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Australian aid boost to help Cuban health aid initiative in Timor-Leste

Dr Dan Murphy

Dr Dan Murphy of Bairo Pite clinic in Dili ... supports more medical students from Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste Photo: Basil Rolandsen/PMC

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Laura Stewart

Australian contributions may become the latest asset for an already thriving Cuban health aid programme in Timor-Leste and this is likely to start later this year.

The Australian government has announced this year a $9 billion increase to foreign aid spending over the next four years with a significant focus on Timor-Leste.

The announcement comes in conjunction with the first independent review into the effectiveness of Australian foreign aid in 15 years.

The review panel has recommended a four-year strategy, where projects are frequently reviewed, and is currently working with the Australian government to set goals for the increased funding.

The panel drew particular attention to the need for value for money and maximum impact for the resources deployed. Building and making better use of effective international partnerships was also recommended.

The Cuban Medical Programme in Timor-Leste, established in 2003 by the previous Fretilin-led government, has saved an estimated more than 17,000 lives, remaining one of the most successful in the world.

Timor-Leste President Jose-Ramos Horta is a strong supporter of the Cuban aid programme, last month recommending the Cuban aid team for a Nobel Peace prize.

Favourable outcomes
University of Sydney lecturer Dr Tim Anderson has closely followed and studied the Cuban programme and says a tripartite agreement involving the government of Timor-Leste would be an effective use of Australian aid funds and produce favourable outcomes for the Timor-Leste Health Care System.

A linked Cuban/Australian programme was discussed by Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles during his visit to Cuba last week.

“[Marles’ initiation] demonstrates a constructive and mature approach…the Cubans will insist that these be tripartite agreements, and I hope Canberra sees it the same way. I think tripartite coordination could produce more effective use of aid dollars,” Dr Anderson said.

In a recent interview with the ABC’s Pacific Beat programme, Marles revealed early details of the operation.

Marles said he and the Cubans had agreed to scope a study of Cuban experts and Australian experts later this year.

“We’re keen to see how we can, if you like, leverage the Cuban expertise against our presence in the Pacific to do something really important,” he told Pacific Beat.

Among world’s poorest
American Medical Aid East Timor coordinating facilitator Elliot Stokes said conflicts and war have left Timor-Leste as one of the world’s poorest countries, with few resources.

“The UN, the world, the US and Australia owe Timor-Leste for the completely reprehensible history of abuse neglect and racist/bigoted treatment the people of East Timor have had to endure during colonialism, World War II, Indonesian occupation and the present semi-occupation since independence,” he said.

The effectiveness of the Australian aid programme has been widely criticised, leading to the government review.

Australian National University professor George Quinn said the current Australian programme is expensive, centred in cities and involves staff on short placements, most of whom do not know any local languages.

Quinn said Western government aid agencies, such as the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), are often regarded as expensive systems that are likely to fall apart when foreign experts are withdrawn.

“I’ve often thought that Timor-style Cuban medical assistance might be well suited to the remote Aboriginal settlements of Australia where so much Australian government health care seems to go straight down the gurgler, mainly because it is expensive and very difficult to get Australian medical workers to stay for extended periods in remote communities,” he said.

Alternatively, AusAID Director-General Peter Baxter said the Australian approach was effective as, unlike under the Cuban programme, participants work pro-bono to provide antenatal care, family planning services and treatment of common diseases.

Granted funds
AusAID recently granted funds to the Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili.

Dr Dan Murphy from the clinic says this grant will assist greatly in fighting tuberculosis, the number one killer in Timor-Leste.

Dr Murphy also hopes to see more Timorese students and patients travelling to Australia for training and treatment respectively.

“We would love to see at least one place reserved in each Australian medical school for the best qualified Timorese students and not have to depend only on Cuba. A coordinated channel to Australian hospitals for treatment of cases beyond our capabilities should be put into place,” he said.

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade  spokesperson said these actions were a reflection of Australia’s increasing commitment delivering effective aid in Timor-Leste.

“Increased and more effective aid in the Pacific, which certainly extends to Timor-Leste, is a priority at the moment,” he said.

Laura Stewart is a student journalist at Bond University on the Gold Coast, Australia. This article was first published in the Independente newspaper, Timor-Leste.