Ten years ago, Give2Asia’s Program Manager Jason Raby was living in Mongolia as a two-year Peace Corps volunteer. The past decade has seen shifts in the needs and challenges facing the region. Through an interview with Batbold Zagdragchaa, Give2Asia’s current local Field Advisor in Mongolia, Jason reconnects with the state of the country and uncovers useful guidance for those interested in philanthropy to the region. Read their backgrounds below.
Jason: Thank you for making the time to discuss the state of Mongolia on the ground today. Ten years ago, my work in the region required me to learn a lot about its unique challenges. Can you please begin by outlining the key ways that Mongolia is distinct from other Asian countries?
Batbold: The most distinct aspects of Mongolia are its freezing winters and open space. Mongolia has a large territory, but a very small population – it’s the world’s 18th largest country, but ranks 135th in population. Our traditional culture is different from many Asian countries in that the people were historically nomadic, and many still live that way to practice animal husbandry. These nomadic people live in gers [or “yurts”], and they typically move four times per year, or once per season. Mongolia has a long history, and during the Pax Mongolica period in the 13th century it had a particularly strong influence on world history as a unifier of eastern and western cultures. Following the National Revolution in 1921, Mongolia gradually developed a close relationship with the former Soviet Union and became a socialist country with a centrally-planned economy. Starting in 1990, Mongolia became a democratic country and abruptly shifted to a market economy. The transition itself was smooth, in the sense that it was achieved non-violently, although the suddenness of the transition led to infrastructural challenges as well.
Jason: During my experience in Mongolia from 2007-2009, these were emphasized as key areas of need:
better economic opportunities in rural areas (not just concentrated in the capital city),
loss of water,
“zuds” [severe winters in which a high number of livestock are lost],
jobs to support recent migrants to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
It has been almost 10 years since I left. What do you see as the strongest areas of need for Mongolia right now?
Batbold: Many factors are pushing people out of rural areas and into the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB), such as economic challenges in rural areas, but UB simply doesn’t have the infrastructure or jobs in place to support this influx. Both ends of this problem combine to form one of the most pressing problems facing Mongolia today. Mongolia currently has a population of 3.2 million, and almost 50% of the population lives in UB. Another factor that is both environmental and economic that is driving people to the capital are “zuds”, because in recent years many herdsmen lost their herds, and thus livelihoods, and decided to move to the capital to try and find work there instead. Entire families have been migrating to UB when their children start university there as well. There are many other reasons that people move to the capital but most are related to the growth in infrastructure and educational opportunities being concentrated in UB.
Jason: We talked earlier about “zuds”, the severe winters that can devastate livestock. They have been an unfortunate but recurring problem in Mongolia. I’m curious about what people are doing to prepare? For our Donors, is there something they could do to be involved?
Batbold: You stayed in Mongolia from 2007-2009, and just before your arrival there were very serious zuds. You probably witnessed many impoverished families. Those early 2000s were very difficult. In the years after your departure we have been fortunate to not experience the zuds, but still the herdsmen have to be well-prepared. International organizations are implementing disaster-mitigation projects. Mercy Corps, for example, implemented a mobile communication system to give the herdsmen early warnings for severe weather systems, so there are some programs being funded to address this issue. While we’ve had a fortunate few recent years with regard to zuds, they remain the #1 potential disaster for Mongolia.
Jason: Given that we’ve just talked about a few areas of great concern for the region, what recommendations would you give to an open-minded philanthropist who was interested in Mongolia?
Batbold: I’d like to see more investment outside of the capital in Mongolia. Programs that focus on economic and educational opportunities outside of UB, as well as projects that work to repair the country’s ecology, would be highly welcome as ecological problems are among the factors pushing people to the capital. 77% of Mongolia’s land is experiencing desertification, which reduces opportunities for herders in the countryside. There is also a problem with miners putting arsenic in the water to find gold. Do you see how so many of these problems are inter-connected? Desertification and harsh winters lead to decreased economic opportunities in the countryside. Limited opportunities push people to attempt a method of mining that poisons the water supply, which makes the ecological situation worse, and the cycle continues.
When so much investment is going into the capital and so little is going to the countryside, it adds to the pull factor of the capital. Right now, Give2Asia is supporting the Bayan Ulgii [a province in western Mongolia which is home to most of the country’s Kazakh population] branch of Khovd University. This is very good! Investing in rural education centers could help incentivize people to stay in their home provinces to get their education there. But we also need to see economic development programs in rural areas so that after education is finished, people will have opportunities to make a living outside of the capital as well.
Jason: When I left Mongolia in 2009, there weren’t many foreign companies operating in the country (with the exception of mining companies). Has there been a growth in foreign investment in Mongolia since then?
