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Achieving SDGs: Improving Education in Timor Leste

Achieving SDGs: Improving Education in Timor Leste

Education is a driving force behind development work and is seen as one of the most important investments for individuals to build agency and lift themselves out of poverty. The World Economic Forum goes as far to state that investing in education can help achieve the aims of all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The benefits of quality education are well known, but what makes this goal so difficult to achieve? Poverty seems like the obvious answer, especially considering the cycle between poverty and education. Yet the barriers to quality education are more complex.

Peer partnerships, like Oaktree’s with NGO Ba Futuru in Timor-Leste, are key to breaking this cycle and help us reflect on the state of education in developing countries. Ba Futuru aims to empower Timorese communities through diverse education initiatives and have been partnered with us since 2006. A few weeks ago, I presented a workshop in Brisbane on development challenges to 50 high school students, where we discussed some of the socio-political challenges facing developing nations. The consistent solution that surfaced from these young high school participants was the need for education in developing contexts. In Timor Leste, the barriers to achieving quality education are far-reaching and our work here has helped highlight some of these barriers and the reasoning behind their existence.

Colonization barriers

Portugal colonised Timor in the 16th century and the impacts of their invasion continues to influence the country’s education system. When Indonesia annexed Timor-Leste, Indonesian became the nation teaching language, Post-independence, Indonesian and Portuguese are still widely used in school systems, and Indonesian is still the only language spoken at universities, despite the indigenous language of Tetun being spoken by locals. In the 2009 early grade reading assessment, more than 70% of students at the end of Grade 1 were unable to read a single word of a simple text in Portuguese and the native Tetun language. This figure falls to 40% in Grade 2. For students in Grade 3, approximately one third of students could read 60 words per minute and answer simple comprehension questions correctly.

Cultural barriers

Frictions exist between Western ideals and Timorese beliefs and attitudes. Physical violence is common in the classroom, and is compounded by Timor-Leste’s lesser emphasis on children’s rights, creating a cyclical relationship into adulthood. Achieving gender equality in the classroom is also hindered by wider sexist attitudes, by which girls are more likely to be pressured to suspend their education to fulfil traditional roles. This particularly considering early marriage is common in girls, including dowries (or “balarke”), further exacerbating the commodification of Timorese women.

Cycle of education

The education style taught to children is arguably stagnant in where methods used to teach children involve mostly rote-learning. Curriculum materials are also not distributed timely and sufficiently. Apart from a lack of student engagement for this reason, disengagement is reflected in the attrition rates in adults. Along with poor teacher retention rates, only 18% of the adult Timorese population having received a finalised secondary education since country’s independence in 2001.

Lack of government resources

Poor resources can be divided into infrastructure, teacher quality, and learning resources. This includes limited school buildings, restricted resources for teachers (including no relief teaching, lack of training centres, living in poverty), and being far from their support networks. In addition to teachers lacking basic knowledge and equipment, there is, in some cases, teachers who have not completed secondary education.

Overall, the achievements of organisations such as Ba Futuru can be analysed in comparison to the targets of ‘Quality Education’ outlined in SDGs vs. the Millennium Development Goal of asking for universal primary education by 2015. The ability to achieve these goals is vague. What does ‘quality’ mean? What does ‘quality’ education looks like? On their website, the United Nations ask for clearer goals by 2030 and programs like Ba Futuru highlight how we are taking tangible steps to achieve this
goal. For instance: By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through
international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing States’ – UN 2015  Ba Futuru is part of the “Inspiring Young Learners through Quality Education” program, which builds on teacher training modules. Through this program, Ba Futuru has trained 150 teachers from over 40 child care centres and over 4000 children have benefited from this project. From the teacher training modules discussed above, they have
created and implemented 8 rounds of teacher-training modules.

‘By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training…’ – UN 2015 The School Management Committees (SMC), incorporated across schools in Timor, have emphasised the need for female specific engagement. This includes equal gender representation in committees, encouragement of female teachers, and further collection of gender informed practices. A gender reviewed project proposal has also occurred between Ba Futuru and Oaktree.

‘Build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all’ – UN 2015 Through Ba Futuru, students learn non-violent conflict resolution and classroom management techniques and their attitudes towards utilising violence against students will be shifted. Additionally, the adherence to non-violent classroom management will be reinforced through the development of codes of conduct. This brings accountability to the teachers by establishing standards and policies.

Investments in education should be seen as imperative in achieving the SDGs and overcoming poverty so that quality education can be accessed by all. Through the amalgamation of history, culture, government, and indeed social cycles, the current issues in Timorese education can be better clarified and understood in the face of SDG targets. If quality education can be prized so highly by Australian students, then it makes sense that youth organisations should carry out work that reflects the same values Australian youth strive to promote in their own country; small, grassroots initiatives that facilitate youth education and empowerment.

Featured image: From Oaktree highlighting Sustainable Development Goal nr 4 empowering young people in Timor Leste (credit:

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Olivia McLardie Hore

Olivia McLardie-Hore is a Monash University Honours student writing a thesis on sex trafficking in South-East Asia, and a Communications Officer on Oaktree's International Engagement team. She has recently been running the Social Enterprise branch at Monash SEED and is interested in a future with the Not-for-Profit sector. In her spare time she watches 'Stranger Things', plays the saxophone, and reads Hillary Clinton autobiographies.

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