Бороо brings beauty to everything

I have never loved rain (бороо: borro) as much as I have today.

After many long months where the temperature dropped down to -45C and the sky was black with pollution from burning tires and dirty coal, followed by a month of yellow dust storms that made smiling or opening eyes outside impossible, today is the first day that I have breathed clean air in 8 months.

I have been unable to stay inside. I walked the entire city breathing as deeply as physically possible. My nose and lungs are intoxicated by the smell of wet dirt. Overnight grass has sprung up in wet ditches and there is a damp quiet to the sound of traffic. I am skipping and jumping. Violins and cellos pluck new songs in my head.

This month I have been helping a local women farmers association, while I wait for comments on final reports on GIS maps and policy papers. This NGO teaches the poorest of the poor in Mongolia to farm so so they can afford to send children to school, feed their family, and supplement their income in general.

This month has been a truly happy one for another reason. I accomplished the impossible and my own personal challenge. I was able to teach a Mongolian farmer web design without the use of language. We were both left glowing in excitement. This glow has lasted for days. There are so many ways to communicate that are underappreciated and underutilized. This experience left me feeling that the unspoken ways of communicating are the key to effective teaching. It is these connections that capture the learner. I don’t really think it is the material. When these connections are strong they inspire creativity and the learning capacity that every teacher craves.

Below is the song that has been echoing in my head as I dance in the rain outside falling on the parched Mongolian steppe.


Capacity Building

When I arrived in Mongolia last year, I looked at the number of tasks outlined by the grant and wondered why I could not just get these done in a few months and go home early. These were foolish thoughts in retrospect. My job has required major rethinking due to serious development issues.

There has been winter weather and flu travel restrictions that lasted for months. I have seen what looks to me like a dichotomy of good and bad herders, as one herder will lose only a few animals and a neighbor will loose all of them.  The pastures when I arrived looked extremely degraded and I have sat on a national committee where this is the discussion. I have felt judged for working on a project installing more wells because most scientists feel that the pasture is 1/3 overstocked due to nil government regulatory controls. I have also learned that the mining is actually the driving economy, it is no longer agriculture and there is a lack of integration between the industries. Regions of the country now have multiple serious documented mercury pollution issues, and many more areas complain of the same.  Many herders practice this dirty mining to secure funds so their kids can afford school. The more environmental option sometimes doesn’t work either. For instance, this winter a herder in my project area decided to comb his goats early to collect enough funds for his child to continue schooling, and the cold killed all his goats a week later.

As far as my project goes, I understand now that the eroding grasslands are the result of an unstable market economy. Even this winter, when a large percentage of the animals died so there is little wool to be had, the factories are refusing to pay a fair price. They are attempting to wait out the herders to get the lowest price. It’s a game of survival with no winners presently. The every-person-for-themselves plan is just not working here, and the environmental and economic repercussions are serious and escalating.

Rather than purely focusing on creating project maps, I have shifted work this winter to capacity building. This is more than conducting trainings. It’s organizational development inclusive of management structure, relationships between organizations, and regulatory frameworks that enable organizations to work at their maximum capacity. I also submitted a policy paper to the Government of Mongolia detailing a path for a national geographic information system where I argue for an integrated system with full participation of government, academic, and business sectors, so that future attempts at capacity building result in sustainable development systems can be handled internally. Presently there is a reliance on foreign donors and international NGOs in Mongolia to handle poverty, natural disaster, and market development.

Mongolia has not had a mass exodus of skilled workers evident in other developing countries. There are many highly skilled people still working in Mongolia, and they are working outside their profession because higher education is not valued highly enough. Many government jobs are appointed and staffed based on family and friend relationships, rather than skills and abilities. I am consistently asked to train government GIS employees who have only had a week-long course from an international NGO.

Outside of work hours, I have advised many Mongolian graduate GIS students, working on projects focused on the extent of mining pollution, forage prediction, water use and policy, climate change indicators, and urban planning. Professors lament that their brightest ecology students all end up working for mining companies because no other employer pays. The majority work as secretaries and other administrative positions only using their word processing and number skills.

In response, I am planning a GIS conference on in hopes of sparking some of the missing connections between government, business, and academia. The committee is working to personally invite local leaders with no training in GIS, to educate them on the value of this science for economic growth and development solutions. I just built a conference website at www.geospatialmongolia.org and if you are just learning about this conference and you want to contribute a talk or poster—ignore the abstract dates and email the committee. We want you to be there!

Unfolding Secrets

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.