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The Sweet Smell Of Failure: The World Bank And The Persistence Of Poverty

Paper delivered to the School of Politics and Government, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK, 2000

“… aid is no longer charity. It has become intrinsic to the maintenance of the international capitalist economy … (Fieldhouse 1999).”

By David South

In January 1949, US President Harry Truman set forth a challenge for the remainder of the 20th Century: the wealthy nations must aid the poorer ones to become wealthier and more democratic: in short, to become like the United States (Starke 2001: 143). The means of accomplishing this was to be international development, and its tool, foreign aid.

Decades later, this dream was being described as a nightmare. One of the most articulate proponents of the aid-is-waste thesis is Graham Hancock. His Lords of Poverty comes down unequivocally on the side of failure. Hancock argues that aid “is a waste of time and money, that its results are fundamentally bad, and that – far from being increased – it should be stopped forthwith before more damage is done (Hancock 1996: 189).”

Hancock originally wrote those words in 1989. Subsequently, a decade has past where international development organizations have attempted to prove the success of development in a wider context of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a crippling economic crisis in Asia and the former Soviet Union, and dizzying changes in information technologies. In addressing the proposition that “by the end of the 20th century, ‘development’ had failed”, it is important to clarify the underlying intentions of interntional development and whi the true actors are, and the interaction of politics and economy.

This paper will focus on one actor, the World Bank, which has seen itself as the principal international development organization for the past 55 years. I argue that the World Bank has been very successful at building a dependence on development institutions, itself in particular, but has failed at development as it has defined it: the elimination of poverty. The four main power structures underpinning the world economy described by Susan Strange – security, production, financial, and knowledge (Strange 2000: 43-119) – are each addressed by the World Bank’s programmes to varying degrees of success. It is the World Bank’s interaction with these power structures that have been a source of both stability and instability in the past 55 years.

I have chosen the World Bank because, as Hancock notes, it is

The pace-setter of Development Incorporated … the fact is that all official aid agencies, whether bilateral or multilateral, co-operate very closely with it, imitate its policies and its sectoral priorities and, to a large extent, share what might be called its ‘philosophy of development’. (Hancock 1996: 57)

I conclude that international development is now entering a new phase spurred on by the economic crisis affecting many developing nations after 1997, and not facing its destruction, in spite of rowdy protests around the world. The Asian Crisis provoked an increase in development spending, while simultaneously significantly raising awareness of international development institutions. At the beginning of the 21st century, the rise of the non-governmental organization as a key actor in development is strongly pronounced.

The fact that NGOs and private consulting companies are becoming the principal delivery mechanisms for development projects demonstrates a global lack of faith in government-run agencies and a belief in neo-liberal assertions that the private sector can do a better job.

1. Development: pernicious or persistent? 

The word development needs to be pulled apart. Its endurance as a concept comes down to its ability to mean many things to many people. It is a loaded word, which upon closer inspection, becomes befuddingly vague and as slippery as an oil-soaked eel.

Development as defined by President Truman at the start of the development period of the 20th century meant “nothing less than freeing a people from want, war, and tyranny, a definition it is hard to improve on even today (Starke 2000: 153).”

Dictionary definitions of development take in ideas of growth, progress and evolution. As Hancock noted in Lords of Poverty, “underdevelped” countries “must in some sense be stunted and backward; ‘developed countries’, by contrast, are fully grown and advanced (Hancock 1996: 41).” Hancock bristles at the moralistic notion that particular countries may need to develop; in this he would probably have clashed with Marx, as Fieldhouse notes: “much as he hated capitalism, Marx saw it as a necessary agency for creating what we now call development in India and, by inference, most parts of the Third World (Fieldhouse 1999: 44).”

A refinement of this definition is one offered by the World Bank’s president in the 1980s, Barber Conable. Development offers measures “to promote economic growth” and “combat poverty”; those are the “fundamental tasks of world development” with the World Bank being the “world’s principal development agency” (Hancock 1996: 41).

More recently, in answer to heated criticism from donor nations and powerful NGO lobbies, the World Bank has adopted a more urgent tone on poverty. “Poverty reduction is the most urgent task facing our world today. The World Bank’s mission is to reduce poverty and improve living standards through sustainable growth and investment in people (World Bank 2000).”

Assessing development according to the World Bank’s definition of development, with its focus on eliminating poverty, it is very hard to say this has been a success, as I show further on.

2. Failure thesis: why the World Bank is a flawed poverty-fighter

The notion that development has failed has its critics on both the left and the right. On the right, development is seen as state welfare, bailing out countries that need to get their own houses in order. On the left, development has been seen, variously as a tool of the wealthy states to control the poorer states, a means to prop up corrupt but friendly elites, environmentally destructive, and a subsidy system for multinationals. Marxists have straddled the contradictions of criticising the effects of development while also chastising the wealthy West for not doing enough for the developing nations.

