Starting From Scratch: The Challenge Of Transition

By David South (Canada), UNV Information Officer, UNDP, Mongolia

UNV News #78 November 97

After seven years of transition to a market economy, Mongolia – a former satellite of the Soviet Union that has had a democratic government since 1992 – has been profoundly changed. Where it once had a rigid communist government and few contacts with the west, Mongolia has pursued rapid economic, political and social liberalisation. Mongolia has a small population – 2.3 million – spread out over a vast territory wedged between Russia and China.

Communication has in many ways deteriorated over the past seven years as the old communication networks from the communist era have not been fully replaced by the private sector. More and more it became apparent that government and the private sector were almost working in the dark in understanding how transition has affected Mongolians.

In partnership with the Mongolian government, UNDP initiated the researching of Mongolia’s first human development report back in the middle of 1996. It was launched on September 5 of this year, with UNVs playing a key role. To lead the team in producing the report, British poverty specialist and UNV Shahin Yaqub was brought in. Only 29-years-old – one of the youngest UNVs in Mongolia – Yaqub joined a rapidly expanding UNV presence in the country. There are now 24 international UNVs and 26 Mongolian UNVs deployed throughout the country in UNDP’s projects.

The thirst for expertise in Mongolia – a country undergoing the growing pains of transition to a market economy – has placed high demand on UNVs. UNVs occupy senior roles in all of UNDP’s projects.

The 1997 Mongolian Human Development Report is a prime example of the important goal of capacity building conducted by the UNDP. For Yaqub, the report’s principal author, it was like starting from scratch. A poverty research office had to be set up before the work could begin. A team of Mongolia’s top statistical researchers had to be trained in the latest methodologies for social research.

Yaqub was excited by the project. He said: ”There was no office when I first came. We had to organise the office to understand who does what and basically create the focal point for poverty analysis in Mongolia”.

Yaqub also had some of his basic assumptions tested. The small population of this country – only 2.3 million – had meant the previous communist regime was able to build up a large archive of statistics on the population. A good portion of the information was not up to international standards, but it potentially represented a wellspring of data to start from. “Mongolia is number-rich. To even have that kind of data is very rare for a developing country. But unfortunately we found all this information was stored on Russian mainframe computers that didn’t work anymore!”

During the actual production of the report, Yaqub was joined by three more UNVs: Mustafa Eric, a Turkish journalist working with the Press Institute of Mongolia, Jerry van Mourik, a Dutch journalist now working as the Support Officer to the United Nations Resident Co-ordinator, and UNDP Information Officer David South, a former journalist with the Financial Times in London, England.

The high-profile role played by media UNVs was crucial if the report was to not end up collecting dust on a government shelf. The report is a repository of essential and new information on the state of human development in Mongolia, including data showing rising poverty rates and serious threats to food security. Like all human development reports produced by UNDP, it was not meant to be a prescriptive tract, but a lubricant for a national debate on sustainable development in Mongolia. This altered the design and presentation of the report.

Instead of looking academic, the report took on the appearance of a magazine, from its cover to colourful children’s paintings inside. UNV Mustafa not only assisted with the report’s design and production, he also used his contacts in the Mongolian media to ensure the report was distributed across the country. UNV van Mourik assisted with publicity, including producing an emotionally-charged television commercial weaving together vignettes from Mongolia’s recent history to tell the story of human development.

Already in its second print run in both English and Mongolian, the report has been adopted as their study guide by Mongolians wanting to learn English.

“Mongolia is a rewarding place to work,” said Yaqub. “As a technical specialist and UNV, what you bring to the job is valued. I researched poverty for five years before coming to Mongolia and I felt I had something to contribute. But I also realised I had something to learn as well. You always have to keep in mind you are bringing your own baggage to the job – be it cultural, emotional or intellectual. Coming from an academic background, I was not afraid to be told I was wrong.”

Yaqub, who had worked in poverty analysis in the Philippines and Bangladesh before coming to Mongolia, will never forget the country that sparked his new passion: horses.

“You give up things as a volunteer – your time, your income, all the things you took for granted back home. But what you give up is compensated by rewarding work and good friends. When I learned to ride a horse, I can place it directly and clearly to Mongolia – that memory will always be with me.”

Just before Yaqub left Mongolia for work with UNDP in New York, he participated in a series of public debates in one of Mongolia’s poorest provinces, Khuvsgul aimag. The public debates are used to introduce the report to the grassroots while sparking discussion on sustainable human development.


Memoranda Of Understanding And Negotiator | 1997 – 2014

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Astute negotiation skills have been required to see through complex, multi-partner projects, or to see through difficult transitions (in particular digital). While working for the United Nations in Mongolia (1997-1999), I led negotiations on three Memoranda of Understanding with the Government of Mongolia: Youth, Food Security and Nutrition and Human Rights (Blue Sky Bulletin).

As head of the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office (1997-1999), I was at the centre of a fast-expanding UN mission in the midst of a major crisis (called “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever”, Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). Everything we did required solid negotiation skills that were sensitive to the culture and understood how to get things done in that context. People were under a great deal of pressure and the times were characterized as “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). 

