By The Numbers: Timor-Leste’s Economy

The data driving Asia

Timor-Leste’s new prime minister Rui Araujo assumes control of an economy that is rich in fossil fuels but has thus far been unable to distribute the benefits of those resources to most of its people. Along with former prime minister Xanana Gusmão, who is staying on as minister of planning and strategic investment, Araujo must figure out how to modernize a workforce that consists largely of subsistence farmers, diversify away from a dependence on oil and gas, and sustainably manage the government’s $16.6 billion Petroleum Fund. With these challenges in mind, we explore Timor-Leste’s economy, by the numbers:


The number of Asian countries — Yemen and Tajikistan — in which a higher percentage of the population lives below the national poverty line than in Timor-Leste, according to the CIA World Factbook. Forty-one percent of Timorese were living in poverty as of 2009.


The percentage of Timorese children who drop out after primary school. Many children leave to work on family farms, leading to a shortage of skilled workers available for infrastructure and technology projects. Half the rural population is illiterate. Just half the population speaks Tetum, one of the two official languages, while only 5 percent speaks Portuguese, the other.

School children in class, Timor-leste. Source: United Nations Photo flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

School children in class, Suai Loro, Timor-Leste. Source: United Nations Photo flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.


The average price of a barrel of dated Brent blend oil – the international benchmark – in 2015, as forecasted by the Economist Intelligence Unit. With oil and gas making up 80 percent of Timor-Leste’s gross domestic product, 89 percent of government revenue, and 93 percent of exports, low oil prices could create a shock to the economy and deplete the national Petroleum Fund faster than anticipated.


The percentage of revenues from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea that Timor-Leste stands to gain if it wins a case against Australia currently before the International Court of Justice. Timor-Leste was entitled to only 18 percent of the field under an original agreement with Australia. That was upped to 50 percent under a 2007 treaty. But Timor-Leste now believes that Australia engaged in espionage during the treaty negotiations and wants the pact nullified in favor the demarcation of a continental shelf boundary along the median line between the two countries.


The year that the Bayu-Undan oil and gas field, Timor-Leste’s largest, is expected to run dry. If no new production begins by that time, the country’s Petroleum Fund would be able to finance the state budget for only five more years, according to Timorese development organization La’o Hamutuk.


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