Timor-Leste: How Food Shortages are Affecting Development

By Alice Gould
Timor-Leste is one of the world’s newest countries, only claiming independence in 2002. Its government, which is progressive towards development, and its very young population (the median age of Timor-Leste is 18.9) have the potential to develop the country through a strong work force and commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. However, food insecurity and its results are negatively affecting Timor-Leste’s capacity to develop.

The right to food is established in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to food is incredibly important, both in terms of human dignity and development as it necessitates the realisation of many other rights. In fact, “Zero Hunger” is the second goal listed within the Sustainable Development Goals. This primary placement demonstrates the global recognition that in order to achieve development, people must have adequate access to food and nutrients.

“No single reason can point to why such food insecurity exists in Timor-Leste.”

In Timor-Leste, food insecurity and hunger are highly prevalent issues. A report from the Global Hunger Index published in 2017 ranked Timor-Leste as 110th out of 119 countries for food security. Despite this drastically low result, the lands of Timor-Leste are fairly fertile, which contradicts with the food insecurity suffered by the country. In fact, no single reason can point to why such food insecurity exists in Timor-Leste, but instead a multitude of interconnected, circular socio-cultural factors all play a role in perpetuating food insecurity and undernutrition.[1]

To begin with, agriculture in Timor-Leste is underdeveloped and has low productivity compared to neighbouring countries.[2] The lack of development and productive agricultural methods means that agriculture and farming are unprepared for the frequent changes in climate: for example, there are predictable, recurrent and severe food shortages for several months every wet season. Another primary reason is poverty. It is estimated that almost 42% of Timor-Leste’s population live in poverty.[3] These two factors work collectively to worsen the situation: food shortages make food more expensive, which means that people have to spend more money, therefore falling deeper into poverty, leading them to not have enough money to buy food, leading to further food insecurity.

Another factor leading to undernutrition in Timor-Leste is that of cultural taboos, traditions and poor education surrounding nutrition. One study found that whilst the average Timorese person consumed enough calories, their diet lacked the necessary nutrients and meals often consisted of just a staple food (for example, a plate of rice). Once again, poverty could also play a role, as animal products, whilst accessible, are often prioritised to sell rather than eat.

Hunger is known to have enduring effects on people’s physical and mental health. Therefore, food insecurity has a drastic effect on the population of a country, which in turn has an effect on the country’s development. One result of food insecurity reported by the Global Hunger Index is that in Timor-Leste, the proportion of the population suffering from undernourishment between 2014-2018 was 26.9%.[4] Perhaps, considerably more detrimental are the long-term effects of undernutrition. 50% of the population is affected by stunted growth caused by lack of food, one of the highest rates in the world.[5] Whilst this is more prevalent in the poorer parts of the populace, within the wealthiest top fifth of the population 36% of children also suffer from stunting, meaning that poverty, whilst playing a role, cannot be said to be the sole factor.[6] Additionally, undernutrition is the highest cause of premature death and disability in Timor-Leste and has a role in over 25% of deaths of children under 18 years old.[7]

Undernourishment is both a symptom and cause of underdevelopment. As well as the previously mentioned long-term effects of undernutrition, undernutrition in children can also lead to cognitive underdevelopment. Both of these factors can contribute to children not reaching their full potential in their education, which puts them in an inferior position when entering the labour market. Similarly, adults in the work place will not be able to work to their full capacity if they are struggling with or have been affected by undernutrition and its symptoms. Again, this adds to a cycle of underperformance and poverty which in turn impedes Timor-Leste’s ability to develop. With many individuals denied the possibility to fully participate in their education, physically stunted, mentally underdeveloped and still left to confront the visceral reality of hunger, the work force cannot have the same power. This smaller work force and loss in productivity, both directly related to food insecurity and the related issues, will have a direct effect on Timor-Leste’s ability to develop.

“Undernourishment is both a symptom and cause of underdevelopment.”

In addition to losing productivity through labour, undernutrition imposes direct costs for treating physical symptoms and related illnesses. In fact, recent estimates place the cost of undernutrition at 1-2% of Timor-Leste’s GDP every year through poor work performance, loss of productivity and costs related to healthcare.[8] This means medical expenses relating to food insecurity alone take US$41 million which otherwise could be put towards development and strengthening institutions in Timor-Leste.

Another characteristic of food insecurity and low food production that negatively affects the development of Timor-Leste is that a high percentage of food must be imported. Money that could be kept domestically is instead sent to other countries with a food surplus. As well as taking money out of Timor-Leste, buying imported food is also more expensive. Again, this burden disproportionately affects low-income and poverty-stricken households.

A positive sign is that the government does appear to recognise and attempt to end food insecurity. Timor-Leste was the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to adopt the UN’s Zero Hunger Challenge in 2014. In the government’s 2014 National Food and Nutrition Security Policy, the government recognises that “[f]ood and nutrition security underpins national development” and has a vision of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.[9]

Alice studied her undergraduate degree in Law with European Law at the University of Nottingham in the UK with her Eramus in Lund University in Sweden. Since graduating in 2016 she has worked in a death penalty clinic in the US, an educational human rights NGO in Georgia and as an English teacher in China. Her interests include LGBTI and gender rights.

[1] Agnes Magyar, HART, Malnutrition in Timor-Leste, Oct 2014 < https://www.hart-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Malnutrition-in-Timor-Leste-HART-Briefing.pdf >

[2] Caleb Gorton, Future Directions International, Food and Nutrition Security in Timor-Leste: Challenges and Prospects < http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/food-and-nutrition-security-in-timor-leste-challenges-and-prospects/>

[3] United Nations Development Program, Timor Leste: Poverty, < http://www.tl.undp.org/content/timor_leste/en/home/poverty.html >

[4] Global Hunger Index, The Inequalities of Hunger, Oct 2017 < https://www.globalhungerindex.org/pdf/en/2017.pdf>

[5] Ibid

[6] Caleb Gorton (no 2)

[7] Ibid

[8] World Food Program, Timor-Leste  <https://www1.wfp.org/countries/timor-leste>

[9] República Democrática de Timor-Leste, National Food and Nutrition Security Policy, May 2014 < https://www.laohamutuk.org/Agri/2017/NationalFoodNutritionSecurityPolicyMay2014en.pdf >