Since 1990 World Bank cumulative lending has totalled US $162,789.3 million (World Bank Annual Report 2000). Since its inception, global aid has risen from US $1.8 billion a year in the 1950s, to US $6 billion in the 1960s, to US $60 billion in the 1980s, to where it currently stands at US $129.2 billion (World Development Indicators Database). The Bank disburses US $25 billion a year (World Bank). Vast amounts of money is flowing back to the West in the form of payments on debts nearly totalling US $3 trillion (Starke 2000: 153).

In fact, the World Bank through its lending wings, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Agency (IDA), embodies an inherant contradiction: it has shown itself to be unable to decouple its mandate to recover funds from what might be the wiser strategy. As the Bank puts it, “while the country must “own” its vision and program, the Bank must “own” and be accountable to shareholders for its diagnosis and the program it supports (World Bank).”

Over the development epoch, loans were accepted by countries that have shown themselves to be incapable of repayment, leading to the debt crisis today. While this crippling debt has been accumulated, the world has come no closer to eradicating poverty.

A brief look at the figures shows the scale of the challenge. Development policies have not been able to come to grips with escalating population rates in developing nations. During the period of development, the population of the regions with the lowest rates of development have risen rapidly. As Strange notes:

World population doubled between 1950 and 1984, rising rapidly from 2.5 billion to over 4.5 billion and topping 5 billion by the end of the decade… Numbers have increased most dramatically in the three ‘developing’ regions of Latin America, South Asia and Africa … (Strange 2000: 82)

Aid on the macro scale is also unequally divided, with the 10 countries that two-thirds of the world’s poor live in receiving less than a third of overseas development aid (Raffer and Singer 1996). And when it arrives in a country very little of it gets into the hands of the poor. Some generously claim that 20 per cent of aid reaches the poor (Raffer and Singer 1996), while Hancock maintains even less wends its way to the poorest.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, more than 1.3 billion people live on just US $1 a day; and 2.8 billion live on US $2 a day – nearly half the world’s population (UNDP). This number has remained unchanged since 1990 (Starke 2000: 4). In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the former communist countries, “the number living in poverty is substantially higher than the figures recorded a decade ago (Starke 2000: 4).” The most noted trend is the diffusion of poverty and its more pronounced ability to sit side-by-side with an economic boom in developing – and developed – countries, fuelled by increased investment, especially in the areas of information technology and telecommunications.

The World Bank has set the target date of 2015 to cut extreme poverty by half. It remains highly dubious as to how the World Bank has any better idea of how to do this than it did in the first 55 years of development theory and practice. Theories have been misguided in the past, as Fieldhouse reminds us:

Central to all post-1950 attitudes to Third World development was the belief that the primary need was capital investment. The defining feature of underdevelopment was thought to be lack of sufficient capital to pay the cost of overcoming the perceived ‘structural’ obstacles to development. A short shopping list of what were then believed to be the necessary measures would include the following: first, the improvement of infrastructure – communications, power and water supplies, urban facilities and hospitals; secondly, education to raise the general level of literacy and to generate skilled workers at all levels, from the highest posts in government and industry, which was believed to be the basis of western affluence and must therefore become that of the Third World. (Fieldhouse 1999: 226)

It has been a period noted by a belief that development could be accelerated, and that the conditions necessary for development were understood and all that was necessary was capital and will.

In fact international development, when it has intended to eliminate poverty, has been unable to detatch itself from what can only be called the whirlpool effect, or the core-periphery debate: a tendency for wealth and power to be dragged into the centre, like a whirlpool: to wealthier nations, wealthy elites, capital cities. While aid is ostensibly about countering this trend, it fails miserably at doing it. The continent that requires the most aid, Africa, receives the least – in the 1990s the World Bank lent Africa a total of US $1,872.8 million (World Bank). It lent Latin America and the Caribbean US $51,520.8 million (World Bank). If, as Truman said, development is about helping those suffering from want, war and famine, then Africa is being ill served.

Looking at the evidence, it shows that aid follows the same pattern as private investment, seeking out success stories, rather than the poor, who by definition are society’s losers. It is an established fact that most trade flows and foreign direct investment is between the wealthy countries (Hirst and Thompson 2000: 2). The percentage of world trade captured by the developing countries has dropped from 50 per cent in the 19th century to 22 per cent (Hoogvelt 1997: 14). It is this tendency that builds into international development a peripherising effect that leaves billions on the outside of development and wealth acquisition – and draws the criticism that development has failed at its principal aim, as the World Bank puts it, to reduce poverty.

