Friday, October 27, 2006

Reason #105 of why Mongolia is awesome

Because recently, when I was walking home past the State Department Store (the biggest store in the country) Queen's "We Will Rock You" was blaring from outside speakers for no reason whatsoever.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Reason #87 of why I think Mongolia's awesome

The Mongolian phrase for "what day of the week is this?" also means "what planet is this?"

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Water Supplies

I was at a conference last week headed by David Dollar, the World Bank Director of China and Mongolia. It was a really interesting, concise lecture and Dollar seemed really smart and well-informed. One thing he discussed that I found particularly intriguing involved the lack of potable water in Mongolia. Essentially, the water in Mongolia is gross and undrinkable. The World Bank, which, as I later learned, is "the world's largest external financier of water supply and sanitation," is trying to resolve this issue. Dollar said that right now in Mongolia, poor people pay 10 times as much for water as others do because they are not on "the network." Dollar feels that, although seemingly counter-intuitive, Mongolians pay too much for water right now, and if the prices were raised, that would allow water companies to expand the network, giving poor people access to water. Dollar also suggested a graduated system, so a certain amount of water, determined as a sufficient amount for daily ablutions, would not be expensive, but any water used beyond that would be. This, in his mind, would both encourage water conservation, and offer access to water to a maximum amount of people.

It all sounded really impressive to me. Then I happened upon this article by William Finnegan, from a 2002 New Yorker. It's about the World Bank initiating the same project in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and the same numbers, "poor people are paying 10 times as much for water as others" are used. There, the project seems entirely ineffective and, ultimately, expensive and beneficial only to the World Bank and the water companies.

I'm not sure what the best solution for Mongolia is in terms of water. I know that Lake Hovsgol in Northern Mongolia holds 1% of the world's fresh water, which makes it really crucial right now when the world is running out of drinking water. It also seems that Mongolia should be able to give its citizens access to fresh water when it has so much of it.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Mongolian Education

Like almost everything in Mongolia, the education system is in flux. Even though the Soviet system ended 17 years ago now, education here still hasn't fully come into its own. Under the Soviet system, schools were funded by the state, books were funded by the state, supplies were funded by the state. Literacy was at an all time high (while it still hovers about 90%, under the Soviets, it was essentially 100%).

In the past 17 years, some schools have been privatized, and others have been closed, as the state has been unwilling or unable to sustain heating and teachers' salaries in the small local schools that dot the countryside.

This year, for the first time, the education system is being expanded. Previously, children started going to school at age seven. This year, school starts formally at age six, and next year, at age five. Currently, wealthier families, as in other countries, send their children to nursery schools, but many do not.

Up until 2003, education funds were determined at the local level, which meant that if a soum (province) governor didn't care for education, or had his own pet project, education in that area was underfunded. In 2003, the education system was centralized under the Minister of Education in UB. Unfortunately, however, funding is still based on an "average coefficient," on the aimag level, so a school of 200 in an aimag with a lot of larger schools gets more funding than a school of 200 in an aimag with a lot of smaller schools.

Interestingly, UB does not participate in the centralized education system. UB, which hosts 30 percent of all school-aged children, follows its own rules.

Teachers' salaries are a decent amount higher in UB than they are elsewhere in the country, but considering the higher cost of living and the greater number of hours teachers in UB work, (due to staggered school hours to allow more students to go to each school) the difference is hardly commesurate. What's more, many teachers outside of UB are giving housing and/or food and firewood as compensation for their work, along with their salaries. Like a lot of people in UB, this causes teachers to often look for side jobs to increase their incomes.

One of my friends teaches at the University of Humanities, which, until recently, was considered one of the best universities in Mongolia. In the past few years, however, it has been privatized and so its administration now views the school merely as a money-making venture. What's happened is that teachers are now told not to fail anyone. The school wants as many students paying as possible, even if they're not keeping up. One of the Peace Corps workers is placed there, and because she is paid monthly by the Peace Corps no matter how many hours she works, the administration is always trying to have her work long hours and to teach the night classes, which cost more to go to, and for which normal workers are paid extra. Needless to say, the reputation of the school has declined.

As in almost every area of the Mongolian government, various foreign NGOs and governments cover some of the costs. The Japanese government is a huge donor and, thus, participant, in the Mongolian education system, as are the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. I can't imagine the US or any other "developed" country allowing foreign governments to pay for and participate in the country's education reform.

Currently, the World Bank is funding the delivery of books to every child in every soum in Mongolia. Many schools and school libraries have not received new books since the Soviet era. I, through a side organization, am in charge of finding books in the Kazakh language for children in Bayan-Ogii, the Westernmost province in Mongolia. I'm searching for publishers in Kazakhstan that print non-religious or non-indoctrinating books that are willing to sell their copyrights to Mongolia, and that will give us a discount if we buy 200 copies of each book we buy. So far, it's proving difficult.

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