The Debate | Opinion

Why Humanitarian Assistance Matters: The Case of Climate Disaster and COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

In April, after a devastating cyclone and spike in COVID-19 cases, Timor-Leste made a formal appeal to international partners for support. The significance of such aid extends far beyond the amount pledged. 

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Why Humanitarian Assistance Matters: The Case of Climate Disaster and COVID-19 in Timor-Leste
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Timor-Leste is suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, jointly caused by a recent cyclone and by the rapid spread of COVID-19. These events threaten the very health and well being of our population. The country faces rising poverty, food and water insecurity, income loss, reduced productivity, malnutrition, and disease. These impacts are expected to worsen in the very near future.

On April 4, Tropical Cyclone Seroja tore across the capital Dili and other parts of the country with winds in excess of 125 kilometers per hour. Flash floods and landslides ensued, the likes of which had not been seen in decades. With its passage, the cyclone inundated major parts of the capital and affected some 2,100 hectares of agricultural land. It smashed public infrastructure including the waterfront, roads and bridges; it destroyed thousands of homes. The cyclone took the lives of 41 citizens, displaced about 8,000 people and caused serious economic and health-related difficulties for around 32,000 households. Timor-Leste now faces an ongoing risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and hepatitis A, and vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. It is estimated that the overall damage of the cyclone will cost about $300 million, roughly equivalent to over 19 percent of non-oil GDP.

COVID-19 cases are also rising rapidly. The virus’ spread has been exacerbated by the floods, by the need to establish more than 20 evacuation centers and temporary housing for displaced people, and by the need to relax social distancing and health guidelines so that families can address their individual emergencies. 

During 2020, Timor-Leste largely avoided the pandemic and for much of the year we were a “zero COVID” country. Following the declaration of a state of emergency in late March of 2020, by around May life had largely returned to normal. Through stringent border control measures, during 2020 we experienced only 44 cases, no community spread, and no serious illnesses or deaths. 

All of that began to change in 2021. In January, we recorded 26 new cases. In February, March, and April, we recorded 43, 491, and 1,672 new cases respectively. As of May 5, we had recorded a total of 2,653 known cases and had suffered four COVID-19-related deaths. During the first five days of May, we averaged 77 new cases per million people, the 75th highest rate out of the 202 countries monitored by Our World in Data. From the first to the third of May, testing in Dili revealed a 9.9 percent positivity rate, the 27th highest rate in the 121 countries listed by Our World in Data with such information.

The government has acted quickly and decisively to address these emergencies. It has initiated the rebuilding of the country, mobilizing its fiscal firepower with a Contingency Fund of $65.2 million and a COVID-19 Fund of $287.6 million. This is an unprecedented fiscal response, an amount equivalent to 17 percent of the 2021 State Budget and 22.4 percent of non-oil real GDP. 

In line with Timor-Leste’s commitment to multilateralism the government organized a high-level international forum, pooling the efforts of partner countries, bilateral and multilateral donors, regional development banks, and international agencies. This mechanism has effectively coordinated responses and has led to specific commitments to provide aid in nine areas that support the government’s lead. In all, $10.5 million has been pledged as of April 28 from 14 overseas public and private organizations. Their programs have been aligned to address Timor-Leste’s needs. The multi-donor coordination being carried out is an approach that builds on multilateralism and the principles of joint action and pooled sovereignty of some friendly nation-states that can contribute to Timor-Leste’s recovery.  

Australia has also committed to providing 80 percent of our COVID-19 vaccine needs. The first shipment of 20,000 vaccines has arrived and will be distributed over the coming weeks and months. The launching of these Australian-made vaccines took place on May 9 with the Australian Ambassador to Timor-Leste Peter Roberts among the first to take the jab. We also expect an additional vaccine from China to arrive in the near future. 

Given the government’s strong fiscal position, it is reasonable to ask why Timor-Leste has sought humanitarian assistance from abroad. The level of external humanitarian assistance raised so far is relatively small. To provide a few measures, this aid ($10.5 million) is equivalent to only 0.5 percent of the State Budget. The Petroleum Fund is more than 1,700 times larger than this figure and funds already reallocated from the original budget to address the COVID-19 crisis were over 20 times the size of the amounts recently mobilized. 

There are compelling and strategic economic and geopolitical reasons why humanitarian assistance is important and why its significance is far in excess of the nominal value of the donations mobilized. 

First, in times of emergency, be it climate disaster or the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains become fragile. Because of the unexpected shock, normal production may be insufficient to meet demands. New means of production cannot be easily mobilized or it does not make long-term economic sense to expand production capacities. There are many international examples in which markets have temporarily broken down or failed to provide a sufficient safety net in a time of emergency. India is the world’s largest democracy. It is a nuclear power with extensive scientific knowledge. Yet now it is relying on humanitarian assistance to mobilize oxygen supplies. At the beginning of the pandemic, if the United States had used the WHO testing kits that were available it may have reduced the delays it experienced in testing.

Solving supply problems is not simply a matter of making a purchase by cutting a check from the Petroleum Fund. Even though Timor-Leste has both the resources and the willingness, it cannot easily procure PPE, testing kits, vaccines and other emergency supplies on the open market. Logistics and procurement are complex and subject to economies of scale; supplies are monopolized or disrupted globally, posing challenges that no single nation-state can address alone. From this perspective, Timor-Leste relies on its international relationships to help navigate these challenges. 

Second, humanitarian assistance does more than just assist with the international access to goods, services, and ideas during times of emergency. In the past, overseas development assistance has always lived side by side with the Petroleum Fund as a means of financing much-needed investment in physical infrastructure and human capital. We are all in the business of converting our petroleum assets into other more sustainable assets that will guarantee continued economic growth and human development. The 2021 State Budget includes withdrawals from the Petroleum Fund of about $1.4 billion, side by side with taxes and domestic revenues of about $191 million, donor funded activities of $155 million (equivalent to about 7 percent of the budget), and loans of $71 million. It is simply not pragmatic to first deplete the Petroleum Fund then seek loans and development assistance when our account reaches a zero or negative balance.

Third, both the COVID-19 pandemic and intensive climate disasters have global causes whose consequences we now find ourselves facing. While we know that our island state has been particularly vulnerable to intense rainfall, storms, and floods consecutively over the last several years, there is an increased likelihood of more climate extremes in the future. The tropical cyclone that slammed into Timor-Leste last month was largely fueled by warmer ocean temperatures and other unusual weather phenomena, according to the data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and Integrated Marine Observing System.

Climate consequences of ever-growing magnitude are to be expected due to rising sea levels and the occurrence of multiple extreme weather events in the Pacific region. We must expect extreme climate events to become both more common and more severe in the future. We will continue to be increasingly exposed to climate change and to incur continued economic losses from natural disasters, a complex problem we are not ourselves causing. In 2019, only 1 out of every 40 million tons of carbon dioxide generated internationally came from Timor-Leste, yet we, and our neighbors in the Pacific, can expect to be disproportionately affected. In the future we will continue to pay the economic costs imposed by the carbon economies of wealthier nations. Our international relations must be seen within this context, aiming to achieve both climate and human security.

Finally, after years of foreign occupation and serious human rights violations, we emerged as one of the strongest democracies in our region and remain one of the few judged to be “free” outside the anglosphere Pacific by Freedom House. As a young nation, we embody the revitalization of democracy in Asia. As our friends stand shoulder to shoulder with Timor-Leste in its hour of tragedy, it only deepens the foundations for other forms of collaboration, where we and our foreign partners see eye to eye on issues of regional and global politics.