Posts Tagged With: Work

For Mongolian Government Nerds Only


Mongolian Parliament Building (it only looks gloomy in the rain)

Soon after I got to work this morning I was asked to cover a meeting hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. After a quick detour home to upgrade my outfit (mindful that in Asia it’s far, FAR better to appear late than in sneakers), I arrived for a round table discussion led by the ODIHR on their report as an election observer of Mongolia’s most recent presidential election, held in June, 2013. The report was just finalised and is being discussed with various stakeholders, including government ministries, the political parties and some civil society organizations (such as the NGO I work for).

Mongolia has a unicameral parliamentary system, with 76 members of parliament and a Prime Minister who is elected by the members. There is also a President, who is elected by a popular vote and once elected steps out of his or her party to serve in a non-partisan, symbolic role as representative of the Mongolian people. The President is the Head of State and Commander in Chief, while the Prime Minister leads the government and chooses people for Cabinet positions.

As an American, my understanding of parliamentary governance isn’t completely solid, even after five years in Malaysia, and a system that includes both a President and a Prime Minister is that much more confusing. But both the husband and I worked in government in the US, and watching Mongolia develop its young democracy is fascinating. In addition, the NGO where I work is conducting a series of training sessions for women from rural areas and underserved communities to expand their political participation. The sessions are funded only through 2014 however, and I just wrote an application for continued funding from the US State Department, under the Global Women, Peace and Security initiative. The State Department thinks, and I agree, that bringing more women into decision-making positions helps countries stabilize and develop in positive ways. And it’s interesting that Mongolia, which has more educated women than men and high levels of women in the workforce, lags way behind other countries and its own targets in women holding political office.

Sorry, where was I again? Right, how did that 2013 election go?

Generally, it went fine. As was carefully noted, fundamental human rights were respected during the campaign. The recommendations for improvement included some administrative/procedural fixes, but mostly concerned greater disclosure and transparency. A few examples:

  • De-criminalize libel, because the current law limits free speech by journalists. Libel should be a civil offence instead of criminal.
  • Review the legal framework regarding media generally, in order to strengthen journalists’ ability to provide unbiased and fair coverage of elections and candidates.
  • Provide for disclosure of ownership of media outlets in laws pertaining to media.
  • Reform liability for content, so that politicians and parties are held accountable for providing misleading content, rather than the media outlets themselves. (“I’m XYZ, and I approve this message.”)

I pause here to note that Mongolians widely distrust their national media, to the extent that the Mongolian government describes this mistrust as a problem in its annual reports to international development entities. Reporters are often paid by individuals or businesses to write particular stories, and there is very little fact-checking. People rely on what they hear from their friends and neighbors instead of news sources. So, there is a lot of room for improvement in media coverage of elections.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Introduce more regulations regarding campaign financing, because there is a lack of transparency and oversight in this area.
  • Allow more than just ten days for people to check their voter registration status.
  • Allow prisoners to vote.
  • Allow presidential candidates to run without a political affiliation. The ODIHR representatives noted this as particularly important to enable individuals to represent the country as a whole.

The round table discussion participants mostly agreed — or said they did — with these recommendations, and acknowledged that whoever has the most money wins. There was a lot of talk about improving procedures, and what surprised me, and I think surprised the ODIHR team, was a high level of concern about electronic vote counting machines. Not voting machines, just machines to count ballots; apparently, people do not trust the machines, thinking of them as unproven and confusing. The non-partisan/non-governmental Voter Education Center runs an information hotline and said they got some 1200 calls on election day (remember that the population is only about 2.7 million) asking for basic information, and many of those calls were from poll workers.

Which goes to show — principles and accountability matter in democracy, but low-level mechanics matter a lot too.

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9 Mongolian Governors…

_MG_7596Walk into a Bar provincial city in Indonesia….

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. photo (4)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.


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View From the Expat Window


The view from my office

Expat life involves so much learning about your host country. All kinds of basic things that we take for granted at home seem unfamiliar here. I was reminded this morning of how off balance we were our first year in Malaysia, how we never knew when the holidays were. I was working in a round-the-clock NGO, and the husband was working from home, so neither of us was in a 9-to-5 world. Add to that our complete ignorance of Muslim and Hindu holidays, and, well, we were always the losers at the expat parties who had no idea there was a three day weekend coming up. I thought about that this morning when Himself texted to say there was no one in his office and he had no idea why. Oh, here we go again…

In Mongolia we both are in offices with mostly regular schedules, but because of our work, we get quite particular views of the country. The husband is working in local government to improve city services. He knows all about garbage collection, the city’s centralized heating system and how people get water — stuff that most expats and plenty of locals never think about. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR to its friends), and I’ve learned that one of the biggest obstacles for people is that this is a small country. Not small geographically, because another obstacle is having to travel a long way to a clinic, but small-town small. As in: you go in for birth control or some kind of checkup, and the doctor is an old friend of your granny’s and the receptionist dated your brother. It’s VERY awkward for people, especially teenagers. And I find this a fascinating little cultural nugget.

On the other hand, taking taxis is still really stressful for me because I can’t always describe where we live. I’m going to an NGO fundraising event tomorrow night and was actually discouraged from making a donation — huh? Daily office life is full of little surprises because I don’t understand what’s being said around me. And the husband’s office was mysteriously empty this morning.

What we do know is weird stuff.

Here’s another example from working in children’s rights in Malaysia: There’s a Malaysian island called Pulau Ketam (“Crab Island”) that I heard about early on as a notorious drop-off point for human traffickers and as a site where dogs were abandoned. Horrifying, right? It was at least a year later that I found out the island actually is famous as a day excursion for the food — crab, duh. You’d think I’d have picked up the food connection, but I had no idea that normal people just go there to eat.


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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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It’s a Funny Thing, Being an “Advisor”

I’m working on a grant proposal this week, but more of my time is spent being on call for questions that come up. Now is the time that the UN agencies here are setting up their plans for 2014, and the organization I work for does a lot with UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, so my colleagues are setting up projects and budgets for next year. It’s easiest to submit these in Mongolian, so I can’t help directly, but I answer lots of questions about how to present information. We’ve also spent a big chunk of time this week talking about how to improve the work habits of two of the junior staff. (Another time I will vent about how “capacity building” should mean more than just getting people to show up for work, but this is where things are.)

When I came back from lunch today — IMG_0832 they worry that I’m not finding enough to eat nearby, so I took a picture of my sandwich to show them — there was a young woman talking to my colleague/interpreter, and I was asked to sit with them. The visitor is a former tv journalist, now finishing her Masters and wanting to do a series of tv programs about this NGO; can we provide funding for that? Weeellll, I said, not sure we could/would/should fund that ourselves…but then the conversation went on to the idea that she develop her idea for a short series of episodes on gender-based violence in Mongolia. I talked a bit about how to structure a proposal and who might fund the project, and we all got pretty excited. No idea what will come of it, but it would be really fun to watch and help something like this take shape.

THEN they called me in to show me a picture of a perfume box on someone’s phone. Apparently her husband’s got a friend who’s offering to sell this for about USD 80.00, and she wasn’t sure it was real Chanel. (Just for the record: they have no idea I have an insane perfume collection; I think it’s just that I’m a westerner who might know.) My — strong — guess was no, because the box wasn’t right, and since I’m going through duty-free this week, I offered to get her some of the real stuff. Yes, please! At which point I made a poorly-recontextualized and hard to translate joke about drug mules – perfume mules – camels – perfume camels and thought maybe I’d better shut up and go back to my grant proposal.

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