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Timor-Leste now


Getting a Full Count

Innovative program socializes census data to spur development and accountability

Timorese children

When surveyors canvassed every one of Timor-Leste’s 442 villages in 2010 to collect data, they quickly discovered that no two villages looked alike. For a country eager to develop, it became clear that every community needed to customize its own development agenda to fit their local conditions.

That is the vision behind the Census Fo Fila Fali, “Giving Back the Census,” a nationwide and ground-breaking project – believed to be the first of its kind worldwide – that takes figures from the 2010 census and socializes them within every community. The census, which took the national count, is then forwarded back to communities to help them articulate their specific local development needs, assess progress and take ownership over the overall process. The reports were presented in numerous full-day workshops across the country for community and civil society leaders.

Localizing development was then linked to national objectives. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmáo outlined nine goals that align with the findings from the Census. During his speech in November, Prime Minister Gusmáo pledged that by 2015, Timor-Leste intends to implement a primary health care system, leading each village to have its own health clinic. He added that 93% of Timorese children will have access to a quality basic education and by 2020 all children will have access to a complete secondary education and 75% of the rural population will have access to drinkable water.

Local leadership is key, Prime Minister Gusmáo said.

“No one knows the reality of each suco (village) better than the local population,” he said. “It is our hope that this direct involvement of community leaders will speed up the process of our country and give every citizen a role in nation building.”

“It is our hope that this direct involvement of community leaders will speed up the [development] process of our country and give every citizen a role in nation building.” Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmáo

The willingness to produce a census and undertake a nationwide effort to train local leaders to implement development plans was born from Timor-Leste’s own experience with foreign aid. Donor organizations often used old data and did not sufficiently consult with local partners, creating inefficiencies and even blocking progress. Minister of Finance Emilia Pires said that fragile states are often in a constant flux and their progress is not easily captured in the data.

The 2010 census represents the most upto-date and wide-reaching effort capturing information from every village in Timor-Leste – the first time in more than 400 years. The 8,000 project volunteers and civic leaders conducted the survey – sometimes walking seven hours to reach remote locations.

Through the initiative, every one of Timor-Leste’s 442 villages in each of the country’s 13 districts has a report that includes information in key areas, including population, education, health, employment, agriculture, water and sanitation, electricity, mortality rates and poverty levels.

“As they say information is power,” said Minister of Finance Emilia Pires. “Most governments collect censuses around the world, but do they give it back to the people in a format that will help them make decisions about their lives? We talk about people taking part in the development of their country, children going to school...How do parents know if progress is being made if they are not aware of the indicators they are being measured against? This is what the Census Fo Fila Fali is all about: A very powerful tool for development.”

The reports are readable and easy to understand and offer an illuminating profile of Timor-Leste. The census found that the current population is 1,066,409, with more 29.6% living in urban areas. According to the report, 18% of the nation’s population lives in capital Dili and 70.4% living in the rural areas. Other urban areas include Ermera with a population of 117,064, and Baucau is home to 111,694 people.

When so much of development is hard to quantify and even when measured prone to inaccuracy, the census provides Timor-Leste with a deeper understanding of where it stands on its development goals.

The government also provided training to help local communities interpret social indicators and identify the relationship of various indicators to the MDGs.

Statistics from the report show that the infant mortality rate for Timor-Leste is 44 per 1,000 live births in 2009. This means that Timor-Leste has surpassed its MDG 2015 target rate of 53 per 1,000 live births and will now be setting a new target to pursue. Another finding from the census indicated that the maternal mortality ratio is 557 per 100,000, still short of the 2015 target of less than 252 per 100,000.

According to the census, literacy in English, Portuguese and Tetum, the local language, has increased significantly. Children in urban areas are nearly four times more likely to be enrolled in secondary school than their peers in rural areas.

“The country is changing, and the objective is for people to be aware,” said Antonio Freitas, Director General of the Ministry of Finance.

children in line at a church

Setting the Example

As the chair of the g7+, a consortium of 19 fragile and conflict-affected states across the globe, Timor-Leste has encouraged other countries to begin tabulating their populations and development needs using itself as an example. Pires said an accurate data set is essential to policy making.

“We do not speak on things we do not practice ourselves,” Pires said. “Now, this is what is happening in Timor-Leste, and this is what we advocate in the g7+ forum.”


Goodbye Conflict, Welcome Development