April 24, 2009

4/25/09 Not always greener

Don't get me wrong, I love Mongolia and the Mongolian people, but maybe some of you have the impression that it's a great place to live, just like America or Europe. It has it's problems, a dark side I don't talk about much. The truth is it is a developing country that has spent the last 20 years trying to dig itself out of a hole left when the Russians suddenly vanished.

Let's look at some statistics first. Sixty percent of the population is under thirty but unemployment is over thirty percent. Seventy percent of the 1.2 million people who live in Ulaanbaatar live in the ger districts but only 30% of these families have running water or sewage disposal. Almost a half million people use outhouses and have to make daily treks to a water station, both made more difficult by the extreme winter temperatures here. With so many out of work or under paid, stealing is rampant all the way from the pickpockets and muggers to the white-collar variety. Corruption is a way of life, not an exception here.

One of our staff here at the center just moved into her first apartment at the age of 24. She calls it an apartment but really it's just a room in an apartment that she shares with two other families with it's one bathroom. She bought a small TV but couldn't afford a refrigerator but is still so excited to have this place to her own.

Education isn't free of the corruption either. Many students, including families with kindergarten-age kids, have to bribe their way into school and many university students have to pay under the table for their grades because teachers make so little. Because of that, most companies won't accept Mongolian degrees for such crucial areas like engineering. One of the staff has a friend who was a doctor here in Mongolia, but when she emigrated to England, was so embarrassed by her education, that she didn't tell them and re-applied for medical school to be a 'real' doctor. Her friend won't come back.

Health care is where you really understand you live in the developing world. I keep hearing more and more horror stories, especially with obstetrics. Otgonbayar's wife just had a baby and she was in serious trouble for over a month because of what he calls' the 'butchers' in the hospital during delivery. Oyunbatar's nine-month old son has not been eating for months due to what he claims were complications due to the lack of skill of the doctors. If people have money here, especially the foreigners, they go to the Korean hospital, but for most it's only for the rich of the rich.

I haven't been to the prison yet, but I gather it makes our prisons in American seem like the Hilton compared to the same in Mongolia. Again graft and corruption rule.

But don't get me wrong, in all this darkness there are bright stars. The director of the government orphanage near the community center puts all his time, effort and money into improving the lives of the children in his care and fires any employee who doesn't put the kids first. A maximum-security prison official asked for help in training his inmates so they won't become repeat offenders. All around me there are Mongolians who want a better life, not just for themselves but for all Mongolians.

That is why I am here. Not really to teach English, but to help a few people improve their lives, give them chances at really making changes in their lives. One way is English. It gives them the opportunities to get work in international business, banking, or trade. Especially for the young people, it gives them a slightly better chance to go to an English speaking country to get a top-notch education. Then they can come back here as better engineers, teachers, and doctors.

Our hope is that the English department could close up shop here in the City Center in a few years and move out to the ger districts, like near the community center. Hopefully, as life improves here, and they tell me that despite all the that I've talked about it's a lot better now than 20 years ago, people in the ger districts will have enough free time to spend it learning new skills like English so they too can benefit from Mongolia becoming a modern country.

So, that is why the work we do here, all the NGO's and volunteer groups like the Peace Corps, (who has over a 100 volunteers working here) is so important.