Dr. Rui Maria de Araújo is the prime minister of Timor-Leste, a position he has held since 2015. A physician by training, he served as both the Minister of Health from 2001-2006 and the Deputy Prime Minister from 2006-2007.
What is something most people do not know or are surprised to learn about Timor-Leste?
People are surprised to learn that we became independent and went through [the] process of nation-building and state-building. We are a vibrant democracy. People think: “Oh okay, we thought you were on and off in conflict.” That’s something that when you have conversations with people, people feel a bit surprised that we have come so far.
What lessons and skills from being a doctor do you bring to your role as prime minister?
I’m a medical doctor, but also did post-graduate studies in public health, focusing on health policy, management, and financing. I think one important thing that I bring in from my profession as a medical doctor is that you make decisions on the basis of evidence. When you face a patient, you go through all the evidence, make a diagnosis, and then start the treatment. Policy-making is more or less the same. Of course, it’s not as simple when it comes to public policy, but the principle of using evidence to assess policy options that are available and then [making] a final decision on which course we should be taking, to me, [they] are the same.
How do you plan to address systemic poverty in Timor-Leste, along with related problems such as malnourishment and low life expectancy?
We have a Strategic Development Plan guiding the overall development of our country. When we restored independence [in 2002], we had [a] National Development Plan, but five years down the line, we reviewed it, then [created the] 20-year Strategic Development Plan [to be in place] from 2011-2030. It has four main components: focusing on human capital, basic infrastructure development, institutions, and enabling economic development. Within that framework, our focus is to diversify the economy of our country, so that young people get more jobs, get more opportunities to be educated, enter the market, and become more active in our economic development.
Now, so far, most of the economic development in the country is driven by public expenditure. Private investment is still very low. From 2009 up until now, we’ve – in terms of public spending – spent up to $7 billion. It’s a small country of 1.2 million. We spent that much on our basic infrastructure, social programs, health, education, agriculture, and so on. The latest figure shows that there [has been] some good progress. Life expectancy has increased. Infant mortality rates have gone down. Poverty has been reduced, despite the fact that it is still high. But progress is seen in the pace of reduction [of the poverty rate]. More and more people are getting into schools. More and more people are getting jobs – despite very limited jobs since the private sector hasn’t come in in full force yet. The next five to ten years [will] focus on economic force, particularly in the areas of tourism, agriculture, fisheries, and basic manufacturing, in order for us to diversify our economy and get more job opportunities.
What is Timor-Leste currently doing to improve conditions for refugees and immigrants coming into the country, and what lesson can other countries learn from Timor-Leste’s handling of its historic refugee crises?
Well I think I’ll start by saying that in 1999, we had the experience of managing internally displaced people. Some of our people migrated in 2006, and, to solve the problem of internally displaced people, the government took control of the process, while the UN agencies were complementing [the government’s efforts]. So that experience also led us to lead a group called g7+, which is active in many conflict countries. In the context of advocating for better coordination amongst the agencies and countries…I think the principle is that it should be country-led, meaning if it is a problem of the Central African Republic, the authorities there should be the ones leading the process and all the agencies [should] support that process.