A senior delegation from across UNSW recently travelled to Timor-Leste as part of broader efforts to ensure the university can play the role of a critical intermediary and strategically accompany governments, the UN, regional universities, and civil society in the region to achieve societal impact. The delegation included senior representatives from UNSW Engineering, Medicine and Health, the Sustainable Development Reform Hub, the Global Water Institute, and the Institute for Global Development.

The delegation’s key objective was to strengthen existing partnerships in Timor-Leste and explore fresh opportunities for ongoing, sustained engagement with universities, government, business and civil society initiatives.

UNSW’s collaboration with Timor-Leste

UNSW has a long history of engagement with Timor-Leste. In 1989, the Diplomacy Training Program was co-founded at UNSW  by President José Ramos-Horta and then UNSW Dean of Law, Garth Nettheim. UNSW continues to house and support the Diplomacy Training Program, which works in partnership with NGOs and movements investing together to provide practical advocacy training to human rights defenders.   Since 2009, UNSW researchers have also helped strengthen public health systems in partnership with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Health. More recently, UNSW has provided post-graduate training in economic geology to support the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals.

Further to this, the recent trip supported ongoing efforts to develop a series of regional activities that enable the University to engage as knowledge partner with the United Nations (UN). The partnership between the UN and UNSW was established in 2022 after the United Nations Development Coordination Office, Regional Office – Asia and the Pacific (UN DCO ROAP) and UNSW agreed to pilot a knowledge partnership to explore advocacy and collaboration to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals and converge for social impact in the Asia Pacific.

Strengthening relationships and learning from partners

Deepening UNSW’s partnership with the UN, the delegation co-hosted roundtable with the UN country team in Timor-Leste, which was convened by the Timor-Leste Resident Coordinator, Funmi Balogun and representatives from the 17 UN specialised agencies operating in Timor-Leste, including the UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, ILO and UN Women. The interaction facilitated an institutional introduction between UNSW and the UN in Timor-Leste and identified opportunities for institutional partnership for advocacy and collaboration on Government of Timor-Leste and UN strategic imperatives.

To increase understanding of issues emerging from reconciliation and healing after bloody conflict, the UNSW delegation visited the Centro Nacional Chega! museum, which is housed in the Old Balide Prison, a Portuguese-era prison where Timorese resistance figures were interned by the Indonesian military during the 24-year occupation of Timor. This provided important context to help better understand the strategic priorities of the country and explore the contribution that the UNSW expertise can make.

UNSW Institute for Global Development Director A/Prof George Varughese said this visit was particularly important, saying, “In Timor-Leste, the post-conflict developmental context is profoundly shaped by trauma and the legacy of colonial occupation. UNSW is uniquely positioned to provide expertise from medicine, science, and engineering to accompany Timorese society and government.”

Understanding government priorities

The delegation then met with Timor-Leste President and UNSW Alumnus, President José Ramos-Horta and several government ministries, including the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry for Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Public Works, and the Ministry of Health.  These meetings provided an opportunity for the delegation to be briefed on the Program of the 9th Constitutional Government, which outlines Timor-Leste's plans to accelerate the blue and green economy, diversify the economy, expand oil and gas production, agricultural output, and investment in education and public health and infrastructure. The meeting with President Ramos-Horta concluded with plans for his reciprocal visit to UNSW Sydney in early 2024.  

UNSW delegation meets Timor-Leste President Ramos-Horta UNSW Faculty of Engineering

Enhancing collaboration in education and capacity building

Over the five days in Dili, the delegates also visited local education institutions, including the National University of Timor-Leste, Universidade Catholica Timorense and the Dili Institute of Technology. Underpinning each of these meetings was a commitment to collaborating across education and research, with MoUs currently being explored. Beyond this, there are also several opportunities to co-develop and deliver industry capacity building initiatives in the health, food services and water sector with UNTL; and UNSW Engineering will be supporting the development of the Timor Journal of Engineering with the provision of reviewers going forward.

A significant part of the trip was exploring opportunities to the role UNSW can play in building local capacity in key sectors. Delegates from the UNSW Sustainable Development Reform Hub met with the Timor-Leste National Institute of Statistics to develop capabilities in  oceans and natural capital accounting and related public policy advocacy Since the trip, the Kirby Institute and School of Population Health have offered advisory support to the Hungarian Embassy in Jakarta on their support for the development of a scientific laboratory at the Universidade Catholica Timorense.

Shaping a long-term vision for impact

These interactions combine to contribute to building UNSWs institutional relationships among regional academia, government, industry and civil society by cementing the university as a trusted and strategic knowledge partner that helps to address sustainable development challenges in the region.

 A/Prof George Varughese commented on UNSW’s increasing support for its Pacific neighbours, saying, “

“The UNSW visit to Timor-Leste built on recent UNSW visits to Fiji and Papua New Guinea, seeking distinctive intersections of university capability with country context.