With summer break now behind us, and the autumn gradually unfolding (the pace seems slower with the economic uncertainties all around), my new public website is being assembled. Icelandic graphic designer Solveig Rolfsdottir is working on the project and I hope this is the beginning of many more collaborations.
“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)
Ger Magazine was launched on September 9, 1998 (Ger is the Mongolian word for both the traditional tent dwelling and home). The theme of youth in the transition was explored by a combined team of Mongolian and foreign journalists. The Ger Magazine project had basically three goals: first, raise the quality of journalism in the country, secondly, introduce the country to a wider global audience and, thirdly, by being the country’s first online magazine, prove the internet was an effective way to communicate.
Issue 1 of the magazine investigated what life was like for youth during the transition years (post-1989). Stories tackled the struggle to find work in the free market, the booming pop music scene and how it is leading the way in business entrepreneurship, reproductive health, the basics on Mongolian culture, and vox pop views from Mongolian youth.
Issue 2 of the magazine investigated modern life in Mongolia during transition. The team of journalists were hitting their stride by this issue. Stories probed the proliferation of bars and the problem of alcoholism, corrupt banking practices and the loss of savings, how the young were the country’s leading entrepreneurs, Mongolia’s meat and milk diet, “girl power” and the strong role played by women, the burgeoning new media, the rise and rise of Buddhism, and Mongolia’s dynamic fashion designers (this article inspired foreign fashion designers to embrace the Mongolian ‘look’ in the next season’s designs).
Editor-in-Chief: David South, UNDP Communications Coordinator Editor: A. Delgermaa, UB Post newspaper Translation: A. Delgermaa Photography: N. Baigalmaa, David South Design and layout: B. Bayasgalan, UN Homepage Webmaster
“This is the second issue of Ger. We have chosen the theme “Modern Life” to introduce people outside of Mongolia to the complexities of life in today’s Mongolia – the good, the bad and the ugly as a cowboy film once said. Ger is a project that draws upon the best journalists of this country. Under democracy Mongolia enjoys a flourishing free press, with over 800 officially registered newspapers for a population of 2.4 million! Ger has chosen A. Delgermaa of the UB Post newspaper to edit this issue. The UB Post is one of two English language newspapers in Mongolia and is owned by the Mongol News Company, a publisher of five newspapers, including the daily Today newspaper. Ger is a project to improve the quality of journalism in Mongolia, while introducing the people of the world to Mongolian journalists and this wonderful country. We hope you enjoy this issue of Ger. Please send us your comments.
Ger is not an official UNDP publication but a project to improve the quality of journalism. Opinions expressed in the magazine do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the United Nations Development Programme. Articles may be freely reproduced so long as credit is given and the editors are notified. Ger is published in English and Mongolian.
Ms. A Delgermaa: A reporter with the UB Post English weekly newspaper, which enjoys a good reputation among readers. Delgermaa is a young journalist and started her career in 1997, after graduating from the English Department of the Foreign Service School, Mongolian National University. She is a regular contributor to UN publications and has been published by Inter Press Service. She thinks Mongolia needs more psychologists to give courage to those many who are yearning for a better life. Like many young Mongolians she also wants to study abroad, to learn how journalism is practised in other countries.
Ms. N. Oyunbayar: Also a reporter with the UB Post newspaper, Oyunbayar, is a graduate of Ekaterinburg University in Russia, where she qualified as a Russian language teacher. She left her pupils in Sukhbaatar aimag, where she was born, some years ago and decided to undertake a personal crusade against wrongdoing by becoming a journalist for the UB Post. She is an award-winning journalist and a member of the Mongolian Free Democratic Journalists Association. She loves to cook and enjoys learning about new cuisines.
Ms. T. Mandala: A historian and journalist, she is a reporter with the “Weekend” weekly newspaper. She has been a journalist for two years, has written several interesting interviews with politicians, including the Mongolian parliamentary speaker R. Gonchigdorj and MPs Da. Ganbold and E. Bat-Uul. She explores issues like life after death and she wants to be a public defender in a court one day.
