Thoughts From Mongolia III

The food in Mongolia is a real trip unless you love fatty MEAT, MEAT AND MEAT three times a day. You have your choices of camel (yes true), horse (of course), tons of sheep (mutton) and beef, and limited amounts of chicken. Unless you go to a fancy restaurant there are few salads and if you could find one, it usually doesn’t have lettuce, but is like a vinegar salad. My translator and the woman who attends all of my meetings comes from a traditional Mongolian family and doesn’t really like other ethnic foods so we wind up in more traditional Mongolian places to eat. It is interesting trying to be a vegetarian in this meat country, but I brought lots of power bars, dried fruit and some other nutritious delicacies. I totally realize that I am in this part of the country not because of the food but because of the people and culture.

I had a fabulous session this evening at one of the largest private foundations in the country that is working on environmental and other grassroots issues. I conducted a 2-½ hour training session for environmental leaders. Among the many issues they are working on are: minimizing the impact of gold and copper mining on the pasture land and the rivers; dealing with the regulation of tourists in national parks; and stopping hydroelectric power plants. The majority of the folks were from the countryside all over Mongolia and they were the “real deal.” They were wonderful people—all community leaders and heads of NGOs.

A number of the people were wearing traditional outfits and probably all of them lived in gers in the countryside. I was wondering how their life must be living through winters that sometimes go as cold as minus 50 degrees. In the case of the reindeer people that work in the northern part of the country contiguous to Siberia, they live in tents rather than gers. We talked about the concepts of community organizing, social justice, human rights and how people get power. It is the same message that we give to people in Denver, or anywhere around the world. The ability to win on issues has to do with establishing a firm organizational foundation, selecting the issues carefully, and building the necessary strategies and tactics. The response was tremendous and I am hoping to work with these people again in the future.

The training session was entirely in Mongolian because no one spoke a word of English. The interpreter was a wonderful young Mongolian woman who translated alone for the whole time. I really enjoyed myself.

I met with United Nations officials this morning with the director of the section that deals with poverty in this country. Under Soviet control there was no poverty. When the country turned democratic in the 1990s, the poverty rate shot up to over 36 percent with seniors and persons with disabilities the worst affected. The poverty statistics stayed about this number until 2003 and in the past few years it has been reduced to about 33 percent. Driving around the city you see homeless people bundled up in the cold and young kids in the restaurants trying to sell you things. However it is nowhere near the level that you see in Africa

There are over 7,000 registered NGOs in the country. This seems remarkable to me but many of the organizations are one person operations or they operate on an all-volunteer basis. Raising money in these former communist countries is a challenge because there is no history of philanthropy and what philanthropy there is usually is manifested by people giving money to friends or neighbors for health care, or taking care of people directly. The government is not active in providing resources for NGOs even if they provide services like food, housing, or other basic needs.

There are a few international private foundations that help in selected areas, and some of the international NGOs like CARE, World Vision, Save the Children, and UNICEF will contract with the local organizations to provide services. I met folks from an organization with a budget of less than $50,000 (USD) that covers a full-time staff of five plus administrative expenses and all program related costs. The majority of the boards of directors are just legal entities and are not actively engaged in helping to promote the organization, and the staff ( if there is one) is almost entirely focused on the programs rather than building, growing or strengthening the organization.

There is a critical need for the services that Richard Male and Associates provides to organizations throughout the United States here in Mongolia. That is one of the purposes of this trip. I am conducting a scoping visit to see how we could help develop the NGO community. It is clear that both the individual organizations need to be strengthened dramatically as well as the NGO sector throughout the country. There appears to be a need for a national organization to coordinate and strengthen the sector as a whole and to try to develop the beginnings of a philanthropic value among the emerging middle-class.

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