3.  Security/production

Strange has noted where power lies in the modern world. Those who can influence or determine the structures of power will wield enormous influence over economic and political relations. The World Bank is an institution that has had a profound effect on the power structures of the world economy, with positive and negative consequences.

Security is the “provision of security by some human beings for others (Strange 2000: 45).” Strange focuses on the state as the primary provider of this security in the current international political system. She also broadens this definition to include “security from slow death by starvation, and security from disease, from disablement, or from all sorts of other hazards – from bankruptcy to unemployment (Strange 2000: 47).” And she attributes most conflict to disagreements over authority.

One of the biggest challenges now facing developing states is that of authority over their affairs. It is a two-pronged challenge, from outside and from within, as much of development aid now targets NGOs and civil society.

It is arguable that the World Bank’s greatest contribution to a state is its advice on governance, legislation and anti-corruption. While the World Bank is not tasked with a specific security mandate, it does play a significant role in supporting the viability of nation states, and offers up an off-the-shelf range of authoritative institutions that nation states are advised to take up. Through Structural Adjustment Loans (SAL) and their equivalents, countries are persuaded to adopt these measures or face losing the lifeline of funds.

These policies also dovetail with global concerns for security and stability, in terms of the absence of conflict and also in terms of predictability. Other governments will feel more comfortable dealing with philosophies and institutions that ring of familiarity. But how susccessful has the World Bank been?

Evidence has shown that the SAL loans and their package of reforms were destabilizing and inherently contradictory. As Hoogvelt illuminates:

they sought to denationalize the economies themselves by imposing various forms of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation, indeed the dismantling of the public sector … At the ideological level it made the bailiffs walk a tightrope between, on the one hand re-affirming the notions of national sovereignty and national economy, while at the same time, and on the other hand, confining development economics and any hint of Keynesian notions of national economic management to the dustbins of history. They had to uphold the state and destroy it at the same time! (Hoogvelt 1997: 167)

The results have actually jeopardised security within Africa, and according to Robert Kaplan, the chaos on that continent will wreck havoc outside Africa as well (Kaplan 1994). Security is probably the World Bank’s greatest failure in the four global power structures. Hoogvelt concludes that its legacy in Africa is particularly disturbing:

In many African countries, the imposition of the neo-liberal orthodoxy, including privatisation of the public sector, the emasculation of the state apparatus and the insistence on electoral reform, has directly contributed to the descent into anarchy and civil wars. (Hoogvelt 1997: 175)

Production as Strange states it, is “the sum of all arrangements determining what is produced, by whom and for whom, by what method and on what terms (Strange 2000: 64).” Production is a bright spot for the World Bank, in that conventional economic statistics have shown a growth in production (even after the 1997 Asian crisis), fuelled by increasing investments in telecommunications, information technologies and greater investment in public utilities (Hirst and Thompson). The World Bank has also an extensive history funding infrastructure projects critical to the functioning of a modern economy, including roads, dams, airports, and ports. There is an extensive literature on the corruption and inefficiency of many of these projects, but at a minimum infrastructure was built.

The World Bank has been “able to profoundly affect the organisation of production and trade in the periphery to the benefit of the core world capitalist system (Hoogvelt 1997: 166).”

During the World Bank’s tenure, foreign direct investment has gradually increased for these states, but because of an intensification of trade between the wealthy nations, the global distribution of GNP has,

changed little over the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed became more unequal rather than less after the 1970s. What all this shows goes against the sentiment that benefits will ‘trickle down’ to the less well-off nations and regions as investment and trade are allowed to follow strictly market signals. (Hirst and Thompson 1999: 71)

At a minimum, links have been built and could be the basis of a re-alignment of the world economic order under fairer terms. Hoogvelt notes the links are unquestionably tight:

Structural adjustment has helped to tie the physical economic resources of the African region more tightly into servicing the global system, while at the same time oiling the financial machinery by which wealth can be transported out of Africa and into the global system. (Hoogvelt 1997: 171)

4.  Financial/knowledge

Strange calls financial power the ability to “create credit”. It “implies the power to allow or to deny other people the possibility of spending today and paying back tomorrow, the power to let them excercise purchasing power and thus influence markets for production, and also the power to manage or mismanage the currency in which credit is denominated (Strange 2000: 90).”

The World Bank’s vast lending capabilities, as shown earlier, means the Bank literally has the power to switch the lights on or off in a country’s economy. It has also been in the forefront of creating today’s “casino” economy, as Strange calls it, the 24/7 financial markets. It has served the interests of the core economies in this arrangement, as Hoogvelt elaborates:

In a world economy dominated by global financial markets, by money careening around the globe at a frenetic pace, the principal national economic objective of the core countries has to be, and indeed has become, one of maintaining the competitive strength of their currency vis-a-vis each other, fighting domestic inflation that threatens this competitive strength, and trying to catch as much as possible of the careening capital flows into the net of their domestic currency areas. (Hoogvelt 1997: 165)

As Fieldhouse reminds us, “In the later twentieth century, in fact, the World Bank and the IMF were the main proponents of free trade and other related principles in the less-developed world. They thus filled the same role as Britain had done a century earlier (Fieldhouse 1999: 20).”