She is a successor of her grandfather Khodoogiin Perlee, who is a famous historian in Mongolia. And studies religion, especially Buddhism and Shamanism.
Mr. D. Dorjjav: A psychologist and a lecturer at the Administrative Management Department of Mongolian National University, he is married and has two girls and a boy. He is currently working on his doctoral thesis. His wish is to help people to open themselves up and discover their abilities. His plan for the future is to contribute to the psychological understanding of life in Mongolia. Dorjjav’s hobby is to talk to people and exchange opinions.
G. Enkhtuya: Born in the year of the pig (there are twelve years in the lunar calendar), a professional in marketing, trading, journalism, she is currently studying law in the Institute of Legal Studies, Mongolian National University. She is also a reporter for Odriin Sonin independent daily newspaper, once the largest state-owned newspaper until the start of 1999. She likes to cook when she is liberated from her official duties.
Jill Lawless: An Honourary Foreign Member of the Mongolian Free Democratic Journalists Association, Jill has been the editor of the UB Post newspaper since 1997. Jill regularly contributes to Agence France-Presse, Far Eastern Economic Review, Deutsche Welle and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is happiest riding camels in the Gobi desert.
Michael Kohn: Michael is the editor of the Mongol Messenger and contributed to the first edition of Ger. He is a regular contributor to Associated Press and the Far Eastern Economic Review. Michael is an avid traveler and is an expert on hitchhiking across Mongolia.
Ms. N. Baigalmaa: Photo journalist for Onoodor (Today) newspaper, the number one independent newspaper for three years. “Photo journalism is always interesting. I really enjoy taking action photos.” She is fed up of taking photos of static photos of people standing or sitting and has devoted her life to photo journalism. One never boring thing for her is her two sons and a girl. Sometimes she loses her sports jacket to her oldest son, now taller than her.”
“Mongolia is currently in the clutches of a full-blown banking crisis. On the surface life appears normal on the streets of the capital. Workers busily renovate apartments to open as shops and restaurants, while other workers march to the many building sites throughout Ulaanbaatar. But there is no doubting the situation is serious.”
“Under communism, L. Bayasgalan studied fungus. Under capitalism, she’s used her scientific knowledge to build her own organic vegetable business. The 35-year-old is in the vanguard of a budding army of Mongolian entrepreneurs cashing in on the impoverished landlocked country’s nine year transformation from the world’s second oldest communist state to a free-market democracy.”
“A stroll down any Mongolian residential street is usually the first introduction to a visitor of the savoury odours of the traditional meals of this country. If you are invited into somebody’s ger (or traditional tent dwelling) or apartment, you will probably have an opportunity of tasting buuz, khuushuur and bansh.
“These Mongolian national meals are made with minced meat seasoned with garlic or onion (it can be anything from mutton to beef to camel to horse to gazelle) covered with flour and steamed in boiling water, fried in oil and boiled in water. For many visitors to the country the vast quantities of meat consumed can at first be surprising. But it is not long before a visitor finds their favourite Mongolian food, be it buuz, khuushur or a number of other treats. A Canadian living in Ulaanbaatar once told me, “the Mongolian national food contains a lot of meat, but I like the buuz.
“The meat-dependent diet arises from the need for hearty food to stave off the cold and long winters. Traditionally nomadic herders, Mongolians have for centuries been dependent on mostly animal products for their dietary staples. Now after over nine years of transition, the traditional diet has been used as a shield against hunger and for the wealthy, subject to the influence of imported foreign foods and cuisine. When the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia’s aid in 1991, the economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this crisis, when food imports from the former Soviet Union dropped off.
“Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summer time thought to clean the stomach. It isn’t just about meat though. Mongolians do also eat cereal, barley and natural fruits and plants native to the country.
