Just weeks into my new assignment in Timor-Leste, I was thrilled to be traveling with a group of colleagues to the country’s remote exclave of Oecusse.  By catching a ride on a UN helicopter, our team was able to cut out nearly a day of travel, including clearing the four border checkpoints required to make the trip overland.  Located geographically within the borders of Indonesia, the district is separated from the rest of Timor-Leste not only spatially, but culturally and linguistically as well.  Throughout our visit we would often need two translators, one between the local language (Baikeno) and the national language (Tetum), and a second translator between Tetum and English.

After arriving in the district capital of Pante Makassar, our team immediately jumped into vehicles and set out on our mission to see several of USAID’s projects.  As we drove through the district, bouncing along dirt roads, winding through hills, and scuttling across dry river beds, it was plain to see how many of the already difficult-to-reach villages become completely inaccessible during the rainy season.  Contributing to the district’s isolation is its poor infrastructure, with few all-weather roads, underdeveloped networks for water and sewage, and an insufficient electrical grid.  Even the district capital receives only 12 hours of electricity per day, punctuated by frequent power outages.  As the Economic Growth Team Leader at USAID Timor-Leste seeing the district for the first time, my thoughts immediately turn to the enormous challenge of trying to link the people of these remote areas with the rest of their country, let alone the world economy. Yet USAID is helping to do just that.

In the town of Pune, our team met with several farmers who participate in USAID’s cattle fattening project.  Through a cooperative association, these small farmers are able to receive veterinary medicine from the Timorese government and husbandry advice for the cattle they raise.  Without the project these farmers would be unable to import their own medicines and would be vulnerable to price fluctuations in distant markets. Through the cooperative, these farmers are given a pre-negotiated price for their cattle so that they know in advance that they will be able to reap the benefits of their hard work.

We also made visits to several sites of our District Water Sanitation and Hygiene (DWASH) project, where USAID has helped bring clean water and improved sanitation methods to some of the most remote villages of the district. The project has helped to mobilize community members to install the basic infrastructure that will lead to healthier people who are more capable of determining their own economic future.

For me, one of the highlights of the trip was getting to visit with graduates of the Preparing Ourselves for Work (Prepara Ami ba Servisu/PAS) project, which targets out-of-school youth.  I enjoyed hearing about   how they have obtained employment or started their own businesses using skills developed through the project.  One project graduate admits that he had once been a bit of a menace in his community, succumbing to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. He credits PAS with helping him to clean up his act and with giving him the skills needed for his new job as a warehouse manager for the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry. Later that day, as we enjoyed cold drinks purchased from another PAS graduate’s newly opened market kiosk, we learned about how the project helped her to develop the skills needed for starting her business.   We were thrilled to learn that her business is thriving and she is making plans for expansion.

On the final day of our journey, as we traveled towards Timor-Leste’s capital of Dili — this time no helicopter, just a car full of development workers bouncing down the road – I was able to see first-hand just how physically distant this lonely exclave really is. But my time in Oecusse helped me to realize that the work that USAID and its projects are doing is helping to shrink that distance, linking the people of the exclave to the rest of their country and the world at large.   Even though the region’s farmers may rarely travel to the capital, their livestock do, and that commercial link brings much-needed income back to the district.  Improved water and sanitation services are helping to raise living standards of the district’s rural residents closer to those of their mainland counterparts. And young people are gaining the workforce skills that will enable them to be competitive in the global marketplace. While the exclave will always be somewhat remote geographically, USAID is helping the people of Oecusse to build the bridges that will connect them to the world.