After World War II, it became apparent the world financial system was not going to be able to function with a hands-off United States. The Marshall Plan in Europe established the precendent of significant loans to aid countries to economically “recover”. As these two influential World Bank economists wrote, it was partly about creating conditions amenable to investors’ interests: “Thus, basic fiscal and monetary discipline, including a properly managed exchange rate, helps establish the credibility of economic policy that gives entrepreneurs the confidence to invest (Stiglitz and Squire 2000: 386).”

And they confirm the whirlpool effect: “Entrepreneurs will not invest in countries where the policy regime is unstable – investors require a degree of certainty (Stiglitz and Squire 2000: 386).”

The World Bank since 1996 has called itself the “Knowledge Bank”, because “We live in a global knowledge economy where knowledge, learning communities, and information and communications technologies are the engines for social and economic development (World Bank).”

In many respects, the World Bank has defined development as most people understand it. As Hancock reminds us, “Consciously or unconsciously we view many critical global problems through lenses provided by the aid industry (Hancock 1996: xiv).” Knowledge and intelligence-gathering is key in an age dominated by information. As Clark notes of development organizations,

The ‘software’ of their trade – ideas, research, empowerment, and networking – are rapidly becoming more important than their ‘hardware’ – the time-bound, geographically fixed projects, such as wells and clinics. In this new age, information and influence are the dominant currencies rather than dollars and pounds. (Clark 1992: 193)

The vast volume of statistics and reporting produced by the Bank on the global economy is valuable and it is frequently used as a source even by its critics. This quite possibly is the Bank’s greatest success. The Bank’s focus on information technologies is also valuable and it is aiding developing countries around the world to gain access to the internet for example. Keohane notes that information by its very existence can generate greater cooperation between states:

Informaton, as well as power, is a significant systemic variable in world politics. International systems containing institutions that generate a great deal of high-quality information and make it available on a reasonably even basis to the major actors are likely to experience more cooperation than systems that do not contain such institutions … (Keohane 1984: 245)

Conclusion

Like a chameleon, the political and economic actors in development change their appearance according to evolving conditions. I have argued in this paper that the fundamental needs – a desire for markets, global interconnectivity and political control – ensure the World Bank’s role in international development remains principle to the day-to-day lives of developing countries. It is also a fact that development organizations such as the World Bank have amassed a wealth of knowledge and expertise that binds donor nations to them, though this is being supplanted by NGOs as they in turn create a dependency between themselves and the World Bank.

The World Bank’s greatest success has been the perpetuation of the development industry and its role vis-a-vis the global power structures. It is particularly remarkable that development aid has been so robust for such a lengthy time, and points to the key needs in the power structure that it fulfils. However, the World Bank has failed to significantly reduce poverty in the world, and since it defines development as principally poverty reduction, its form of development has failed.

Development aid in and of itself is a highly successful formula, as attested by the boom currently experienced by NGOs. The trend towards these new actors is well advanced, as The Economist noted: “NGOs have become the most important constituency for the activities of development aid agencies (The Economist 2000: January 27).”

Even more compelling, “Between 1990 and 1994, the proportion of the European Union’s relief aid channelled through NGOs rose from 47% to 67%. The Red Cross reckons that NGOs now disburse more money than the World Bank (The Economist 2000: January 27).”

Unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence that any organization working in development will be out of a job by 2015. In the meantime, the poor remain peripheral actors in a play staged for the benefit of those who are not poor. As Fieldhouse notes:

Thus aid is no longer charity. It has become intrinsic to the maintenance of the international capitalist economy, a system by which western governments directly or through multilateral agencies, mobilize debtors so that they can continue to meet their obligations to both public and private creditors. (Fieldhouse 1999: 253)

Pax Chaotica: A Re-evaluation of Post-WWII Economic and Political Order

In The Interests Of The Exploited?: The Role Of Development Pressure Groups In The UK

A Steppe Back?: Economic Liberalisation And Poverty Reduction In Mongolia

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017

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CASE STUDY 4: UN + UNDP Mongolia | 1997 – 1999

Expertise: Crisis leadership, mission leadership, strategy, communications, web strategy, digital media, crisis recovery, public health, Northeast Asia, UN system.  