“Out of necessity Mongolians have found creative and ingenious ways to use the milk of all five of the domestic animals in the country: sheep, cattle, goats, camels and horses. Orom is the cream that forms on top of boiled milk; aaruul are dried curds and can be seen baking in the sun on top of gers in the summer; eetsgii is the dried cheese; airag is fermented milk of mares (female horses); nermel, is the home-brewed vodka that packs a punch; tarag, is the sour yogurt; shar tos, melted butter from curds and orom, and tsagaan tos, boiled orom mixed with sometimes flour, natural fruits or eesgii. The method of drying the dairy products is common in preparing them. The Mongolians prepare enough dairy products for the long winter and spring.
“The traditions of using, producing and preparing these foods are stronger outside the main cities, where the population is more reliant on the vast herds for food. B. Baljmaa (Mongolians generally use their first names), a dietitian and nutritionist at the National Nutrition Research Centre, says there is a genetic compatability for the food.
‘Before 1992 there wasn’t much research in this area. But now we know from our research that Mongolians are better able to absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food should be kept in the country.’
“Since 1997 Mongolians have seen a substantial increase in the variety and quantity of imported foods, many of which were only thought of as exotic 10 years ago. Since the start of 1999 the Soviet-style market stalls now compete against western-style supermarkets, with trolleys and shelves proudly saying “Made in Mongolia.” In markets like Dalai Eej, Dorvon Uul, Food Land and Mercury it is possible to buy delicious prepared and canned foods, candies, biscuits, and unknown and unused before by Mongolians, products like oranges, bananas, plums and American chickens.
“On top of the canteens and cafes serving Mongolian food, there are now many restaurants, canteens, bakeries and tea shops which serve meals from Russia, Italy, India, China, Japan, Korea, England, France, Senegal and Turkey. Most of these restaurants are located in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians have taken to the new tastes. “I think Mongolians like roasted chicken and fish when they go to the foreign sit-down restaurants, and hot dogs and pizzas in the fast foods shops,” says I. Narantsetseg and her husband J.Battulga. Both were dining in the Seoul restaurant, and are happy they can go out for food: “it is a very good thing that there are opening a lot of restaurants where friends and family can go and enjoy food in comfort.”
“Isobe Hiroshi, manager of Seketei, a high-end Japanese restaurant, told me “only 20 per cent of our customers are Mongolians. The vast majority of our clients are foreign, especially Japanese people who are working and traveling here. I think Mongolians have still not grown used to sushi and sashimi, the raw fish prepared in our restaurant. But I hope we will welcome more and more Mongolians in the future.”
“The traditional diet in the cities is more changed, more european. And with comes its own dangers for Mongolians says the Nutrition Centre’s Baljmaa:
‘There is a big problem of importing poisonous foods and food which probably will cause the nutrition-related diseases common in more developed countries,” she continues.”While the trend around the world amongst health-conscious people is towards natural products for their food, some Mongolians use some food which can cause troubles for their health. For example, fast food made with more oil, salt and sugar are considered the biggest dangers for human health. On the plus side prices for these imported foods are higher and only the wealthiest people can afford them; the poor people can’t buy and eat it no matter how much they desire. This means their poverty is protecting their health. We should boost our efforts to raise awareness on what foods protect your health.’
“Help in improving nutrition awareness a poster portraying a ger details the food habits of Mongolians and the nutritional value of common foods.
“Now I want to present to you recipes of processing and preparing some Mongolian national products and meals:
“From ancient times, Mongolians use abundant and peculiar methods of processing meat and preparing food.. One of the more popular methods of processing the meat is to prepare borts (dried meat) for use in winter. Borts is made from the meat of cows, goats and camels. Here is a recipe for camel borts presented by Dr. Sh. Tserenpuntsag who engages in the research of the meat.
1. Separate the meat from its layer of fat, as fat will spoil in drying. 2. Cut meat into strips about 20-30 centimeters long and two to five centimeters thick. 3. Hang to dry in a well-ventilated room. 4. Leave for four to five months. 5. Cut into small strips for use in any dish you like.
“If soaked in water, the meat will expand up to two and half times in size. It should then be cooked for 18 minutes.
