“Being in Timor-Leste, and particularly working for government, gave us exposure to a broad range of issues that face the country—so being able to actually discuss those in person with the prime minister and hear his perspective was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Keller said. “We were able to have a substantive conversation about where the country was going, and that’s a thing I could not imagine having had the opportunity to do anywhere else.”

— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16

Pictured above (from left): Angela Kohama, Alexandra Americanos MIA ’16, Glenn Denning, Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo, Alexander Fertig, Arja Dayal, Eliza Keller.