In international development, you never know how things will unfold. This month I learned two very important things. Firstly, if law is not written well it can hamper work. Secondly, if you are working for an international donor and your money is funneled through the government, you better clarify your relationship with the government!
I was just officially informed by the Ministry in an official letter that all map information that I collect on wells is state secret and if I distribute it, I may go to prison for 2 years. WHAT?! There was a long list of stipulations read to me detailing no sharing of information on winter shelters, summer camps, streams, etc, etc, etc. It became clear that the government understands that I work for them, not the NGO that pays the bills. Then I was asked to sign a legal document for access to data that I already had and say that I was OK with the rules. Ultimately, I am not sure what it said fully because the document was in Mongolian, and no official English translation was provided. My translator did his best to decipher the legalize, but legalize is scary in any language.
I decided not to sign. Then I deleted all data that the government gave me, pulled the environmental reports off the website (they had maps in them), and canceled all data technical working group meetings indefinitely. I am not interested in visiting the prison and am not going to argue. The majority of my data not Mongolian, but they did not make a distinction on where the data came from.
For the next four days, I searched for translations of the laws read to me. Most of the laws are outdated; they only refer to printed paper maps of specific scales, not digital data. Worryingly, I read that prison sentences could be 3-8 years, not 2. The main law is not translated yet and the official list of all things considered state secret appears to be stated a “secret”.
I am using international donor money (tax money from citizens from wealthier Asian countries) for things that the general public is not freely informed about. This feels fundamentally wrong. Honestly, there are many decisions being made on my project that could use more public scrutiny.
Strangely, I found myself smiling for the next few days. Why? I am truly proud to be an American (not the end reaction that I expected!). I am proud because I come from a culture where government transparency is expected and demanded by the public. You can’t understand how much this means until it’s threatened.
In the U.S., government transparency made high-resolution geospatial data free over the internet, available for free download 24 hours a day worldwide. There is a national data standards committee (composed of government, business, and the general public), so data is constantly updated, expanded, and improved.
In Mongolia, when the government has data, it is held tight. You can request it, but requests are unanswered for months or never answered. Knowledge is respected like an object, not a flow. Holding more knowledge is equivalent to holding more power.
If knowledge is respected as a flow, rather than an object, sharing becomes key to its power. In this way, when the sharing stops, the knowledge looses value because it is no longer evolving. This approach has led to rapid technology development, better land use planning, and stronger business development in the United States. I believe the constant flow of information keeps people and countries innovative and on top of financial markets.
Clearly the data that I hold is not truly secret. I can download most of it from the internet freely in Mongolia. But policy has not evolved with the times; so, working in a government capacity is difficult here. Mongolia must review its policies on data sharing and reassess what it considers state secret and punishable by prison.