Frequently Asked Questions


1. Is it East Timor or Timor Leste?

Both refer to the same country; can also be Timor Loro Sae, depending on the language being used.

2. How did SETL begin and why?

SETL began in response to a need on the ground in East Timor. Through our personal links with people in Timor Leste over the period since 1998, we became aware of a gap in the financial situation that is directly impacting on the young people we know. Unlike in Australia and other developed countries, where affordable housing can also be an issue, there is currently no capacity for young people with a job to borrow to build their own home.

The culture of Timor is much more communal than in Western countries because without community no one can survive. Government does not have the capacity to provide the kind of income support one can obtain in Australia. So houses and compounds, especially in Dili, tend to be very crowded with the usual human problems that arise from having adults and children crammed together. Although there is high value placed on community, people are still people.

Banks do not lend to anyone except government and the few permanent public servants and at very high interest rates. See UNDP report. Micro-credit organisations do not lend for housing nor at the amount required. We wanted to find a way to fill this gap in access to housing  finance, to assist with the capacity building of future leaders in Timorese society and to give the same opportunity as our own children have here in Australia.

3. How did this restricted financial situation come about?

Timor Leste and its people have been subjected to extraordinary pressures. Over 400 years of Portuguese colonisation and exploitation of resources, invasion by Australian and Japanese troops during World War 2, then from 1975 to 1999, a violent invasion and brutal military occupation by Indonesia. There were numerous attempts by Timorese to get rid of all colonisers and many deaths of Timorese under these occupations.  It was not until UN forces, led by Australia, ended the militia killing spree – that followed the courageous East Timorese vote for independence – that the country could begin to control its own destiny.

Both colonial regimes had staffed their public service with their own nationals so when they left there was virtually no one able to step into administration or government roles. Despite illiteracy being high, malnutrition and poverty everywhere, young Timorese (and older ones) set about educating themselves, through scholarships offered by various countries and the government. This educated generation is starting to step into leadership positions, with continuing UN and foreign aid support. They can find work but cannot improve their housing situation because no one will lend to them. The first borrowers lived in a compound of 60 people and a house of 16, with one bedroom as private space for themselves and two children.

3. How does access to a housing loan help build capacity?

East Timor started life on 20 May 2002, laid waste by Indonesian militia and military, lacking even basic infrastructure and skills. Everyone suffered the loss of family and friends, many people were tortured, Post-Traumatic Stress was the norm. Slowly they have recovered with the healing medicine of a normal, peaceful life. Poverty and malnutrition are still widespread but people are happy to be free. While subsistence farming is the main work that people engage in and survive on, part of recovery has been education and employment. A further aid to healing is adequate housing, space, time to reflect. That’s where SETL comes in.

4. How is East Timor going?

This is the question we are often asked as we go about SETL business.

Visually Dili is a far cry from the shattered ruins we saw in 2000, investment in education and health have been priorities country-wide but many problems remain. Unemployment, especially among youth, is high, the economy is oil dependent and Australia refused until 2017 to renegotiate its maritime boundary with Timor Leste in accordance with international standards. This is because Australia did a deal with Indonesia to divide up resources in the Timor Sea, an agreement supported by both major Australian political parties. A half-way maritime boundary, the international norm, would return to Timor Leste’s control much more of the oil and gas resources there. In this sense East Timor is still struggling against another colonial power, Australia. The new maritime boundary agreement is due to be announced in March 2018.

See more in our News segment on the East Timor Australia Oil issue.

5. How successful has SETL been and what challenges have we had?

SETL began in 2012, started fund-raising and became a not-for-profit association. We raised enough capital to provide a loan to build the first house which was completed at the end of 2015. Loan repayments have been met on time and are proceeding.

We went to Timor Leste mid-year 2016 to discuss the Pilot Program, ie. the first loan, to have a frank and open exchange about working inter-culturally around a housing loan. It is important to SETL that the project came from a need expressed by East Timorese within the country and that it continues to be discussed with the borrowers themselves to explore the financial, legal  and cultural issues that a housing loan has raised  both for SETL and in East Timor where no one is used to this kind of finance. This process was an excellent learning process for SETL and we have modified our processes in accordance with it.

We also have been exploring finding a partner in Timor Leste, to be a “face” on the ground,  to do a financial assessment of future borrowers and some financial education about loans. There is a traditonal lending system called deve, in which people borrow from each other, but young people are not used to managing bank-style housing loans which can be challenging for borrowers in any country. We have now such a partner, local East Timorese, to do this for the next loan.

6. Who decides the type of house?

SETL offers loans of up to $25,000  for housing of the borrowers’ own choice. Our first borrowers were a young couple, both working, with two young children. They changed their minds half-way through and decided to build a more expensive house because they were thinking of the future.  Their house and land will become a home for extended family, a compound in the future, and they might never have the chance for  housing finance again. They worked out their finances and a reasonable repayment plan so SETL agreed.

7. Why finance such a  group in a country when the majority are poor?

There are many organisations working  in East Timor. SETL is just addressing one gap between micro-credit groups and the banks. Our borrowers must have a bank account in Timor Leste ( ANZ Timor Leste has now raised the initial deposit to $US 2,000), have land that they can prove ownership of and have a job with a reasonable abiilty to repay (though our interest rates are low and our scheme is flexible when problems arise). Other organisations are working on housing at other income levels.

This kind of housing finance is no more than young people in Australia have access to. Our aim is meet an expressed need and to avoid being paternalistic by imposing outside perspectives. The borrowers choose the type of house they want and can afford.

8. How can I donate?

Contact us and we will tell you how.

9. Is my donation tax deductible?

All contributions to SETL have been donated by our family, friends and supporters and by fund-raising events. At this stage we do not have tax deductibility in Australia.



The questions we are asked most often are answered right here.

Not finding what you want? Reach us directly through our Contact Us page.