Partnerships for the SDGs -Timor-Leste and FedUni

Developing mutually beneficial partnerships with other organisations is both Principle 6 of PRME but also Sustainable Development Goal 17. Federation University in Ballarat, Australia has a strong partnership with the only public national university in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest, and newest, countries in the world. Although the partnership has been going since 2013, many of the projects today focus in on the country’s roadmap towards reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) nationally. I spoke with Jerry Courvisanos, the Timor-Leste Relationship Coordinator at Federation University in Australia, about this long-standing partnership.

How did this relationship with Timor-Leste and UNTL start?

Timor-Leste and Australia have had a long-standing relationship over the years. Federation University has been involved in many research and capacity building projects in Timor-Leste. It has historical and geographical links to Australia. For this reason we joined in a Memorandum of Understanding with Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL) in 2013.

What does the partnership entail?

The MOU, which has been going since 2013, is to explore ways to build institutional research capacity. FedUni and our partners assist UNTL in developing skills and to research the crucial issues that face this small country. The MOU also has two other focuses; gender issues and community resilience. Over the years the MOU has expanded to include more projects including geology scholarships, student visits, staff research skills workshops, support for student based university activities, research collaborations with NGOs based in Timor-Leste and policy consultations with the Timor-Leste Government.

What are the most important SDG related issues that UNTL is exploring/facing?

The Timor-Leste Government was one of the first governments to commit to the SDGs, and was a critical player in developing SDG#17. The Government set up a clear and focused roadmap to achieve the SDGs. This is in contrast to the Australian Government that has since 2015 been virtually invisible on the issue of commitment to the SDGs that Australia has signed up to. There are three documents on the FedUni website that discuss the Timor-Leste (TL) roadmap. Specifically, UNTL has set up the Center for Climate Change and Biodiversity.

What kind of research have you been undertaken through this partnership?

Personally my research has been focused on the implementation of the SDGs in Timor-Leste which has been published widely. I spent several months in country collaborating with local academics to review the country’s government’s progress on its commitments to the SDG and published a report which was submitted to government in 2017 and recently published by the global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. Other research projects include a research project in collaborating with Deakin University on stakeholder impacts on the SDGs and Timor-Leste.

Is this being integrated into the curriculum for current Federation students?

I took three Business School students from across the campuses to TL for a three week immersion programme focusing on business developments and the SDGs. It was funded by DFAT under the New Colombo Plan funding. We are looking at ways to embed our experiences in Timor-Leste into the business program.

What have you learnt/gained through this partnership? Any interesting insights?

Wow. That is a great question. It would take me pages of a massive report to tell you what I have learnt and what great insights I have taken on board. I have many Timorese friends, and they all have a great perspective of life after enormous trauma from just survival. They are so positive and cheery about life and their country. This is amazing, given Australians tending to focus on the negatives so much.

What have been some of the challenges? 

The biggest challenge is to ensure Timorese are empowered to build their own capacity to develop in the way they want to, when it is so easy for Western folk (especially government advisers and all the NGOs) to come in with their own solutions and basically implement what they think TL needs. This is a real challenge given the frustration of political and policy deadlock that is happening in TL right now. The great thing is this deadlock is happening without any street violence, which would have been the case 15 years ago. TL is not a failed state, but it is facing a huge Resource Curse problem.

Successes? What has been the impact so far of this partnership on both sides?

The Alfredo Pires Scholarship: Offer to a Timor-Leste citizen a full-time research Masters and/or PhD scholarship in Geology at Federation University.

New Colombo Plan Mobility Program funded by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to encourage Australian university students to understand professional relevant issues in Asia-Pacific region. Over the years there have been a few FedUni student excursions which include students from UNTL in the fields of:

Education: pre-service teachers undertaking professional experience

Geology: excursion to significant geological sites throughout TL.

Business: visit businesses and public policy organisations on economic development of TL and the extent they address the SDGs

Nursing: nursing midwifery student study excursion to various TL hospitals.

PhDs: FedUni Lecturer Rosey King completing her study on maternal care and childbirth in TL with support from UNTL nursing department.

Adjunct Professor Patrice Braun run workshops at UNTL on building gender-responsive ecosystems and undertaking research with an emphasis on gender frameworks, female entrepreneurship and gender-inclusive community capacity building practices.

What advice would you have for other universities thinking of putting something similar into place?

There are a few lessons that I have learnt in working with UNTL which could be the basis of suggestions/advice to other institutions wanting to work collaboratively in developing countries:

Be patient – technological (e.g. emails and internet) and knowledge (e.g. sustainability as a concept) barriers exist, such that collaborations will take time.

Be persistent – no response does not necessarily mean a ‘no’, it probably means you need to approach and discuss the matter from a different perspective.

Be embedded – no ‘fly-by-night’ come in and sign the MOU and leaving the next day. It took me six months discussions on their own patch and appreciating their views, before a revised MoU could be finalised.

Be understanding – appreciate the difficulties and perspectives the locals have, for example the issue of rubbish is at a totally different level of understanding than just placing a bin on the street and telling them to “do the right thing”.

Be openly friendly like them – get down and join them in whatever they do. They are very open and friendly people. But, many Australians a bit too aloof to get down with them (e.g. learn how to dance and sing, they are brilliant at both, we Australians are relatively awful compared to Timorese in these two aspects of life).

Be prepared to ‘go with the flow’ – make it up as you go, with the basic vision and mission of the collaboration always in focus.

What’s next for the initiative?

I am currently working on developing a new course on the Economics of Timor-Leste that will be delivered at UNTL. There is also a new project being set up by Associate Professor Andrew Stranieri from the School of Engineering and Information Technology, Centre for Informatics and Applied Optimisation. He is assisting MotoAid to build a simple mobile phone app for the doctors to have to complete a daily checklist that can be used to record any faults with their vehicle. MotoAid aims to improve access to health care in Timor-Leste by focusing on transport. 

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