Last year, the US Navy Construction Battalion (“Seabees”) completed their 100th project in Timor-Leste, Fatumeta Pre-Secondary School. Timor-Leste and the United States have a close diplomatic and military relationship. Since 2009, the Seabees have maintained a presence in Timor-Leste, building and improving education and healthcare infrastructure in rural parts of the country. These projects often involve joint efforts with the Timorese armed forces.
Timor-Leste suffered a devastating occupation and war from 1975 to 1999 that killed more than 250,000 people. When independence was restored in 2002, infrastructure in the capital was almost entirely destroyed. Over 70% of the population lives in rural areas that still suffer from chronic underdevelopment. In 2011, the government of Timor-Leste adopted an ambitious Strategic Development Plan to tackle poverty, enhance security and stability, and generate economic opportunities for Timorese citizens.
The United States government is a strong supporter of Timor-Leste's Strategic Development Plan. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), US Department of State, US Millennium Challenge Corporation, US Peace Corps, and US Armed Forces all cooperate with the Timorese government and international actors to help the country achieve its development goals.
An important focus area of the Strategic Development Plan is improving the access to and quality of primary, secondary, tertiary, and vocational education. Over half of the rural Timorese population is under 19, adding urgency to education-focused development initiatives. To help Timor-Leste reach these goals, many of the Seabees’ projects focus on youth. In January 2021, the Seabees teamed up with Task Force Oceania to donate resources and support to community development organizations. The recipients included a US Embassy-led youth leadership program, a domestic violence shelter, an organization for Timorese with disabilities, and two orphanages. The Seabees’ current projects include two schools in Baucau, the country’s second-largest city. One three-room schoolhouse will serve over 1,500 students, while a four-room schoolhouse on another campus will provide additional access to educational resources.
Although the Seabees are not a traditional development actor, their work is just as valuable. By working in tandem with the US Embassy and the Timorese defense forces, they help to strengthen diplomatic and military relations between the United States and Timor-Leste. The lasting relationship is an example of the United States’ commitment to helping Timor-Leste achieve its development goals and the country's youth achieve their full potential.
Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies and Ocean Policy.