“The main method of cooking the meals of the Mongolians is boiling and steaming, considered the most healthy method in cooking by researchers the world over. Here is a recipe for buuz from the Nutrition Centre. It is considered one of the national meals of the Mongolians and is cooked by steaming and is a good fast food.”
“As American author Arthur Schlesinger once said, the main breaker of peace in our time is social differentiation. It is unfortunate that, despite developments in human civilisation, modern times have brought only new manifestations of this phenomenon, based on people’s mind, feeling, life style, goals and dreams.”
“Inside Mongolia’s former Construction College, a slab of brightly painted concrete overlooking Ulaanbaatar, murals on the peeling walls still depict beefy workers engaged in heroic labour. The stern visages of Marx, Engels and Lenin loom above the central staircase.
But students these days have neither communism nor construction on their minds. The building is now the School of Computer Science and Management of the Mongolian Technical University.”
“Last year’s fashion runways were dominated by one influence: Mongolian traditional design. If a designer wanted to show they were boldly embracing natural fibers and furs, then the refrain ” my show is all Mongolian” would be proudly boasted to the media. The country has become a synonym for sartorial flare and rugged beauty. It also doesn’t hurt that one of Mongolia’s top exports, cashmere wool, is in vogue, from Japan to Europe to the United States. After years of being isolated from the west under the umbrella of the Soviet Union, Mongolian fashion is proudly strutting the catwalks of the world.”
A Mongolian cashmere designer once opined that Mongolians are lucky that most goats in the country are capable of producing fine cashmere. And while Chinese cashmere dominates the marketplace, Mongolian cashmere is by far the purest and finest.
About 30 cashmere companies contributes tens of millions of dollars a year to the country’s wealth (though nobody is quite sure how much because most cashmere sales go unreported to the government). But the revenue isn’t what it used to be due to problems in the domestic industry and a drop in the world price. Z. Ayur, chief secretariat of the Gobi company, thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. “Unfortunately we lose half of our raw cashmere to China,” he says.” The Chinese buy cashmere at a high price, not depending on the quality. This means national manufacturers lack raw cashmere to process into garments.” He thinks raw cashmere exports should be banned or subject to a duty of 100 to 150 per cent. Mongolia’s weak infrastructure plays a part as well. It is cheaper for herders to travel to the Chinese border with cashmere than to bring it to the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Often when they are at the border with China, they are subjected to some hard bargaining by Chinese brokers, who exploit the fact herders can’t afford to walk away empty handed.
Cashmere has always been considered a luxury and expensive. But in the past two years it has lost its fusty image as only for old people. Trendy designs have attracted a vast market of younger cashmere consumers. “I guess in the past it was dear and expensive and designs weren’t very appealing to the younger set,” thinks Gerelmaa, the chief designer of Gobi company.
The Gobi company is one of the few state enterprises left over from the socialist period that still makes money (and is due for privatization this year – a prime pick for foreign investors).
In 1972 the United Nations funded projects to experiment with starting a cashmere garment industry in Mongolia. This innovative thinking led to a joint Japanese-Mongolian venture in 1981 to start the first cashmere manufacturer, Gobi. These days it still produces one third of the country’s cashmere products.
Mongolian Wool and Cashmere Federation head Tsendmaa is optimistic about the drop in the world market price.” It will soon go back up again,” she says with confidence. “The reserve of cashmere in the world will run out soon. What happened with the drop in prices is typical of any industry when it overproduces.” What worries her most is the flood of Mongolian cashmere going to China, where Chinese workers process and knit the garments and reap the job benefits.
While cashmere is still known for its use in classic turtle, crew and v-neck jumpers, things have changed. “Before we mostly exported classic styles in off-white, brown, grey, black, bark, blue or dark red to Japan or Germany,” continues Tsendmaa. “Now Americans order more fashionable cashmere for the young. The designs of short jumpers that expose bare chests and waists are cheap to produce (less material) and suitable for young fashions.”
Italian, French or Belgian customers are fussier and demand greater variety in designs. These countries determine the vogue for cashmere wear and use the most high tech knitting technology.