Batbold: The Mongolian economy is fairly volatile, as it is dependent on commodities. The main commodities are copper, gold, and coal. The negative result of this is that commodity prices are volatile: in some years they are very high, and in others they drop sharply. From 2011 to 2013, the Mongolian economy was strong, growing by as much as 17%, but this growth dropped sharply from 2014 to 2015. The Mongolian government had gotten accustomed to these boom years and took out many international loans that it was unable to repay when the economic downturn took place, and it came very close to defaulting. The economy began to stabilize last year, but I fear that this could be a recurring trend. In the boom mining years, we saw a lot of international investment in Mongolia. These came largely from Canada, Australia, and China, while US investment is still low in Mongolia, not only in mining but in all sectors.
Jason: Has the boom from mining, and the international investment that comes with it, had a transformative effect on life in Mongolia?
Batbold: Yes, the mining industry boom has a significant spillover effect. When the mining sector grows well, all the other sectors of the Mongolian economy benefit, including trade, banking, communication, and other service industries. However, income distribution is a problem, as a good portion of the earnings go into the hands of foreign mine owners, or to a small number of Mongolians. The general public is frustrated by this inequality, and it’s not improving the lives of needy people.
Jason: Over the next 5-10 years, what are some areas where you see room for improvement in Mongolia's social (nonprofit) sector? Are you hopeful that these improvements will occur?
Batbold: The social sector is very active in Mongolia. Some areas where I would like to see continued focus are children’s programming, especially inclusiveness of children with disabilities or from low-income backgrounds. Women’s empowerment is also an area in need of increased support. On the surface, Mongolia’s indicators on women’s equality seem strong, but domestic violence and human trafficking continue to be issues and the NGOs addressing them are under-funded.
Also, despite the flow of people into the capital, many people truly wish to live in rural areas and are simply unable to due to the poor economic opportunities. UB has been growing every year since the 1990s, but in 2017 for the first time since the start of that trend there were more people who moved out than who moved in! The main reason people move out is that during winter months, UB becomes the most air-polluted city in the world. The main source of the pollution is that residents in ger districts burn coal which produces heavy smog. This brings with it many threats to health, particularly for children.
Jason: You’re working to help grow Give2Asia’s Fiscal Sponsorship program in Mongolia, which means that US donors can make tax-deductible gifts as small as $1 to organizations in Mongolia. What are the organizations that you are targeting, or that you think would be a good fit for the program?
Batbold: I am focusing on active, experienced NGOs. Currently I’m also in contact with educational organizations such as universities, especially those based in rural areas, and with organizations working in the health sector to help address the respiratory problems caused by air pollution.
Jason: There are several major issues that you’ve mentioned today that need to be addressed in Mongolia. But as you’ve explained, many of these issues are interconnected. Investing in new economic opportunities in the countryside has value in its own right, and its added spillover effect is to reduce the pull of UB for people who still live in the countryside. This could help to alleviate the strain on UB’s infrastructure of having to support half of the country’s people. More diversity in economic opportunities could make families less dependent on animal husbandry as a sole source of income, and make them less vulnerable to financial ruin in the face of the next zud. It gives people an alternative to poisoning a water supply in search of gold. With these interconnected issues, there is a greater potential for positive spillover effects from programmatic work that I hope we can make happen. Your local presence is one of the keys to Give2Asia’s growing impact in the region. Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation and follow the path from my time in Mongolia one decade ago to its state now.
Support Mongolia’s Civil Sector
Donate to Khovd State University
Investments in the Bayan Ulgii Branch of Khovd State University, located in a western province of Mongolia, increase the needed educational opportunities in rural areas. As a fiscal sponsorship partner, donations made through Give2Asia’s platform are tax-deductible for U.S.-based donors.
Expand Give2Asia’s Network
Batbold is in constant search of potential partnerships to expand Give2Asia’s trusted network of nonprofits in Mongolia. If you know of a charitable organization desiring fiscal sponsorship in the U.S., please reach out to Alexie Ferreria-Mercado to begin the conversation.
Batbold has over 15 years of experience in project management, program development, social science research and project evaluation. Prior to joining Give2Asia, he led a large project funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC, Canada) to enhance the use of information technology in Mongolia’s education, governance, and livelihood sectors. He also managed an NGO which aimed to promote Mongolia’s relationships with the greater Asia-Pacific region. He holds a Master’s degree in International and Development Economics from the University of Namur, Belgium.
Jason started at Give2Asia in 2015, and currently works as a Program Manager for the Corporate Services team. Prior to joining Give2Asia, Jason served for 2 years as a Community Economic Development volunteer for the United States Peace Corps in western Mongolia. While in the Peace Corps, he was stationed at a Mercy Corps regional field office in Hovd province, and assisted in the Rural Agribusiness Support Program. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations and Pacific Studies from the University of California San Diego.
Give2Asia is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that strengthens communities throughout the Asia Pacific region by building trusted networks for charitable investment, driven by the mission of empowering local knowledge. Its network includes 2,000 grant recipients and 15,000 donors.