The basic food basket (Cesta Básica) is a new concept of state food subsidies. The idea behind this policy is to help vulnerable and marginalized groups with some essential food items. Moreover, this program is designed for the COVID-19 economic recovery package in Timor-Leste to subsidize every Timorese citizen to ensure that three meals a day are fulfilled.
Food basket is an imitation concept from one of the Portuguese—speaking countries—this idea derived from the conventional Brazilian government policy, which has implemented this kind of social benefit for almost nearly three decades, since 1989. At that moment, more than 30 million Brazilian poor families have received this kind of subsidy. This program’s main reason is to promote “zero-hunger” for the most vulnerable and low-income families in Timor-Leste. As a result, many households the family members in the rural areas already received this food subsidy.
The food subsidy program is not new in Timor-Leste. Between August and September 2020, through partnership cooperation, ADB and UNDP and the government of Timor-Leste have distributed this kind of program by using Bote (local handcraft basket)to some vulnerable communities in Dili, Atauro, and other targeted municipalities.
Although some politicians claimed that the concept of Cesta Básica is inspired by the Brazilian best practice of food subsidies for zero hunger program, it is a replicable program that has been implemented by UNDP and its partners. It was designed for a healthy immune system and economic recovery, including boosting income for a local farmer.
The Cesta Básica program is regulated in Timor-Leste through the decree-law, no 48/2020. This program ensures that all Timorese families per household will benefit from food subsidies during the health crisis, affecting this tiny nation with 1.3 million people.
According to government estimates, the implementation of the food subsidy will take two months, from November to December. This program, in fact, derived from a good intention from the government to help vulnerable families affected by COVID-19 amid a state of emergency since Timor-Leste announced its first COVID-19 case in April 2020.
In November 2020, half of the population had access to this program, including some slum areas. Some family members from districts are currently receiving this subsidy, and others are awaiting this food aid package.
Even though this subsidy has a positive advantage for the societies; however, the outcome is not clear. It has created controversial opinions that are discussed by societies. The question is, how does this program improve vulnerable communities’ income as a package for economic recovery? Mainly to boost market stimulation to “buy local food,” it is to gratify all Timorese households as point out by the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs (MCAE), Joaquim Amaral. Will citizens get access to this food with the principle of equality? Or is this program designed to promote zero plastic?
Cesta Básica is creating a controversial opinion and generates some corruption implications regarding the issue of fraud in the provision of food stocks, which are considered inappropriate policy. For example, the citizens have witnessed various types of basic foods (12 types of food): Rice, Milk, Salt, Sugar, Shampoo, and other item are not realistic because the value of 25 USD per package is not the same as the average price. For example, for 5 KG of cooking oil, the regular price in the market is 2-4 $, but the price of oil is $ 8. Sugar and coffee, which are cheaper but are even more expensive, are included in the basic food prices of the 12 items.
Moreover, on December 17, 2020, one of the local leaders stated his protest to Timor-Leste’s president during a community dialogue in Baucau municipality. As noted from the video that circulating on social media Facebook, the Sesta Basica program contains a price manipulation. And the food subsidy is identic to “people who live in urban areas who might need food, and people in a rural area, they should be better receive only cash transfers.”
One of the facts of price manipulation in that food item like red beans is no longer suitable for distribution because it is rotten. This fact has made the public negatively react to the subsidies provided by the government. Timorese posted on Facebook that they are not happy with the type of food distributed to them.
Cesta Básica has been considered as an adequate policy to maintain Timorese societies’ access to basics food during times of crisis amid the COVID-19 outbreak and the state of emergency. However, this program is not bringing benefits in rural areas, and it creates an opportunity for interested groups to get an economic advantage. This program created a paradox that did not benefit the Timorese societies in rural areas.
Moreover, this program is a centralistic concept that consumes enormous logistical support. Many rural areas, remote villages, and sub-district are challenging because it is hard to reach. The road conditions are not properly built. Of course, this condition requires extra funds to mobilize distribution, rent cars, hire companies or private agencies to distribute.
From this phenomenon, it is clear that in addition to the good intentions of the government through sesta basica, this program also provides additional benefits, which people consider that this program only provides more benefits for government officials, private companies, to spend state funds that provide more benefits to interest groups.
The government should sense that mobilizing food from the central capital from Dili to rural areas is not efficient. Moreover, there is a manipulation of food distribution, which is not realistically based on the actual price. One of the food items, like the rotting red bean found in the food basket, is a big failure and embarrassing program under the current government (VIII-constitutional government). The government should re-examine “sesta basica” with an alternative solution which more effective.
Using cash transfer might be an appropriate solution through a local bank or other existing money transfer regularities like using Bank Services or a money transfer program from a telecommunications company (Telemor) with the MOSAN program. Or the government can use other cash transfer programs system that is considered more effective.
Celso da Fonseca
Palapaso, Dili, Timor-Leste. 16/12/2020