History of the Peace Corps in East Timor
East Timor (more correctly known as Timor Loro sa’e, or “Timor of the Rising Sun”) was the first new Peace Corps program of the 21st century. The invitation to the Peace Corps to work in East Timor originated with the provisional government and was transmitted to senior government and Peace Corps officials in the United States. President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address in January 2002, specifically mentioned East Timor in the context of a growing Peace Corps presence throughout the world.
Peace Corps staff worked to establish the fledgling Peace Corps program before the official independence of the new country on May 20, 2002. On May 21, former President Bill Clinton congratulated the Peace Corps on its entry into East Timor during his speech in the country’s capital as he officially opened the U.S. embassy and the U.S. mission in the country. The diplomatic note formally establishing the Peace Corps program was signed soon afterward by Nobel Peace Laureate and East Timorese Minister of Foreign Affairs José Ramos-Horta.
The first group of 19 Volunteers arrived in East Timor on June 21, 2002, as third-year extending Volunteers, representing more than 10 countries where Peace Corps Volunteers served.
As experienced Volunteers, they were able to prepare a foundation for the future. The first group of new Volunteers arrived in April 2003 to work in local governance and community health services promotion.Two more groups arrived in 2004 and one group in 2005, with Volunteers serving in both health promotion and rural community development.
As a new program, Peace Corps/East Timor is in an ongoing learning process about the country and its needs. As such, our two projects, community development and health promotion, continue to evolve. This means as new Peace Corps Volunteers you should expect that your project may change during your service, and that assignments may not precisely follow original formal job descriptions.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in East Timor
Administratively, East Timor is divided into 13 districts, each with a district capital where district administrations are located. Each district encompasses a number of subdistricts, much like counties in the United States. Within each subdistrict are villages and hamlets governed by either or both traditional and elected village chiefs. Since the start of Peace Corps in East Timor, we have been working to meet the basic community development needs in areas such as organizational development, health promotion, small-scale agriculture, water and sanitation, nutrition, environment, HIV/AIDs, and women’s and youth development. Peace Corps/East Timor’s community development project is integrated around several objectives:
- Increased participation of rural communities and community-based organizations in defining, implementing, and managing grass-roots project activities;
- Enhancement of traditional food and livelihood security strategies through training and orientation in gardening, small-income generation, and nutrition;
- Greater and more significant participation of women and youth in all facets of community-level projects and development activities; and
- An emphasis on collaborative projects and activities that link communities and organizations and promote self-reliance and decreased dependency on outside donors. The 13 administrative districts also host district health management centers, village clinics, and mobile clinics. These provide preventive and treatment services. While the main job of district health management teams is responding to immediate health needs, Volunteers help these teams with preventive health education and promotion activities. Volunteers target community members, especially youth, women, and children because these sectors of the population are usually the most in need and the benefits that accrue are typically the most dramatic, long-term, and sustainable.
Volunteers also focus on capacity-building with health service providers. In East Timor, the legacy of the Indonesian occupation means that most current service providers have never done health extension work and often face many other challenges in the management of their everyday work.
In addition to community development and health promotion, Peace Corps/East Timor focuses on “global initiatives” that cut across project lines and provide secondary work opportunities for Volunteers in all project areas. These initiatives include information and communications technology, HIV/AIDS education and prevention, girls’ education, and the environment. Other areas that may be avenues for Peace Corps support in the future include agroforestry and cooperative/small business promotion.
The development needs in rural East Timor are enormous and cover a wide range of project areas. Volunteers are encouraged to identify “secondary projects” in their communities that address real needs as well as tap into their own particular interests and backgrounds.
Most Volunteers work with youth—supporting and training youth groups, doing geography projects, and developing after-school activities such as sports clubs. Other popular secondary project areas are teaching English and computer skills, especially to women and youth. Several Volunteers are strengthening small community groups, from women’s clubs to a pottery cooperative. Still others are doing small-scale demonstration gardening and dry-land permaculture.