Q&A with Becky McLaren 
Can you briefly describe the Timor-Leste project and your recent visit to the country?
The project is a strategic review of the food security and nutrition situation in Timor-Leste. We’re working with the World Food Programme, which has done similar work in other countries. We’re evaluating what’s been done in the past and what’s currently going on in order to make recommendations for future work. Our review is framed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 2 which aims to end hunger worldwide by 2030.
Our recent trip was an opportunity to develop relationships with our different collaborators, including our main partner in the review, CEPAD; build an outline for the project’s next steps; and meet other stakeholders – government, international and local NGOs, and civil society organizations.
Can you tell us about some of the unique nutrition and food security challenges facing Timor-Leste?
Timor-Leste is a post-conflict country which is still in the window of peacebuilding and becoming more stable. The country was colonized by Portugal until 1975 and then occupied by Indonesia until the UN helped it achieve independence in 2002. There was a reemergence of conflict in 2006, and UN peacekeepers maintained a presence in Timor-Leste until 2012. At the present, the country has a unique opportunity to move beyond creating a stable government and into building food and nutrition security. The government has the chance to restructure the agriculture and food systems.
Timor-Leste also has serious nutrition challenges, with one of the highest stunting rates in the world. About 50 percent of children under five experience stunting, an indication of malnutrition that leads to decreased stature and cognitive ability, among other health effects. This issue is sometimes under-acknowledged in Timor-Leste: people think the Timorese are just shorter than others and that it is not a nutrition problem. But it is an important metric, especially for a country moving forward and developing further
What are your thoughts on the future for Timor-Leste?
I think Timor-Leste has important decisions to make about food and agriculture. Many people want food sovereignty, especially to produce enough rice that the country does not have to rely on imports. Others, especially those outside Timor-Leste, feel this is not the best strategy, as imports are relatively inexpensive, increasing rice production would require major agricultural investments, and it is not the most nutritious crop that could be produced in the country. There are other options: they could focus on horticulture or export crops, such as coffee and spices. These decisions about agriculture and nutrition are key to the country’s future stability and development. For our project, it is important to incorporate local priorities and offer our expertise in a way that supports the Timorese in making their own decisions.
Image: By Nuno_Alex_GM, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52487512