Tips for NGOs wanting to set up shop in Mongolia

Aid work in Mongolia, particularly in the far-flung communities, is no easy task. Photo by Lean Santos / Devex

Setting up a local NGO branch in Mongolia brings up some obvious logistical hurdles. Mongolia is a landlocked country, wedged between Russia to the north and China to the south. A natural calamity called a “dzud,” or severe winter cold, makes life more difficult for both aid workers and herders alike.

But aside from such initial considerations, what should international NGOs be thinking about when they set out to open a branch in the East Asian nation of more than 3 million? More than 100 international NGOs have set up shop in the country, with local NGOs numbering over 5,000 as of 2005. Devex talked to a chief of a local Red Cross branch in Bayankhongor province, over 600 kilometers southwest of Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, about what newcomers need to know:

Respect the culture and traditions

International organizations planning to open a local branch, particularly in the provinces, need to understand that respect for local culture and traditions is non-negotiable.

“Any activity must be respectful towards the history and culture of that local people,” D. Betdamba, head and director of Bayankhongor province’s Red Cross branch.

She suggested several steps organizations could take in this regard, including “involving as many local people as possible in their activities,” being open to learning the culture and traditions, hiring local staff, and partnering with other development groups in the community.

The Red Cross official said organizations that choose to ignore a nation’s or a community’s set of culture and tradition “probably won’t be able to expand their activities” as it will be “unpopular among the local people.”

Members of local NGOs in Bayankhongor, including D. Betdamba, during a civil society roundtable in the province. Photo by Lean Santos / Devex

Coordination with local authorities

Working on the ground also requires coordination with formal community authorities. International NGOs may turn to local partner groups that can help to navigate the local systems of authority.

In the case of Mongolia, local authorities in the heads of “soum” (districts) and “aimag” (provinces), along with the citizens’ representatives assembly, members of which can act as mediators between foreign institutions and the general populace.

“These are the so-called governing bodies and any activities obviously have to be in line with the existing laws,” Betdamba said. “Any special license or permit has to be obtained within the existing laws.”

Coordination with traditional authorities

Coordination and consultation with informal representatives of communities, or “elders,” will also be beneficial for NGOs.

“It is very important actually to first visit or inform the elders about any activities that you might have been planning, because Mongolians respect their elders and listen to them intently,” the Red Cross official said.

She explained that it’s “basically [the] informal way of the community -- an elder person who has the respect of the community.”

Participating in this leadership tradition can include dining with them — particularly drinking “arag” (fermented horse milk) and eating milk curd — in their traditional nomadic dwelling called a ger. Such discussions can help forge a strong relationship with the community.

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 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a 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. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.