Location: Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 1997 to 1999

UN/UNDP Mongolia Communications Coordinator: David South

Click here to view images for this case study: CASE STUDY 4: UN + UNDP Mongolia | 1997 – 1999 Images

Abstract

“The transformation of Mongolia from a largely rural nomadic society of herdsmen to a community dominated by the increasingly ultra-globalized city of Ulan Bator, where almost a third of the population lives, is nothing short of astounding. The New Mongolia: From Gold Rush to Climate Change, Association for Asian Studies, Volume 18:3 (Winter 2013): Central Asia

From 1997 to 1999, I served as the Communications Coordinator (head of communications) for the United Nations (UN)/United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mission in Mongolia, founding and directing its UNDP Mongolia Communications Office. 

About

The question posed itself from the start of the assignment: In the middle of a major crisis, is it possible to recover quickly while simultaneously growing and modernizing the United Nations mission (this was the dawn of the digital revolution)? It was only possible by teaching and mentoring colleagues, offering leadership, vision, strategy, and practical actions to get there – all with a budget and mandate for two years.

The mission had to tackle in particular, three, severe crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and, later in 1997, the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000)– all combined with the political instability this exacerbated. Richard Pomfret said in 1994, “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).” From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly'” Communist countries.

A dramatic decline in inflation paired with political and economic stabilisation allowed Mongolia to enjoy the fruits of the fast-growing economies of the 2000s. Source: Statista.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/727562/inflation-rate-in-mongolia/

A resources “boomtown” throughout the 2000s. Source: Bloomberg. When I left in 1999, Mongolia’s PPP was US $8.8 bn; today (2021) it is US $42.4 bn.

In this role, I pioneered innovative uses of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/274319690/UNDP-Mongolia-United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000). pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997 – a structure that is commonplace in UN missions today. The Office also led on digital communications, marking many firsts, from the first digital photo and video library, the first online magazine, the first web portal, the first online newsletter, and many other firsts. It gathered numerous stories on resilience in a crisis, and documented in data and storytelling the country’s development challenges, while introducing a transparent way of working and communicating unprecedented for the time (the country was still recovering from the state secrecy of its years under Communism), and led on modernizing communications in the country. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts, including:

UN/UNDP Mongolia Development Web Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn)

I launched it in 1997 in the middle of a major crisis, and oversaw its expansion and development for two years. A pioneering digital resource, this award-winning United Nations Mongolia development web portal was singled out by UN headquarters in New York as an example of what a country office website should be like. It featured extensive resources in both Mongolian and English and also was home to the bilingual online magazine, Ger – Mongolia’s first web magazine. It can be viewed at www.archive.org and there is more at Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ger_(magazine).

Media

Working with journalists and media both within Mongolia and outside, the Communications Office was able to significantly raise awareness of Mongolia and its development challenges. This was reflected in a substantial increase in media coverage of the country and in the numerous books and other publications that emerged post-1997. The book In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) published by UNDP Mongolia archived the stories by theme.  

Ger Magazine

Ger Magazine (the Mongolian word for home and traditional tent dwelling) was published as the country’s first e-magazine in 1998. There were four issues in total from 1998 to 2000. The launch issue was on the theme of youth in the transition. Mongolia was transitioning from Communism to free markets and democracy and this had been both an exhilarating time and a wrenching time for young people. The magazine drew on talented journalists from Mongolia and the handful of international journalists based there to create a mix of content, from stories about life adapting to free markets to stories on various aspects of Mongolian culture and life.

The second issue of the magazine proved particularly effective and inspiring, with its modern life theme and cover story on a thriving Mongolian fashion scene.

Archived issues of the magazine can be found at the Wayback Machine here: https://archive.org/. Just type in the UN Mongolia website address for the years 1997 to 1999: http://www.un-mongolia.mn.

An online survey of the state of Mongolia’s media and its history (www.pressreference.com/Ma-No/Mongolia.html), had this to say: “An interesting variation from some of the other publications available is Ger Magazine (published online with guidance from the United Nations Development Program, UNDP), which is concerned with Mongolian youth in cultural transition. The name of the magazine is meant to be ironic because a ger is the Mongolian word for yurt—a yurt being traditional nomadic housing—but the magazine is about urbanization and globalization of Mongolian youth.”

Blue Sky Bulletin

The Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter was launched in 1997 initially as a simple, photocopied handout. It quickly founds its purpose and its audience, becoming a key way to communicate what was happening in the country and a crucial resource for the global development community, scholars, the media and anyone trying to figure out what was happening in a crazy and chaotic time. It eschewed the typical ‘grip and grin’ content found in many development newsletters and instead offered stories, data and insights useful to anyone seeking to understand Mongolia’s development challenges. The Blue Sky Bulletin was distributed via email and by post and proved to be a popular and oft-cited resource on the country. The quality of its production also paralleled Mongolia’s growing capacity to publish to international standards, as desktop publishing software became available and printers switched to modern print technologies. The Blue Sky Bulletin evolved from a rough, newsprint black and white publication to becoming a glossy, full-colour, bilingual newsletter distributed around Mongolia and the world. 

