Development Profile: UNDP in the Southern Gobi Desert
In late May UNDP visited its environment and poverty projects in Omnogobi or South Gobi on the border with China and in the heart of the Gobi Desert. The aimag (province) is home to 45,000 people spread over a territory of 165,000 kilometers. It is a harsh environment where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter and shoot up to plus 40 in summer. What is striking about the capital of Omnogobi, Dalanzadgad, is how well things are working. It is a garden capital – despite being in the desert the central boulevard is covered in trees – and trade with China has brought a prosperity for some herdsmen, many of whom buzz around the town on Planeta motorcycles. The offices of the Malchin television company are hidden by a bouquet of white satellite dishes – it is not an uncommon sight to see a ger with a satellite dish in South Gobi.
Electricity in the air – 85 women discover the Women’s Development Fund
The Mongolian Human Development Report singled out South Gobi for having the highest poverty incidence in Mongolia (41.9 per cent). While this ranking is hotly debated by locals who say it is a statistical anomaly resulting from their low population, there is no question life is hard in the Gobi.
In a crowded room in the Governor’s building, 85 of the poorest women in Dalanzadgad have gathered to hear about an innovative UNDP-initiated fund. The meeting, organised by the NGO the Liberal Women’s Brain Pool, is introducing the Women’s Development Fund. Many questions are asked as to why some of the women were passed over when the local government started distributing poverty alleviation funds.
With the assistance of the British Government who donated Tg 12 million, these women are getting a chance. The Women’s Development Fund was founded in partnership with the Poverty Alleviation Programme Office to take account of the unique role women have in the prosperity of families. Support is key and the women will be assisted by community activists as they develop their project ideas and begin to implement them. In early June they started to receive funding for their projects.
Note: This story was part of a series highlighting life and the state of human development in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert after the publishing of the country’s first human development report in 1997.
Horse mare’s milk, drunk by Mongolians for centuries, has been proven by a team of women scientists to be as healthy as many Mongolians believe. In a UNDP-funded project, women scientists from Mongolia, China and South Korea are exploring new ways to generate income through science. A joint Mongolian/Korean team confirmed the national wisdom of using mare’s milk for treating stomach and intestine inflammations, as well as tuberculosis, liver diseases and cancer. They say the frothy white milk is packed with nutrients and vitamins.
The UNDP-funded Subregional Project of Northeast Asian Countries on Gender Equality through Science and Technology started last March. A team of Mongolian women scientists in the project made the discovery when they explored the bio-chemical composition and immunological activity of Mongolian mare’s milk.
Mongolians have used mare’s milk as part of the traditional diet for centuries. During holidays many urban Mongolians drop in on their rural relatives for a drink of the elixir, saying it will help them to alleviate stress and to heal some chronic diseases. There are even cases of foreign tourists believing mare’s milk is the elixir of life, and will make them younger.
The researchers confirmed that the drying process of mare’s milk does not adversely affect its nutritional value, including proteins, lipids, vitamins, lactose and fatty acids. The mare’s milk was processed using spray drying and lyophilise methods. The research is making it possible to better preserve mare’s milk in the off-season.
The main goal of the project is to find new ways to generate income for poor women. In the case of mare’s milk, rural women will be able to turn to local manufacturers who can preserve the milk. The researchers say the South Koreans expressed keen interest in producing dry diet from mare’s milk.
Another beverage was catching the interest of Mongolians in the late 1990s: beer.
HIV-tainted blood transfusions given in the early 1980s have left some seniors with AIDS, but it is feared many are unaware of their HIV-positive status.
Between 1979 and 1985 – before testing of blood products for HIV became mandatory – 266 transfusion recipients and over 677 hemophiliacs are known to have been infected in Canada, according to the Centre for AIDS Statistics.
But the final numbers are unkown – estimates range from 400 to 1,000 cases of HIV transmission among the 1.5 million Canadians given blood products during this time.
This uncertainty is fueling public concern. With such a serious public health danger, many are shocked by the confusing messages being sent by governments, the Canadian Red Cross Society and hospitals.
But it took the report of an all-party Parliamentary subcommittee on health, released at the end of May, to shock the federal government into calling for a public inquiry into the blood system. The report is highly critical of the decision-making process involved in blood collection and distribution.
“We have members of our group who are seniors,” says Jerry Freise, spokesperson for advocacy organization HIV-BT (Blood Transfusion) Group, whose wife was infected with HIV due to a blood transfusion. “And many of them went for years being misdiagnosed and treated for something other than HIV. Others have gotten sick, and one died without knowing it because nobody told him.
“A classic case is Kenneth Pittman who was infected in 1984. The Red Cross found out in 1985 and they allegedly took two years to tell The Toronto Hospital. The hospital took two years to tell his doctor, and his doctor decided not to tell anybody.
“Another couple, a lady of 59 and a man of 64, called us April 1. She found she was infected, and the reason she took a test is because her husband turned out to be HIV-positive three weeks before a transfusion in 1983. He had gone for years without a diagnosis from doctors.”