Contemporary cashmere fashion in France or Italy can combine fur or silk. Colours have also been revamped, with the young going for light blue, light pink, snow white, off-white and light green. Italians and Americans like metal grey with rose or pink. Mixing up the colours in sporty stripes and lines is also popular.
Cashmere is very practical, warm and light. “It is not suitable for the office,” says Gerelmaa.” Cashmere wear is more suitable to wear for a night out or just for hanging out. But of course it is not for sport!”
Fashionable Mongolian cashmere is becoming a strong competitor to Chinese, Italian, Scottish or American cashmere. “The raw material is pure and the design is more fashionable.” And a happy Gerelmaa likes the sound the cash register makes in Japan: “In Japan classic Mongolian style is sold for more than US $1,200 in the Takashimaya Store, in GINZA.” Now if more of that kind of hard cash found its way back to Mongolia, the country would definitely be better off.
It could be said that there is no girl who does not dream of becoming a model. Many Mongolian girls, particularly Ulaanbaatar city girls, are flocking to attend courses in modeling in the last few years. Some say models are mushrooming in Mongolia, a country known for its fresh-faced people and robust physiques.
Ger interviewed S. Ikhertsetseg, one of the twin top models of Mongolia.
When did you first appear on the fashion stage?
“When we were 15 we played piano for the state concert on International Women’s Day on March 8. The ( Best Fashion) company was in trouble and they did not have anyone to wear some leather fashions for the show in the concert. It was fortuitous that we were asked to be the models. We kept it secret from our parents until we received a prize from Mongolia’s top fashion show, Goyol (or beauty) , in 1988. That was a year after the state concert. Being a fashion model was not considered so desirable as it is now. We were busy studying at music school and our parents did not know what we were doing.”
What do you think of today’s models?
“In the early days of fashion shows in Mongolia in the 1980s, we did not have many competitors. These days there are many beautiful Mongolian models we have to compete with, but only a few are very good. If someone is lucky, they have the potential to compete at the world level. Personally, I don’t like models who are too trained by courses.”
Do you think becoming famous is pure luck?
“Of course it is luck. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of hard work. You must send photos to agencies, and then only then, will someone see your photo – that is luck.”
What about design and fashion in Mongolia? Are Mongolians fashion sensitive?
“I can not say Mongolians are sensitive to fashion. I think our designers should work harder. Design is not a dress or a suit. It is everything, the whole cornucopia of details. I do not think we are going to compete with Europe, which has a long history of making clothing, rich in colors or designs. There is a big difference between fashion in the West and in Mongolia.”
Mongolia has a lively free press who sometimes step over the line when it comes to gossip and scandal reporting. These so-called “yellow” newspapers have damaged many people’s reputations. This had also happened to you. Some newspapers called the two of you the Barbie girls in Beijing, earning a lot of money.
“Yes, they did say those bad things. We replied to them.”
Was it before the court?
“No, that is a personal question.”
What was the result?
“The newspapers didn’t do that again.”
What do you do now?
“Both of us keep up the fashion work and also teach piano. Music is our profession and love. We founded the Association of Models of Mongolia to protect their rights and strengthen their position in the society.”
The stories have been featured in many books on the country, and the magazine was recommended as a good resource by the Lonely Planet guidebook.
This was not only the first publication of its kind in the UN, it was also a pioneering online venture and remarkable for a country lacking the advantages of wealthier countries.
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.”
A Complete Guide on Celebrations, Festivals and Holidays around the World by Sarah Whelan, Asteroid Content, 2015
Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media by Jeff Summer, Gale Group, 2001
Mongol Survey, Issue 8, The Society, 2001
Mongolian Culture and Society in the Age of Globalization by Henry G. Schwarz (editor), Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University, 2006
Nations in Transition: Mongolia by Jennifer L. Hanson, Infobase Publishing, 2003
Teen Life in Asia by Judith J. Slater, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004
World Press Encyclopedia: A Survey of Press Systems Worldwide, Volume 1by Amanda C. Quick, Gale Group, 2003
In November/December 2000 I worked in Kyiv/Kiev, Ukraine for the United Nations mission on the strategic re-launch of the mission website as a portal, whilst also advising the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner on communications strategy. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. It was a time when the Internet was fast evolving and required quick thinking and an ability to innovate; it was also a key moment in Ukraine’s history.