Award-winning, this work was called a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices.

While heading a multi-institutional major project for the UK’s National Health Service (2001-2003) under the Modernisation Plan, I had to daily negotiate with colleagues and staff across professions, institutions and with senior managers and executives. Introducing new ways of doing things requires a fineness of touch and a strategic mind to see how small steps eventually achieve goals. Award-winning, this work was called one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors”, and a UK Government assessment called the overall GOSH Child Health Web Portal a role model for the NHS.

Since 2007, I have been working on media products for the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC). This has required contacting and networking with people across the global South. The goal was to raise the profile of South-South cooperation in the UN system and the profile of the growing numbers of innovators across the global South resulting from the rapid expansion of mobile and information technologies, and in turn transform the UN’s strategic and funding priorities. This was successful and acknowledged in the Strategic Plan for UNDP 2014-2017 and its first UNDP Youth Strategy 2014-2017.

© David South Consulting 2017


Vision + Strategy | 1991 – 2014

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From experience, the importance of crafting a vision prior to the execution of a strategy is key to success and inspiring others. If done well, the vision can do much of the work for you. An inspiring vision will bring others on board, aligning them to your strategy. Some examples of vision leading to strategic success can be found in the following Case Studies from David South Consulting:

Crisis Recovery

Case Study 4: UN + UNDP Mongolia | 1997 – 1999

Case Study 7: UNOSSC + UNDP | 2007 – 2016

Digital Transformation

Case Study 5: GOSH/ICH Child Health Portal | 2001 – 2003

Global Transformation

Case Study 7: UNOSSC + UNDP | 2007 – 2016

Media Start-up

Case Study 2: Watch Magazine | 1994 and 1996

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© David South Consulting 2017


UN Contest Winner In State Of Total Bliss

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In the autumn of 1997, a national contest – Let’s Make Life Better! – was launched to inspire and mobilise Mongolian youth between the ages of 20 and 30. The idea was simple: for youth to come up with the best ideas to “design their own small and local development project.”

Launched with a cross-country advertising campaign, the prize of US $1,000 to implement the winning project (a substantial sum of money at the time) drew 580 project proposals by the contest deadline of December 15, 1997.

So many of the ideas were excellent, they were later to receive support from either the government, NGOs or international organisations. Read the story in the Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter about the contest’s winner below:

Editor: David South

Publisher: UNDP Mongolia Communications Office

Published: Blue Sky Bulletin, Issue Number Six, May/June 1998 

“When the phone operator told me it was a call from the UN in Ulaanbaatar, I didn’t expect I would be the winner – my uncle was almost in tears.”

The words of 27-year-old UN contest winner Mr. Ciezd Nygmed tells it all. Speaking to a group of journalists at UN headquarters in Ulaanbaatar, Mr. Ciezd confirmed his joy: “I’m in a state of total bliss!”

On Monday, May 4 the United Nations awarded US $1,000 to Mr. Ciezd – a teacher from Bayan-Ulgii aimag – for his project to start a ger school for herder children who have dropped out of school.

“Herders don’t want to send children to school without school supplies,” says Ciezd, who has been teaching for six years at the primary school in Delwnuu soum. This means poor children end up dropping out of the school system – or never going in the first place.

The ger school will be set up in June in the summering pastures of 33 Kazakh families. A teacher will be hired for the 40 children in need of basic literacy skills. The school will operate from June until September.

Ciezd says there are many benefits to bringing the school to the children. In the school where he currently teaches, many children stay in dormitories and parents must pay for their food. The children attending the ger school will be able to eat at home, saving parents precious togrogs.

The project is already receiving support from local governors. They have pledged to help buy the ger, leaving more funds for school supplies and the maintenance of the school.

During his six-day stay in Ulaanbaatar, Ciezd received one-on-one counselling from distance education advisers at UNESCO, the UN culture and education agency. UNESCO has pioneered distance education in Mongolia, particularly in the Gobi desert. Mr. Monxor, UNESCO coordinator for non-formal education, told Ciezd this was the first initiative of its kind in Bayan-Ulgii.

He also spent some time in the newly-established United Nations Information Shop, a one-stop, drop-in resource centre on development issues. Ciezd particularly found the advice from donors most helpful in planning the future of the project.

In October 1997, the UN “Let’s Make Life Better!” contest asked Mongolian youth between 20 and 30 to tell us how they would make life better in their communities. We wanted small projects that could significantly change the lives of people in one community. By the deadline of December 15, the UN office was flooded with 580 project proposals from across Mongolia. To speed up the selection of the winner, the Mongolian Youth Federation formed a panel of judges and selected the five finalists. Keeping in the spirit of the contest, the four runners-up receive gardening kits complete with trowels, watering cans, seeds and spades.

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Cover stories: UN contest winner and visit of Jean-Claude Juncker to UNDP Mongolia (pictured with UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner).

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© David South Consulting 2017