Archived issues can be found online here:

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 1

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 2

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 3

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 4 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 5

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 6

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 7

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 8

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 9

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 10

Publishing

MHDR 1997

The Mongolian Human Development Report 1997 (MHDR), the country’s first, placed the story of the Mongolian people during the transition years (post-1989) at its heart, using photographs, stories and case studies to detail the bigger narrative at play.

This groundbreaking Mongolian Human Development Report – the country’s first – went beyond just chronicling Mongolia’s state of development in statistics and graphs. Designed, laid out and published in Mongolia, the report broke with the practices of many other international organisations, who would publish outside of Mongolia – denying local companies much-needed work and the opportunity to develop their skills. The report’s costs helped to kick-start a publishing boom in the country and significantly raised standards in design and layout in the Mongolia. The foundations laid down by the project producing the report ushered in a new age in publishing for Mongolia.

The report’s launch was innovative, not only being distributed for free across the country, but also part of a multimedia campaign including television programming, public posters, town hall meetings and a ‘roadshow’ featuring the report’s researchers and writers.

The initial print run of 10,000 copies was doubled as demand for the report increased. To the surprise of many, once hearing about the free report, herders would travel to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pick up their copy. The report proved people cared passionately about the development of their country and that development concepts are not to be the secret domain of ‘development practitioners’. The report also became an English language learning tool as readers compared the Mongolian and English-language versions.

You can read the report’s pdf here: http://www.mn.undp.org/content/mongolia/en/home/library/National-Human-Development-Reports/Mongolia-Human-Development-Report-1997.html 

1997 saw the launch of the first human development report for Mongolia.

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

UNDP acted swiftly to address a breaking HIV/AIDS crisis in 1997, offering a key lesson for others working in public health (the Ebola Crisis and global air pollution crisis both show those lessons have still yet to be fully absorbed).

Assembled by a team of health experts after the Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the Mongolian AIDS Bulletin was published in 1997 in the middle of an HIV/AIDS crisis. It provided timely information and health resources in the Mongolian language and was distributed across the country.

“Mongolia’s first AIDS Bulletin marked the beginning of the UNDP Response to HIV/AIDS/STDs Project back in the autumn of 1997. Over 5,000 copies of the magazine were distributed across the country, offering accurate information on the HIV/AIDS situation. The project has been pivotal in the formulation of a national information, education and communication (IEC) strategy, bringing together NGOs, donors, UN agencies and the government.”

Source: YouandAids: The HIV/AIDS Portal for Asia Pacific

Green Book

In the Mongolian language, the Mongolian Green Book details effective ways to live in harmony with the environment while achieving development goals. Based on three years’ work in Mongolia – a Northeast Asian nation coping with desertification, mining, and climate change – the book presents tested strategies.  

EPAP Handbook

The Environmental Public Awareness Handbook was published in 1999 and features the case studies and lessons learned by UNDP’s Mongolian Environmental Public Awareness Programme (EPAP). The handbook draws on the close to 100 small environmental projects the Programme oversaw during a two-year period. These projects stretched across Mongolia, and operated in a time of great upheaval and social, economic and environmental distress. The handbook is intended for training purposes and the practice of public participation in environmental protection.

In its 2007 Needs Assessment, the Government of Mongolia found the EPAP projects “had a wide impact on limiting many environmental problems. Successful projects such as the Dutch/UNDP funded Environmental Awareness Project (EPAP), which was actually a multitude of small pilot projects (most costing less than $5,000 each) which taught local populations easily and efficiently different ways of living and working that are low-impact on the environment.”

Mongolia Updates 1997, 1998, 1999

Mongolia Update 1998 detailed how the country was coping with its hyperinflation and the Asian economic crisis.

The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_Financial_Crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history (http://www.jstor.org/pss/153756).  

Mongolia Update 1998 – Political Changes

1998 proved a tumultuous year for Mongolia. The country’s existing economic crisis caused by the transition from Communism to free markets was made worse by the wider Asian Crisis. The government was destabilised, leading to an often-confusing revolving door of political figures. In order to help readers better understand the political changes in the country, a special edition of Mongolia Update was published that year.  

UNDP Mongolia: The Guide

The Guide, first published in 1997, provided a rolling update on UNDP’s programmes and projects in Mongolia during a turbulent time (1997-1999). The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_financial_crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history.

Each edition came with short project and context summaries, key staff contacts, and facts and figures on how the country was changing. For the first time, any member of the public could grasp what the UN was up to in the country and be able to contact the project staff. An unusual level of transparency at the time for a UN mission.

Memoranda of Understanding

Three Memoranda of Understanding were negotiated with the Mongolian Government to help focus efforts and aid the attainment of internationally-agreed resolutions. This was affirmed by a series of youth conferences, One World, held in 1998 and 1999.

Strategy and Leadership in a Crisis

The scale and gravity of the crisis that struck Mongolia in the early 1990s was only slowly shaken off by the late 1990s. The economic and social crisis brought on by the collapse of Communism and the ending of subsidies and supports from the Soviet Union, led to a sharp rise in job losses, poverty, hunger, and family and community breakdowns.

The challenge was to find inspiring ways out of the crisis, while building confidence and hope. The sort of challenges confronted by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office included:

1) A food crisis: agricultural production was down sharply, and the traditional nomadic herding economy, while at peak herd, was failing to get the meat to markets and to a high enough standard to restore export levels to where they once were. As a result, a cross-border trading frenzy became the solution to falling domestic food production and availability.

2) HIV/AIDS/STDs crisis.

3) A major banking crisis.

4) Both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Russia Crisis.

5) An ongoing political crisis and an inability to form stable governments.

UN Annual Reports

Editor and designer. 1998 Report called by Under-Secretary-General Nafis Sadik “a clear, well-written, attractive and colourful report.”

Timeline 

1997: Arrive in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, to undertake a two-year assignment with the United Nations mission. Quickly get to work founding the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office and pursuing a strategic communications approach with a busy online and offline bilingual publishing programme. Launch award-winning UN Mongolia Development Web Portal (www.un-mongolia.mn). Launch first Human Development Report Mongolia 1997, and a Mongolian AIDS Bulletin during crisis. Assist the Government of Canada to establish the first Honorary Consul in Ulaanbaatar on December 1, 1997.

1998: International media tours of the country, launching of Mongolia’s first online magazine, Ger, distribute globally a regular newsletter on Mongolia’s development challenges, Blue Sky Bulletin. Open United Nations Info Shop for the public. Assist the Government of Canada to connect with Canadians working with the United Nations in Mongolia during the first official visit by a Canadian Government Minister.

1999: Launch a string of books documenting insights gleaned from the Mongolia development experience.  

Testimonials

 “Mongolia is not an easy country to live in and David [South] showed a keen ability to adapt in difficult circumstances. He was sensitive to the local habits and cultures and was highly respected by his Mongolian colleagues. … David’s journalism background served him well in his position as Director of the Communications Unit. … A major accomplishment … was the establishment of the UNDP web site. He had the artistic flare, solid writing talent and organizational skills that made this a success. … we greatly appreciated the talents and contributions of David South to the work of UNDP in Mongolia.” Douglas Gardner, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Mongolia

Impact 

Micro

  • strategic communications approach including establishing the UN/UNDP Mongolia Communications Office and team and strategic communications plan
  • led on digital transformation, including use of digitial media (photo/video archive) and digital publishing (web site, online magazine and newsletter, etc.)
  • established and ran the United Nations Info Shop – a one-stop resource open to the public with archive of development publications and current periodicals and Internet access
  • began largest bilingual online and offline publishing programme in country – led on publishing and design modernisation
  • laid down the foundations for many UN initiatives in Mongolia that are still underway. Contributed to stabilizing the country in a turbulent time. Mongolia was briefly the fastest-growing economy in the world by 2011
  • championed transparency and access to information and media freedoms
  • oversaw a period in which Transparency International found lower levels of perceived corruption
  • managing editor for country’s first Human Development Report

Macro

  • raised profile of country and its development challenges. Donor pledges rose 
  • 2 international media tours
  • strong relationship with Mongolian and international journalists
  • championed innovators in commnications
  • crisis response: AIDS, economy, political
  • country’s largest website and one of its first. Called “Godfather of the Mongolian web”
  • called a “role model” for the wider UN
  • led on new approach to UN communications in the digital age
  • design-led approach
  • transparent and timely updates
  • negotiated three Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs): youth, food security and nutrition, STDs/HIV/AIDS
  • One World youth conferences

Publications

David South Consulting Summary of Impact

Environmental Public Awareness Handbook: Case Studies and Lessons Learned in Mongolia

Ger Magazine: Modern Life Issue

Ger Magazine: Youth Issue

Human Development Report Mongolia 1997

Mongolian Green Book

Mongolia Update – Coverage of 1998 Political Changes

Mongolia Update 1998

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

Mongolian Rock and Pop Book

Partnership for Progress: The United Nations Development Programme in Mongolia

UNDP Mongolia Online Development Portal

UNDP in Mongolia: The Guide 

Stories

Freedom of Expression: Introducing Investigative Journalism to Local Media in Mongolia

Lamas Against AIDS

Philippine Conference Tackles Asia’s AIDS Crisis

Starting from Scratch: The Challenge of Transition

UNDP Mongolia Partnership for Progress 1997 to 1999 Key Documents 

A UNDP Success Story: Grassroots Environmental Campaign Mobilizes Thousands in Mongolia

Citations

The response by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office has been cited in numerous articles, books, publications and stories. It has also contributed to the development of the human development concept and understanding of human resilience in a crisis and innovation in a crisis. 

Book citations include:

Dateline Mongolia: An American Journalist in Nomad’s Land by Michael Kohn, RDR Books, 2006

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists by Morris Rossabi, University of California Press, 2005

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless, ECW Press, 2000

Paper citations include: 

Paula L. W. Sabloff (2020) Buying into capitalism: Mongolians’ changing perceptions of capitalism in the transition years, Central Asian Survey, 39:4, 556-577, DOI: 10.1080/02634937.2020.1823819

A more detailed list of citations can be found here: http://www.davidsouthconsulting.com/about/

For research purposes, key documents were compiled together and published online here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=K76jBgAAQBAJ&dq=undp+mongolia+key+documents&source=gbs_navlinks_s

This resource was praised for having: “Very useful references and original materials that documented UNDP Mongolia work. I needed to trace community-based development, and this book provided a valuable source.” Review on Google Books

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2001 joint winners.

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in a 15-year bid to use a focused approach to development centred around eight goals to accelerate improvements to human development. From 2000 to 2005, consulting work was undertaken in various UN missions (Mongolia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Ukraine) to communicate the goals and to reshape communications activities around the goals.

Transition and Democracy in Mongolia by Richard Pomfret, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 149-160, published by Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/153756?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

The Milk of Kindness flows in a Peculiar Land A Steppe From Nowhere by Leslie Chang, The Asian Wall Street Journal, 15 August 1998

Mongolia prepares for a magazine explosion by Jill Lawless, UB Post, 08-09-98

Other Resources

Letter from Mongolia: Herding instinct by Jill Lawless, The Guardian, 9 June 1999

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017

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Stories @ David South Consulting | 1991 – 2017

DS Consulting logo copy

I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM). This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.  

From 2007, I researched and wrote stories for two United Nations publications: e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions and magazine Southern Innovator. Links to a small sample of published stories by theme are below: 

Themes

Health and Medical

African Health Data Revolution

African Technology Tackles Health Needs

Changing Health Care Careers a Sign of the Times

Feds Call for AIDS, Blood System Inquiry: Some Seniors Infected

Health Care in Danger

Health Care on the Cutting Block: Ministry Hopes for Efficiency with Search and Destroy Tactics

Mobile Phone Microscopes to Revolutionize Health Diagnostics

Safe Healthcare is Good Business and Good Health

Take Two Big Doses of Humanity and Call Me in the Morning

Taking Medicine to the People: Four Innovators in Community Health

Thai Organic Supermarkets Seek to Improve Health

US Health Care Businesses Chasing Profits into Canada

Innovation and Innovators

Frugal Innovation Trend Meets Global South’s Innovation Culture

Innovation from the Global South

Innovation Villages Tackling MDGs

Innovations in Green Economy: Top Three Agenda

Innovative Stoves to Help the Poor

Kenyan Mobile Phone Innovations

Next Generation of Innovation for the Grassroots

Technological Innovation Alive in Brazil

International Development

Aid Organization Gives Overseas Hungry Diet Food: Diet Giant Slim-Fast Gets Tax Write-Off for Donating Products

Philippine Conference Tackles Asia’s AIDS Crisis

Starting from Scratch: the Challenge of Transition

State of Decay: Haiti Turns to Free-Market Economics and the UN to Save Itself

Traffic Signs Bring Safety to the Streets

Investigative Journalism

Counter Accusations Split Bathurst Quay Complex: Issues of Sexual Assault, Racism at Centre of Local Dispute

False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

New Student Group Seeks 30 Percent Tuition Hike

Somali Killings Reveal Ugly Side of Elite Regiment

Study Says Jetliner Air Quality Poses Health Risks: CUPE Takes on Airline Industry with Findings

Top Reporters Offer Military Media Handling Tips

Science

Affordable Space Programmes Becoming Part of South’s Development

African Botanicals to be Used to Fight Against Parasites

African Digital Laser Breakthrough Promises Future Innovation

African Farming Wisdom Now Scientifically Proven

An Innovator’s ‘Big Chicken Agenda’ for Africa

China Pushing Frontiers of Medical Research

New 3D Technology Makes Innovation Breakthough and Puts Mind Over Matter

Putting Worms to Work

© David South Consulting 2017