The husband was on a trip for work last week, accompanying nine Governors, the City Manager and two staff to Solo, Indonesia. Very interesting stuff, as this is real democracy-building in action, but since he’s not one to write about the trip himself, I thought we’d try a bit of Q&A instead. Questions from me are bold type.
First things first — what is a Governor in Mongolia? Ulaanbaatar has nine districts, each with an elected governor. There is also a City Council, but the governors are completely separate and independent. And they’re very much in the mode of working for the political party. I think it’s probably a Soviet-era system of very top-down, hierarchical structure. They’re selected by the party to run for that office, and seven are part of the ruling party and two are opposition. UB also has a Mayor, who is elected separately, and is technically the governor of the capital city, so he has more power and the rest absolutely defer to him. But if he’s not there, well, the dynamic changes.
And what was the trip for? And why go to Solo? The trip was a study tour, requested by the Mayor in his capacity as Governor (confused yet?), to take public officials to Solo. Solo is a city in a developing country that’s known for its good governance, creative service delivery, and community-based policymaking and budgeting. The trip was designed to take public officials from here, present good governance examples to them, and hopefully generate some ideas and lessons/approaches/ways of thinking that they could bring back to their roles here. The whole country of Mongolia is changing in big ways, small ways and every way in between. They’ve only been more democratic for, what, the last twenty years, tops. This administration, which was a sea change in itself, was only elected in 2012. So, they’re still learning a lot.
Say more about those changes. (Please) There’s definitely a transition of the relationship between the government and the citizenry: accountability, responsibility, and in my work, service delivery. While these public officials in the past have been more like messengers, it’s now more along the lines of being a government executive, running pieces of government and making sure government is meeting its responsibilities and the needs of the public. But part of the disconnect, I believe, is that they’re handpicked by the party, so they’re not campaigning on nor are people voting for their ability to run government or deliver services. I’m curious whether over time the governor positions will become non-party, but it’s too early to predict. Compared to the US, Mongolia is still a very centralised and nationally-run government.
What surprised them most? It was quite amusing seeing them react to tropical weather, particularly humidity. It was like watching Frosty melt away, these big Mongolian guys. From a governance perspective, it was the level of community involvement, and civil society participation and organization. Communities, large and small business groups, artists, birdcage vendors — every category has their own little organized group. It’s very consensus-driven within those groups, and decision making is from the bottom up as well as from the top down. For these guys, that level of community organization was very surprising. And some of them didn’t think that would work here because communities are not as long-established. They were saying that people don’t know their neighbors here in UB.
What surprised you most? That the Mayor is Christian. And that at the Mayor’s house there was a big Christmas tree, a big picture of Jesus and a picture of the Last Supper. It says something about Solo — and Indonesia, such a large Muslim country — compared to Malaysia, that the religious beliefs of the Mayor didn’t matter. Solo’s last Mayor had never held public office before, and he established many of these approaches, this mayor was his vice-Mayor.
And several of the governors really liked durian, trying it for the first time ever. I bought one on the street for them to taste, and some of them really thought it was alright. But when you’re used to drinking fermented horse milk, how bad can durian be?
What was the hardest part? Translating from Indonesian to English and then to Mongolian, in some cases very technical, uncommon vocabulary and subject matter. Transferring knowledge through three languages without dumbing it down, so that the translation didn’t capture what was significant.
How about souvenirs? I was pretty surprised that you came home with a batik shirt; not really your style when we lived in the tropics, so I’m wondering how often you expect to wear it around here? That’s your question? Indonesia’s the place for batik, and we visited a cluster of old-time batik makers, saw the process all done by hand. So, when it came time for shopping…the big issue for the Mongolians was size: picture a sumo wrestler trying to buy something off the rack. But the batik vendors were happy to make a sale, so one of the shops made a custom shirt overnight and delivered it to the hotel the next day.
Thanks for bringing back that mangosteen in your suitcase. You’re welcome. Makan, makan.