Article originally published in Tui Motu Interislands Magazine
After decades of occupation and violence, the small half-island nation of Timor-Leste is slowly finding peace. During the time of Indonesian occupation, approximately 200,000 Timorese, one quarter of the population at the time, lost their lives and almost all the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. When Indonesia violently withdrew from the country in 1999 after a UN-sponsored referendum, up to 95 per cent of schools were destroyed and the majority of the country’s qualified Indonesian teachers evacuated the country, leaving very few trained teachers.
While Timor-Leste has made significant gains since becoming a sovereign nation in 2002, many challenges still remain, particularly in the education sector. The Timorese government, alongside various local and international NGOs, community-based organisations, and thousands of un-trained and volunteer teachers saw the need and commenced the onerous process of rebuilding the education system from the ground-up. The desire for quality education was also heeded by the Church in Timor-Leste, who invited the Sisters of St Joseph from Australia some 20 years ago to work with the Timorese people in developing education resources in the local Tetun language. This eventually led to the establishment of Mary MacKillop Today in Timor-Leste, formerly known as the Mary MacKillop East Timor Mission, and the development of a teacher-training program. The local Tetun language was re-engaged in the nation-building and many of the books and resources developed by Mary MacKillop Today in Tetun are now part of the national education curriculum.
Education is much more than learning to read and write; it has the ability to transform lives by giving individuals the opportunity to reach their full potential and contribute positively to society. The transformative impact of education in promoting sustainable and community-led development was acknowledged in Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 which aims to ensure all citizens have access to a “quality education that will allow them to participate in the economic, social and political development of [the] nation.” In effect, education is the core of subsidiarity and, as well as being a fundamental human right, education is a powerful driver of development, helping to reduce poverty, improve health outcomes, and achieve gender equality, peace, and stability.
Today, Mary MacKillop Today’s dedicated local staff continue to work at the grassroots to empower whole communities by training teachers and parents in the most remote and underserviced regions of the country. The community-led mission that began with the work of the Sisters has now developed into a locally-led NGO with over 30 Timorese staff, including a Timorese Country Director.
When conducting international development work, it is easy to see people living in poverty as inherently lacking ability; to strip them of human dignity by reducing them to objects of pity and mere recipients of aid. It’s also very easy to fall into the trap of making decisions and assumptions about what these individuals and communities need without consulting those who are most affected.
It is harder, longer and slower to walk alongside those we serve, in subsidiarity; to ensure people are not treated as recipients of aid but as active participants in their own lives. To deliver programs where people are empowered to make decisions that affect them, and enhance the decision making abilities of the whole community. This path may be more difficult, but the fruits of this kind of work are bountiful, allowing people to participate fully in their society, and actively and positively contribute to the future of their nation. As Saint Mary MacKillop said, we must focus on “leading others into life.”
Following in Mary MacKillop’s footsteps, Mary MacKillop Today works with local communities in Timor-Leste, to support, promote and develop their capacity in decision-making so they can better respond to their own needs. Mary MacKillop Today in Timor-Leste affirms its commitment to subsidiarity by empowering local field-based officers, who work alongside teachers in remote districts to best identify the needs and priorities of the community. These field-based staff deliver culturally relevant training and mentoring to teachers and parents in remote and hard-to-reach areas, travelling out on the back of motorbikes on unsealed dirt roads through treacherous terrain that can easily become washed out during the wet season, so they can access remote mountainous villages where the education needs are the most dire. The presence of community-based field officers enables us to continually feeding back to the community for ongoing learning and evaluation to ensure our programs are best meeting the needs of those we serve.
Mary MacKillop Today’s Timorese staff have trained thousands of teachers, approximately 15 per cent of the entire teaching population, on how to deliver the national curriculum using innovation and creativity. This has ensured that tens of thousands of children are receiving quality education in the classroom, providing a positive future for themselves, their family, community and country.
As well as working with teachers, Mary MacKillop Today works with parents to engage them in participatory training to support their children in the home. Ensuring children have quality education early in life is vital for their long-term development, and it is therefore integral that children are supported in the home as well as at school. In Timor-Leste, particularly in the rural areas, most parents have limited knowledge and skills in literacy and numeracy and the majority of them did not have the opportunity for a high school education. They therefore struggle to provide the necessary support for their children and feel disempowered to play an active role in their child’s education. The Timor-Leste Strategic Plan also recognises the vital role of parents in improving the quality of education in Timor-Leste, citing the importance of school management systems involving Parents Associations. Such an approach ensures that parents can play active role in decision making in their community.
Maria Pereira, a young mother from the remote community of Bairo Wekiar on the southern coast of Timor-Leste, recently attended Mary MacKillop Today’s Parents Education training. Maria, along with hundreds of other parents in her community, wanted to be able to help her children at home, however felt disempowered and unable to understand what role she could play. Having not had the opportunity for an education herself, Maria was delighted to participate in a 10-week Parents Education Program delivered by local Timorese trainers, so she could gain the skills and knowledge to positively contribute and engage in their children’s learning in the home from a young age.
“Most of the parents in our rural area have no basic education so through this program we can understand and learn some basic knowledge about how to treat our children and teach them after and before school. I am happy because I can learn how to read, write, sing school songs, count numbers, do art and craft. Then, after the training, I go and teach those lessons to my children at home.”
With this new knowledge and confidence, Maria can now help her children achieve the best possible start to their education. Maria is now connected with other parents and schools in her local community, and has much greater confidence to make decisions that affect her, her family and her community, and therefore positively contribute to her country’s development.
As Timor-Leste continues to work towards achieving long-term sustainable development, it is essential that subsidiarity and participation are kept at the core of development approaches. At Mary MacKillop Today, we make it our mission to ensure that decisions are made by the people closest and most affected by the issues and concerns of the community. The ongoing engagement with teachers and parents in rural and remote areas helps build subsidiarity, and will ultimately empower local communities to continue rebuilding this beautiful young country.
programs Group Leader
 Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 (2011) Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste