Posts Tagged 'social commentary'

baby it’s cold

We’re in the single digits (Fahrenheit) now during the day, which is a definite subzero overnight.  Rumor has it a cold front is moving in tonight, resulting in some seriously frigid weather for the next few days.  Of course, weather channel says nothing of this, but the Mongolian meteorologists seems to know what’s what.

It is a little unreal to check the weather and see consistently negative temperatures, and “highs” in the teens.  It seems absurdly cold to me, and yet when I go outside (in the daytime), it doesn’t seem too bad.  Of course, it will only get colder.  In two weeks, the “highs” will hover around zero degrees or so.

Times like these, I think that the Soviets weren’t half wrong in putting in centralized heating all over their cities.  Mongolia followed suit, and I’m left with a toasty warm apartment that is often hard to leave.  But the people in the ger districts are off the heating and water grid (though often have electricity), and I can only imagine living in a portable hut with felt walls in this weather.

Worse though, as the people with no dwelling whatsoever.  The homeless of Mongolia have it bad.  In the winter, they often sleep in the sewers and near hot water pipes.  The former is obviously not ideal, and the latter can be dangerous, as the pipes can be scalding hot.  The few unfortunate souls sleeping on the streets are left to fend for themselves and hope not to freeze to death overnight.   These same people are scorned for their excessive drunkenness, but maybe in the bitter bitter cold, half a bottle of vodka can very warming, and maybe the intoxication aspect is of lesser consequence.

cough cough hack

So lockdown continues for another 14 days, with schools and other things still closed.  But I’m mostly concerned about the pollution and the constant hacking and nose-blowing that never seems to stop.

The air is hazy, and the smell lingers in everything.   It isn’t so bad in the day time, but at night, it can be a major disincentive to going out (which works for now, since everything closes at 9 pm). I think as it gets colder, the daytime haze will grow, as more people burn things 24-hours a day.   Sometimes, the haze is so bad that the mountains that ring the city are not visible.

The smell is not the pleasant one of smoke.  It’s more like plastic, and dung, and maybe even tires.   It is acrid and vaguely nauseating, and with the biting cold, it sears the inside of your nostrils.  Only two months left, and its not the cold that will get me, but the pollution.

policy training

As part of my work with OSF, I have been assisting with the policy fellowship.  The fellows are all affiliated with NGOs or universities for the most part, and have little to no experience with public policy.  Thus, part of the fellowship’s objective is to allow the fellows to become familiar with policy analysis and research, through the pursuit of their own policy study project.

I can’t speak for the fellows, but I am definitely learning a lot. Having to teach concepts requires a person to really delve into a topic and learn a lot about it. We have a lot of words in English that we use interchangeably but that have distinct meanings.  When communicating in English, we can gloss over these specific and non-specific definitions. But when te words need to be translated into another language their usage needs to be precise and clear. Add the complication of Mongolian having far fewer words, and I”ve never had to think so hard about basic words like “fact”, “assumption”, “problem”, etc. The other major thing I’ve learned is one that every training facilitator learns – group dynamics makes or or breaks the workshop. And the trainers’ role is to ensure that cohesion is found quickly.

Now put these together – group dynamic and translation issues – and you have my situation – facilitating a training in a language I don’t speak on a topic with a lot of universal elements that are strongly contextual.

For the most, I’d say we were successful, in surprising ways. The activities on argument and analysis worked better than expected, given that the examples were taken almost verbatim from the GRE.  At the last minute, I removed the game “2 truths and a lie”, only to have the fellows ask to play it. So we did, and not only did they enjoy it but they understood the point immediately. And even better, they picked up on subtexts in another exercise, intuitively getting the point, which leads me to wonder if critical thinking does not need to be extensively taught, but just encouraged to emerge.

In other news, I am undergoing a spur-of-the-moment apartment move and have recently returned from the countryside, so expect pictures of Western Mongolia once I’m resettled.

cultural divides

I’m back in the office again for a few weeks before heading west for the eagle festival.   While in town, I’m working to develop a policy training session that will last 3 days.  The Policy Fellows are heading into the home stretch of their research, having completed almost all of their data collection.  The key now is to focus on turning that data into policy, constructing logical arguments, and generating policy alternatives.  So, for 3 days, we will review the steps of policy analysis and spend some time with some one-on-one work (hopefully outside the city in a national park).

I’m currently working on developing some training exercises for this workshop.  Day 1, we basically modified activities from a training manual created by LGI.  For Day 2, though, we’d like to spend a little more time working on translating data into effective arguments.  I’ve been searching around for some ideas, and have decided to turn one activity into a re-hash of everyone’s favorite exercise – the Analyzing an Argument writing section from the GRE.  It’s a pretty good example of using facts vs assumptions, plus what to do about missing data.   But I’m having one slight issue.

Until you leave the US, you never realize how US-centric we really are.  There is almost nothing universal about American culture, except perhaps that it is so pervasive that people in other countries are already somewhat exposed.  But so many institutionalized cultural elements are taken for granted, and in reviewing the Argument topics on the GRE page, it occurs to me that part of our isolationist attitude is already embedded in our education system.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – obviously, some things are distinctly American and, for example, someone interested in domestic issues benefits greatly from being well-versed in these areas.  But I must have reviewed over 100 topics before I found 3 that I could modify for the Mongolian context.  Foreign students taking the GRE are at a major disadvantage here for applying to American schools.

Would it be difficult to universalize this section of the GRE, and for that matter, any other part of our educational system that creates a distinct advantage or home-grown students?  Would it be useful or beneficial?  Politically expedient? Do we like our uniquely American system?  And how does it work the other way?  Are our students too Americanized?  I find sometimes that Americans have a harder time adjusting here than expats and visitors from other countries.  Is that tied into our education system too?

art of the cross-sell

I’ve been out of the city for a few weeks (posts to follow), hence the quiet around here lately.   But now I’m back in the city, and after this weekend’s flurry of goodbye parties, I hope to really buckle down and clear off the lingering items on my to-do list.  At least for a few weeks, before my brothers arrive and the whirlwind starts again.

Being back in the office is a secret relief.  While I love traveling and experiencing new things, the office routine is a bit comforting.  Of course I say this now, and in 3 weeks I’ll be itching to head out again. But currently, OSF is working on their strategic plan, and this is the sort of thing I enjoy doing – the brainstorming and big picturing that goes behind making a 2-year plan.   It is fascinating to watch their progress on this, and offer my insights based on my experiences with American organizations and non-profits.

Today, we had an enlightening conversation about the word “cross sell”.  I was asked to explain it, so I gave the superficial definition – just the idea of selling a second related product to a customer after a successful first sale.  But, because it seems a bit odd that we have a term and a concept for something so mundane, I tried to get more into the “why” of the word.  Which is where things got tough, because so much of language is related to culture, or at least a way of expressing culture.

See, the cross-sell is more than just selling a second or third product.  It’s about adding value to a product for the consumer, and about customer retention and building a relationship.  The cross-sell isn’t just for the purposes of unloading more crap onto your willing customer, though our American penchance for buying more crap makes it a bit easier.

My Mongolian colleagues understood the idea of add-on “deals”, but the psychology behind the transaction was a little bit lost.  Our service-oriented, consumerist, capitalist culture has yet to make inroads here in Mongolia.  While competitiveness is a newly burgeoning concept here, it has yet to establish itself into the national psyche.  And free-market economics, driver of competitiveness, which essentially drives the need for service and relationship-building, is still on the fringe.

So the idea of being sold a motorcycle, and then being offered the helmet at a lower cost makes sense, of course, from the consumer point of view.  But thinking about this from the business point of view is something of a new experience for Mongolians.  It’s the reason why sellers won’t go below a specific price, even if it means losing the sale entirely and having to hold on to inventory far longer than necessary.  It’s also the reason why restaurants operate with only half of their menu items, and no one seems to be bothered. And it’s the reason why buying a bottle of wine is often more expensive than buying 4-6 glasses of wine (interestingly, it’s cheaper to buy 0.5 L of beer, vs 2 0.33 L mugs of beer).

I imagine this is all rapidly changing from a Mongolian perspective, but from my perspective, where I take these things for granted, it seems excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, I have to settle for paying for my wine a glass at a time, and feeling no loyalty towards the  businesses I frequent.

history in the making

Today, Mongolia inaugurated its first non-former-Communist president. From

Soon after taking the oath of office the newly elected President of Mongolia , Ts. Elbegdorj, gave a call for national unity, asserting that  he would “work to fulfill the trust of those who supported me, and also work to gain the trust of those who did not”. Addressing dignitaries, both Mongolian and foreign, assembled at the Great Hall of Government House, he thanked people for electing him, saying democratic responsibility assumes more importance in times of crisis. On his part, he said he would not be a leader who held office to serve his own personal interests, but would instead give all his energy to serve the great democratic citizenry of a great democratic country.

The historic choice of May 24 showed people wanted reform and change. Above all, they wanted fairness, as much as they wanted clean water and fresh air. A corrupt state system corrodes the nation and renders it powerless. “I want to tell everybody, ‘Stop corruption in state work right from this moment’,’ he said.

His priority would be reforming the judicial system, as the fundamental basis of a truly fair society was that everybody was equal before the law. Mongolia did not need foreign advice or help to achieve this. What it did need was, he said, unity among the people to work for a common purpose.

Turning to guests from abroad, Elbegdorj thanked them all for attending the ceremony and said Mongolia’s traditional foreign policy to have friendship with all nations would be pursued with a new vigor and thrust. Mongolia will continue to have special ties with its two neighbors, but will also seek to be an active member of the world community.

The ceremony went with clockwork precision. Elbegdorj took the oath at 12.06 p.m., knelt before the national flag, and then received the seal of office from his predecessor. He had been persuaded not to wear a business suit as he had wanted, but to stick to convention. He, however, shunned ostentation and while Enkhbayar wore the same deel of handmade silk from 1940 and a handmade hat with 32 cross stitches that he had done when he took office four years ago, the new President was in things more ordinary.

Interesting to note the mention of judicial reform – it is gaining a lot of momentum here as something that needs change.  One of OSF’s policy fellows is working on this same issue.

mandate for change

In 2006, Daniel Ortega won the presidential election, ushering in the rebirth of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Of course, time changes everything, so the radical leftist agenda they had formerly embraced was tempered with a newfound appreciation of capitalism, and oddly, the embrace of the Catholic Church.   Still, Chavez was on board, and Nicaragua turns sharply left again after years of American-dominated politics.

I was in Nicaragua the following January and was able to watch the inauguration. It was a solemn affair that lasted several hours, with a number of speeches made by a number of Latin America’s most influential leaders.  The US presence was noticeably lacking, even more so when the ill-placed flag of Puerto Rico was abruptly whisked off stage once it became visible.

Ten years earlier, Mongolia was transitioning from a Soviet-style system of governance to democracy, a process that did not go nearly as smoothly as everyone had hoped.  In 1996, US NGOs supported the creation of a Democratic coalition, combining the liberal and social democrats under a single banner.  One organization in particular, the International Republican Institute, for whom I interned, provided expertise in coalition-forming and platform-building.

The Democrats won the majority in Parliament that year, and Ts. Elbegdorj was appointed head of Parliament. Two years later, the coalition fell apart, and in the next parliamentary election, the People’s Revolutionary Party regained the majority, which they have kept ever since (as well as holding the presidential office), with one exception (during which Elbegdorj served as PM).

In 2008, Americans pushed their own desire for change forward, electing our first non-white President, in what I would consider a bit of a landslide (Ohio, PA, Florida, CO?).  I was again lucky to attend an historic inauguration.

And now, in 2009, change once again reappears.  After last year’s riots following allegations of election fraud during parliamentary elections (which the former communists swept), Mongolians were more circumspect about this year’s presidential elections.  Still, a number of events have led to a growing dissatisfaction with the state of Mongolian politics as well as its economy.  Accusations of fraud and corruption abound, and in many areas, from governance to economic policy to land transfer and commercial development.

The incumbent, Enkbayar, was generally assumed to have this election all tied up.  The MPRP holds Parliament and they have held the presidential seat since Mongolia declared independence from China.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia moved towards democracy, but there are still many Soviet holdovers, both political and cultural.  And besides, how often does an incumbent lose?

Just often enough, it seems.  While election results are not officially in, both major parties have agreed on one thing – that Elbegdorj is this election’s winner, even if by a slim margin.  Mongolia has once again presented a mandate for change, defeating a sitting president with its first ever democratic-leaning candidate.

I have no idea if this means anything – I am not sure it meant anything in 1996, despites high hopes for democracy and transparency in Mongolia.  But more than 10 years out, and in the midst of a global financial crisis, I think Mongolians are not willing to let opaque governance be their limiting factor anymore (I might be biased though – I do work at the Open Society Institute).  I am just cynical enough to consider that Elbegdorj doesn’t have entirely clean hands, but just optimistic enough to think that they are probably cleaner than his predecessor’s. And I think the signs point to positive change, both in terms of governance and sound economic policy. And maybe even more importantly, in terms of Mongolia’s engagement with the rest of the world.