According to Olena Nikolayenko in Youth Movements and Elections in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2017), “Gongadze’s murder in September 2000 engendered the Ukraine without Kuchma Movement. The website Maidan (http://maidanua .org) was initially set up by civic activists to provide extensive coverage of the movement’s activities.”
But despite those dangers and clear threats from the government of the time, there was a flourishing and inventive Internet and digital economy. The magazine Internet UA (whose editor I enjoyed meeting) gave a great overview of the scene in Ukraine and its creativity. Just as now, the creation of Internet stars who can exploit the medium (in this case sexy videos: a very large online market today) was driving viewers and subscribers. But there was also a vibrant online news media, blogging, commerce and gaming presence as well.
According to ain.ua, the Ukrainian digital economy today is ” … ‘local’ only just figuratively speaking. Ukrainian startups are initially focused on international markets. Product companies are included into international industry ratings. Outsourcing works with clients from all over the world. Global players enter Ukrainian market, opening R&D offices, acquiring and investing into local companies. There are no boundaries.”
It is easy to take digital freedoms for granted now but there was great resistance at the time and, unlike today, many governments were openly hostile to digital technology, online communications and e-commerce.
The UN itself was evolving and embracing the communications and design revolution being driven by digital change. This was the first “dot.com” boom, which had begun in 1997. I had played a key role in pioneering online content for Mongolia (1997-1999) and could bring this experience to Ukraine. In particular, I launched an award-winning web portal for the UN Mongolia mission in 1997 (www.un-mongolia.mn) and also the country’s first web magazine, Ger.
Key content created and launched on the UN Ukraine portal included critical information on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine, UN Ukraine’s first online magazine to explore perceptions of volunteering and NGOs in the post-communist period, and content preparing for the visit of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, by showing how Ukraine was engaging with global development priorities, for example the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.
The power of the Internet and the digital economy to engage people, especially the young, despite living in a country with significant political repression of free speech and even physical intimidation and murder, stuck with me. This work also contributed to laying the foundations for Ukraine’s growing freedoms and greater engagement with Europe.
Crime in the South’s fast-growing cities has a negative affect on economic development and social and community harmony. In Africa, with one fifth of the world’s population, for example, data is very poor on crime and its victims. The absence of good data means prevention and detection of crime is poor, and resources to fight it can’t be allocated effectively.
Over 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN) – high-tension places that offer a fertile environment for crime to flourish. In developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums – and in the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent. Keeping these areas safe is a serious challenge, especially when trust in police and local authorities is low. People are often afraid of how police will react to reporting of crime. Many rightly believe they will be asked for a bribe, or that reporting a crime somehow singles them out as a troublemaker.
Harnessing the power of people organizing together offers one way of fighting back against crime, and combating the paralysis of feeling there is nothing that can be done. An initiative in Brazil is turning to the powerful collaborative potential of Web 2.0 to track crime and help to solve it. And for the first time in history, Brazilians can now see in more or less real time what crime there is and where it is happening in their country.
Wikicrimes, the brainchild of Professor Vasco Furtado of the University of Fortaleza’s Knowledge Engineering Research Group, is inspired by the very popular user-contributed encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and germinated in his mind while on an academic sabbatical at Stanford University in California in 2006.
Victims of crime can simply map and report crimes using the website, which uses brightly coloured drawing pins to indicate where a cluster of crimes has taken place. Site users answer a series of questions on suspects and witnesses. Anyone planning a journey can then easily zoom in on the places where they will go, and see the crime profile of that area – and perhaps be more cautious and aware to avoid becoming victims themselves.
Brazil’s crime problem is huge: Films like City of God – where gangs fight deadly battles in the slums or favelas – shows how vicious it is.
