Connect East Timor

connecting people and communities
…and together creating a better future

By Peter De Haas, Campaign Chairman, Connect East Timor

Since early 2001, Palms has conducted a special project referred to as Connect East Timor (CET).

Working towards the CET vision of providing simple, reliable communications to some 300,000 people in rural areas of Timor-Leste has involved many challenges. For a start, this type of project is not a natural fit into Palms’ core function as a volunteer sending agency! It was only adopted as a Palms project when, at that time, one of the AusAID funding models involved project-based work. However, this potential funding avenue quickly evaporated after the CET campaign was under way, leaving Palms’ Board ‘holding the baby’ as it were! To their great credit the Board (and especially Roger O’Halloran) continued to support the campaign, including through some difficult periods that involved a level of financial risk for Palms as a whole.

The audacious goal of equipping some 489 villages with simple two-way radio technology (similar to what has been used for years in remote homesteads and communities in Australia for School of the Air and the Flying Doctor) drew the support of most people and organisations who heard the CET ‘story’. The vision has also brought together and strongly united what can only be described as a ‘dream team’ of volunteers from across Australia, some of whom have contributed enormous slabs of time since the earliest days of the campaign.

CET also gained support from a number of organisations and individuals who contributed significantly either in cash or in kind. While there are too many to list in this brief article, a special mention must be made of Queensland Rail. This very generous and philanthropically minded organisation donated surplus radio equipment, large amounts of technician time, storage facilities, use of training facilities and a range of other support. Without their bigheartedness, CET would, in all probability, still be just an idea.

So what has the campaign achieved? While it is hard to estimate exactly, somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 people in the sub-districts of Atabae, Lacluta and Balibo have now been provided with affordable access to basic communications. The word “affordable” is key. About 40% of people living in rural areas of Timor-Leste struggle to survive below the poverty line of only USD0.50 per day. To buy and operate a mobile phone on the basic Timor Telecom plan costs about USD130 in the first year!

These communities have embraced this technology into the very fabric of their existence.

Calling for help when we are sick is something we all take for granted in Australia. In these sub-districts, it has only been possible for the average person to do so with the CET radios. As a result, lives have been saved, community administration has become easier and even important family information can be passed: for example, if someone has died, family members in other villages can be alerted so that they can attend the funerals which are usually organized for the same day.

A good measure of the high level of acceptance of these solar powered radios is that every sub-district where they are installed has requested that more villages be equipped with radios. Neighbouring areas have also expressed great interest in receiving similar systems.

“I am delighted to learn of the many good ways in which this simple and reliable technology has helped the community of Atabae….It has not only saved lives of people who were very sick but has also greatly helped the sub-district and church administration to work more effectively. Health workers and NGOs have also used it successfully to coordinate their activities.

For this reason, and because of the successful Atabae experience, the Government budget for 2008 includes funds to commence a project – perhaps we might name it Project Telesuco – which will provide all sub-districts and sucos with an affordable, simple and reliable communications system using radio technology.

I understand that it will be possible to complete the project for all 66 sub-districts. This will provide essential communications services, pending the availability of more advanced universal services in future.”

Media release, President José Ramos-Horta,
8 February 2008

Throughout the campaign, close contact has been maintained with the Ministers and Ministries that have responsibility for communications in Timor-Leste. CET has also briefed three Prime Ministers (at different times) to ensure that there is high level visibility of what the campaign has been doing and also of the level of community support that has been achieved.

In late 2007, as a result of this dialogue, and with the proven success of the Demonstration and Pilot Projects, the Government approved the full scale implementation of the CET vision in the context of its budget for 2008. Renamed Project Telesuco (suco refers to the smallest unit of administration, at the village level) firm proposals for the initial stages of this project are now before the responsible Minister. It is confidently expected that the Project will get underway in the first half of 2008.

So the Connect East Timor campaign, that has been nurtured and nourished under the Palms approach and philosophy since 2001, has now been adopted by the Government of Timor-Leste. Once implemented across the entire country, a basic radio communications system will have a huge impact across all aspects of political, social and economic development in rural areas.

As the leader of the campaign, I am sure that I speak for everyone who has been involved, whether as a supporter, donor or volunteer, that it has been a real blessing and a life-giving experience. We hope and pray that Project Telesuco will now finish what we have started, and also we pray for the speedy recovery of President José Ramos-Horta.

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