This runs counter to the Red Cross’s story.
“Whenever a blood donor tests positive for HIV antibodies, we go back and trace the prior donations,” says spokesperson Angela Prokoptak at the Society’s national office. “The Red Cross supplies blood to hospitals, so we know which units went to which hospital. But the hospital must go through their records to find who they transfused.
“After identifying the recipient, the hospital contacts the recipient’s physician, and then they have them tested. There are of course limitations.
“Since 1987, the Red Cross has been advising people who may be concerned to consult their physician for counselling and advice.”
But subcommitte member Chris Axworthy, an NDP MP, found that hospitals and the Red Cross hesitated to notify former patients for fear of lawsuits. He says the federal government should show some leadership and stop passing the buck to other agencies and departments.
Only two hospitals in Ontario – Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and Princess Margaret Hospital – have tried systematically to contact former patients.
Ontario health ministry spokesperson Layne Verbeek says it is a laborious and costly task for hospitals to notify former patients. “We’ve always informed people if they are thought to be at risk, but many hospitals aren’t in the position to trace. If people are at risk or have doubts, they should be tested.”
Verbeek says recent media coverage has caused an increase in the number of people seeking HIV blood tests – requests for the test doubled after the Sick Kids hospital went public. The provincial government’s lab went from 700 tests per day to 1,300, but Verbeek says that has started to taper off.
The ministry of health is happy with the number of people coming forward to be tested, says Verbeek.
But Friese says the different players are more concerned about lawsuits than informing the public. He is especially upset at the Red Cross for not taking a leadership role in disseminating information.
“The Red Cross and the medical system have failed miserably to contact people. Even today they are reticent to tell people they were part of a risk group and should get treated.” Friese feels the various governments and the Red Cross are leaving the job of informing the public to his group and the Canadian Hemophiliacs Society.
Beat the drums
“It’s my job to beat the drums for the media while I’m dealing with my wife being infected? That’s my job, when these are the ministers of health?”, Friese says with anger.
The effect of AIDS on seniors isn’t new to US-based National Institute on Aging researcher Marcia Ory. She and colleagues helped sound the alarm back in 1989 with the book “AIDS In An Aging Society: What We Need To Know.” In the US, over 10 per cent of AIDS cases have occurred in people over 50.
“Surprisingly, people have ignored older people and the AIDS issue,” says Ory. “You had older people in hospitals who might have complained about fatigue which was thought to be age-related. Older people aren’t as likely to be diagnosed as early because of the assumption that they are not at risk from AIDS.
“We don’t want older people in general to be overly fearful, but we want them to acknowledge the possibility, and to engage in good preventative practices if they are at risk.”
Ron deBurger, director of AIDS prevention for the Canadian Public Health Association, would like assurances that the security of the blood supply has improved.
“The subcommittee came to the right conclusion asking for a public inquiry,” says deBurger. “I would hope the terms of reference are broad enough to take a look at the whole issue of the safety of the blood supply, not only in terms of what happened in the past, but, more importantly, what’s happening today.”
Other than hemophiliacs, who require large quantities of blood, deBurger believes anybody who received one transfusion has a small risk. “If you had blood once, I think the odds are pretty long that you are going to end up with tainted blood. But AIDS does take eight to 10 years to manifest itself, and we might still be picking up pieces for the next four to five years that we don’t know about yet.”
Friese recommends that anybody who received blood or blood products between 1979 and 1985 get an HIV test. If their doctor says it isn’t necessary, they should call the AIDS Hotline about anonymous testing.
Anybody who has tested positive for HIV and would like support and counselling can call Robert St-Pierre of the Canadian Hemophilia Society at 1-800-668-2686.
For information on anonymous testing call the Ontario government’s AIDS Hotline in Toronto at 416-392-2437. For support write HIV-BT Group, 257 Eglinton Avenue W., Suite 206, Toronto, Ont., M4R 1B1.
It was the late 1990s. Mongolia was still recovering from “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). But it was the country’s young musicians who were showing the way out of the crisis, setting an example for entrepreneurship in the new, free-market economy that emerged in the country after 1990.
As UNDP Communications Officer N. Oyuntungalag wrote in the Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter, “A thriving pop and rock scene has emerged over the last four years. .. The energy of these musicians and singers has not gone unnoticed by the burgeoning advertising market. Pop bands are promoting many things, from face creams to beer. … [but] there has been little serious writing on the business of popular music.”
As the book’s author, American ethnomusicologist Peter Marsh, said in an interview with UNDP’s Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter, “we thought our book would provide important ideas about the direction and nature of the nation’s development.
“My impression about Mongolian pop-rock is that it is a lively, diverse and at times innovative Mongolian art form that closely reflects many of the hopes, fears and aspirations of its primary audience, Mongolian youth.”
The book still stands as an unusual and innovative contribution to thinking around the role played by youth in development and business and in crisis recovery.