Wikicrimes, whose motto is “Share crime information, Keep safe!”, began development in April 2006, and went ‘live’ with a launch at the end of 2007. Starting with just two employees, it has now grown to a team of 10.
Furtado was frustrated with police hoarding crime statistics in Brazil, and not letting people know where crimes were taking place: he also believes the police, as in many other countries, manipulate statistics for various political purposes. “The traditional mechanism of data-gathering for which police are responsible ends up giving them a monopoly over the handling of information on criminal occurrences,” Furtado said. And that “is not always in keeping with the precept of transparency and public availability of information required by a democratic system.”
Furtado believes transparent crime statistics are vital to a well-functioning democracy.
“We are still facing very big challenges,” he said. “Cultural change is one of them. We don’t have in Brazil the culture of sharing information for benefiting others. People need to realize that when they register a crime they are helping others, and that should be the reason others will act in the same fashion.”
He tried to get the police involved in the project, by contributing data, but with no luck. Brazil’s police argue their monopoly over crime statistics exists for some very serious reasons. “We are very worried about revealing police data which may restrict the work of the police,” Antenor Martins of Rio’s Civil Police Department told the BBC. “Also we don’t want a feeling of insecurity for the people – they don’t deserve that here or anywhere else in the world.”
Many also worry about a crime profile of an area dragging that area down, scaring people away. The police also worry about inaccurate information. “When people walk into a police station, you sign an incident report. If you give information which isn’t true, you have to respond to charges of giving false evidence,” said Martins.
But Furtado believes trust between citizens and the police is so low, it is hurting the fight against crime.
“The police suffer a lack of credibility among the populace which, in turn, contributes toward the low rate of reporting such occurrences: the so-called underreporting effect,” he said. “Research conducted with victims of crime in several Brazilian states has shown that underreporting may, in densely-populated areas, reach up to 50 per cent for certain types of crimes.”
Furtado believes a better picture of crime will lead to better public policies and policing: “The result of this can be disastrous in terms of formulation of public policies and especially in the planning of police actions, in view of the fact that the official criminal mapping may reflect a trend that is quite unlike what is actually occurring in real life.
“WikiCrimes intends to change the traditional logic of handling information on crimes that have already occurred, and considers that such a change is up to the citizens themselves. It is based on the principle that with adequate support, citizens will be capable of deciding how and when historical information on criminal occurrences can be publicized as well as for what purpose.”
Sao-Paulo-based NGO Sou de Paz works to reduce violence in Brazil, and is a big supporter of Wikicrimes. “If we develop Wikicrimes, we can look at things like domestic violence or information on drug trafficking – things that affect communities but that people don’t report either because of shame or fear,” the group’s Denis Mizne told the BBC. “If you can get access to this information or publicise it together with Wikicrimes, it could help in areas that suffer most from violent crime.”
Wisely, Wikicrimes is acting to address police concerns over accurate reporting of crimes.
“Technically the big challenge is to define mechanisms to identify false registering,” Furtado said. “We are creating fields in WikiCrimes for the user to provide further information that brings more reliability to the crime information registered — links to newspapers, for instance. We are also defining algorithms to compute the reputation of the informants.”
And Wikicrimes is not just for Brazil: they want people from around the world to add to the site and help build up the crime profile of all countries.
Furtado said responses from the general public have largely been positive. “The best I could ever hope,” he said. “The project is for the citizen and I feel that they realize this. Every day, I receive messages from people offering support and giving congratulations.”
“I had no idea of similar projects before doing Wikicrimes, but, recently, I have received some messages of similar initiatives even though with a local scope in Brazil, Argentina and USA,” he added.
“In terms of crime it would be nice if this would show that it’s necessary to publish the crime data that we have in law authorities and institutions,” he said. “If this is a success, I am sure that all the crime data will be available for people, because they will realize there is no way that the authorities can keep it all to themselves.”
Furtado keeps a rolling report on progress with Wikicrimes on his blog.
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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