Monday, April 03, 2006

A free East Timor struggles on

“The winning of independence has not been the panacea that will rid the world's newest nation of all its problems. Dan Murphy says he used to "stack the bodies" in his clinic in Dili in 1999 when he was one of only a few doctors in then Indonesian controlled East Timor.

Four years after the tiny territory gained its independence, the American doctor says he has not seen much change in the health of the Timorese. "I still see malnourished children. I still see tuberculosis, malaria, and the spread of HIV is unimaginable," he says. "I'd like to say that the health of the people has improved, but in some areas it actually got worse."

The sick start queueing to see the tall, bearded man they call "Dr Dan" in Dili's misty pre-dawn outside a cluster of ramshackle buildings that serve as his clinic. By nightfall, 61-year-old Dr Murphy and several volunteer doctors will have seen up to 500 people. "Are people happier now? Yes. In the Indonesian time people were frightened … numb with fright," Dr Murphy says.

"Now people go to the drinking wells and talk. Even though they don't have a lot and life is a struggle they are not under anybody's boot. But the problems continue despite people gaining their freedom."

Dr Murphy says one of the biggest concerns is a population explosion — 5 per cent last year. "More and more people are sleeping in little houses with poor ventilation and hygiene — these are perfect conditions for the spread of infectious diseases," he says. "Not much has changed in the mountain villages. And in Dili and the towns, people still can't find jobs. Only an elite few get to work for the foreign companies."

United Nations statistics show that freedom has not alleviated widespread poverty in the world's newest nation and, in fact, it might be worsening. The UN Development Program's National Human Development Report 2006 reveals that half the population lacks safe drinking water, 60 of 1000 infants born alive die before their first birthday. Life expectancy is only 55 years of age and per capita income — at $US1 ($A1.40) a day — is declining. But the report says that East Timor can still achieve its goal of reducing poverty by one-third, largely by raising production in agricultural areas where most of the population still lives.

The country's poverty is not deepening because of a lack of money. Existing oil and gas projects in Timor Sea will deliver an estimated $US8 billion by 2030. But the problem is that government departments, built from ashes since 1999, do not have the human or institutional capacity to spend the money on desperately needed services.”

Source: The Age (from UNOTIL Public Information Office, Daily Media Review)

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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