The cold, hard truth for rural development in Mongolia

Representatives of local NGOs discussing development issues. Devex development reporter Lean Santos shares his on-the-ground insights and reflects on the obstacles facing rural development work in the country. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

Whenever I hear the phrase “winter is coming,” the automatic image that springs to mind — and please forgive the pop culture reference — is Sean Bean in the role of the ill-fated Eddard Stark in the hit TV series “Game of Thrones.” Indeed, these three words constitute a motto that signals the need for constant vigilance in anticipation of harder times ahead.

But landing on a February afternoon in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in full anticipation of seeing development work in action a few hundred kilometers away in the deep mountains of the East Asian nation, I didn’t immediately realize just how much the phrase from the fictional work rings true in the realities of development work.

Mongolians are a proud, traditional and resilient group of people. For thousands of years, their nomadic lifestyle — moving from one place to another every few months with their traditional tents, called gers — has led them to endure their fair share of difficulties in a fast-changing world.

But talking to locals on the mountain ridges of the remote Mongolian countryside, another kind of change is making it more difficult than ever to survive: climate change.

Mongolian herders find means to survive despite hard times. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

For Mongolians, climate change is as personal as it gets

With the recent adoption of the Paris climate agreement, the world now has a blueprint on how to deal with the effects of climate change. But what is the impact at local level? On the ground in Mongolia, Devex explores the ways climate change is affecting the lives of people in the landlocked East Asian nation.

Summers are becoming drier and hotter, while winters are bringing unprecedented cold temperatures as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, snowfall has rendered almost everything — from pasture lands for livestock to roads, schools and health centers for social services — inaccessible. The colder winter has pushed people to burn more coal for heating and electricity and clouds of pollutants hover over cities and villages, posing a threat to both the environment and human health.

During a trip to the far-flung districts of Bayankhongor province, over 600 kilometers southwest of the capital Ulaanbaatar, I witnessed herders rendered helpless bystanders as they watched their livestock succumb to death due to hunger or cold — with some herders reportedly committing suicide out of depression and frustration following their losses.

This is the chilling reality on the ground here, where pastoralists are often the ones on the losing end of the fight against climate change.

Listening to stories of people living in the rural communities of Mongolia. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

Cold truth

It is a difficult reality, too, for aid and development workers in the country.

With layer upon layer of issues taken into account — including environmental and social safeguards, development impact, value for money, and contextual considerations, among others — in an attempt to implement solutions to complex problems faced by rural communities, it is easy to feel somewhat “lost in translation” when interpreting and assessing the challenges they face.

The difficulty is evident during the 10-hour drive from the capital to reach the provincial center of Bayankhongor, during which time the temperature gauge never rose above minus 10 degree Celsius; it is evident in the dilemma of convincing people that coal-burning is bad for the environment and their health, despite the need for warmth in the shivering cold; it is evident in the struggle to drive through 3 feet of snow — and getting stuck more than six times — to reach isolated families hundreds of kilometers apart in the most far-flung mountains; and it is evident in the risk of getting hypothermia and frostbite just to deliver a food stamp to a starving family, a vaccine or a flu shot to a sick child, or a truckload of hay to a starving flock of livestock.

Getting stuck in snow driving to reach far-flung communities is part-and-parcel of development work. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

In Mongolia, the cold, hard truth is that development work is never easy.

And the difficulty goes beyond the physical aspects of the job: there is also the emotional and psychological obstacles that development workers face. On the trip to Bayankhongor, NGO officials who sat down for lunch with us say there is often a need to contemplate the kind of good they do when they try to console and support families who lose family members or livestock.

Seeing development work on the ground in Mongolia is like being hit hard in the face — not in a way that leaves a bloody taste in the mouth, but a visceral recognition that doing good is worthwhile if everybody does it well.

Finding the good

On a global scale, talking about development invariably leads to big-picture discussions about the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris climate agreement, which sometimes risks less focus and emphasis on the practical realities of development work on the ground.

But this seemingly thankless job of helping people on the ground — where doing good is all in a day’s work, while failure is all-too-often tiptoed around and swept under the rug — is what fuels the real development up top.

Sunset in the Mongolian countryside. Photo by: Lean Alfred Santos / Devex

Without those development professionals from international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank, World Vision and the Red Cross — among those who have a presence in Mongolia through international funding and local support — who brave the bitter cold of the mountains to reach thousands of families living in gers, or those aid workers in other parts of the world who face the dangers in the conflict-ridden territories of Syria and beyond, those SDGs and other global agreements would be rendered unfulfilled and unsuccessful.

In negotiating — both figuratively and literally — some oftentimes difficult and unforgiving terrain, development work can forge the most direct path toward providing the good that sees a family out of poverty, or a cleaner and more sustainable future for everyone. With this in mind, perhaps there won’t be any dread when people say “winter is coming,” because at the end of it, there lies a path to the “spring” of progress.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Asia-Pacific development reporter Lean Santos was on the ground in Mongolia for Devex in February, during a press trip organized by the Asian Development Bank.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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