Pondering Development in Mongolia

IMG_0787“International development” is hard to define, but generally refers to programs funded, and often undertaken by, international organizations to strengthen institutions of a country such that poverty is reduced, health is improved, rule of law is followed, and civil society is strengthened. The government of the country is involved by necessity at least minimally. Ideally, development priorities and programs are established with cooperation and input from international organizations, governments and civil society organizations, so that each perspective is included.

LOTS of international organizations are working here in Mongolia: the UN agencies, such as UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UNFPA; the World Bank; the Asian Development Bank; international NGOs, such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps, The Asia Foundation. In addition, there are government-linked volunteer programs. The Peace Corps is very active here, with up to 140 volunteers placed in towns and rural areas, and there Australian Civilian Corps volunteers working in Ulaanbaatar, many placed in Ministries and departments of the Mongolian government. Aid funding comes from big international donors, such as the EU, USAID, Australian Aid, JICA and KOICA (from Japan and Korea), Swiss Aid, plus small grants from the embassies and consulates here. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, but you get the picture.

(Disclaimer: while both the husband and I are working in the development field, we are relatively new to this work. I don’t pretend to have anything like a full view of what’s happening in Mongolia, nor do I have any idea what development is like in other places. All I’ve seen is a tiny bit of two countries. So, these are just my limited impressions.)

I’m researching the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Mongolia, which means going through a lot of data. And I’m astonished at the amount and quality of information that’s available, both data and analysis. All the UN agencies and the World Bank produce papers and short overviews describing the areas in which they’re working: the situation for children, economic growth, the environment, human rights, maternal health — you name it. The Mongolian government cooperates in compiling this information, through the National Statistics Office, various Ministries and the universities. Mongolia also has signed on to 40+ international treaties, many of which require regular reporting on implementation.

This is really different from our experience working in Malaysia, where the big international NGOs were basically kicked out in the 1980’s and civil society is weak. The remaining UN agencies keep a very low profile, mostly trying to support local NGOs to do direct service and policy advocacy work. Focusing on the small NGOs means there’s very little good data and analysis, however, because the local NGOs have neither the expertise nor the resource to do that kind of work. It’s good to build capacity, of course, but in the years it takes to build that capacity there is no quality information available.

I look at Mongolian version of reports I, personally and collaboratively, worked on for Malaysia, and the contrast is stunning. Why is UNICEF Mongolia able to produce a comprehensive, 100 page, easy-to-read analysis of juvenile justice — complete with the legal framework, solid statistics, analyses of each component of the process, and actual child participation? Whereas in Malaysia it seemed we just chased our tails, sniped with UNICEF and couldn’t get government to talk to us, much less contribute in any way.

Personal feelings aside, there are bigger questions here. Is this what happens when a government welcomes international assistance? Mongolia has a welcome-all-comers attitude, including “warm” relations with North Korea, whereas Malaysia is very much aligned with Southeast Asian and Islamic countries and chooses friends based on those alliances. How does a country know when it’s had enough help? Because it’s easy to make the wrong decision, relying too heavily and not developing local skills, or relying too little and not developing local skills. And obviously data and analysis are nothing without the leadership and political will to make decisions based on information rather than the temptation of short-term political gains.

I feel like Malaysia has chosen the wrong path at this intersection, and I don’t know how things will progress in Mongolia. Being here now is fascinating because we are watching, and participating in our small ways, real-time choices and progress.

Please do comment if you have experiences or thoughts about the development field (or even if you don’t — we’re welcome-all-comers at this blog, too), especially if you’re Mongolian or have worked in Mongolia. This is a big topic, and I expect to post again about it.

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2 thoughts on “Pondering Development in Mongolia

  1. Alexander Sanger

    Can’t wait to hear about SRH in Mongolia and how our PP is doing! Alex

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Hi! This is a really cool blog. I went to Mongolia in 2012 with a group of social work students and professors to look at the situation of street children in Mongolia. We actually want to write up a report of the juvenile justice system in Mongolia….and interestingly, I have had a rough time finding current (after 2008) data on that specific subject. I do think the question: when is too much help? is a great one!! The people there when we did interviews and small “training” sessions in the social work school specifically for public health – ah!! – you might have a great resource in my mentor Dr. Caren Frost from the University of Utah here who’s a little involved with the school there…she has her info online, but anyway, it seemed like the Mongolian people listened attentively and respectfully, but that there were so many people trying to help and opinions they wanted given in the appropriate context, but it was hard to find traction unless you are there…so thanks for being there!!!!

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