By Sophia Duckor-Jones
One week before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a group of 30 young aspiring leaders from Mongolia touched down in Washington, DC, as part of a three week leadership program in the nation’s capital and Virginia. They are the first group to participate in a new program run by World Learning called Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD)–Mongolia program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The program is a two-year initiative, in partnership with the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Centre for Citizen Education (CCE), which aims to help build Mongolia’s next generation of democratic leaders.
The LEAD-Mongolia cohort represent a diverse array of interests, experiences, and ideas. They include lawyers, human rights activists, entrepreneurs, and educators.
LEAD-Mongolia project director Adam LeClair said the program provides a unique opportunity for fellows to discuss the future of their country.
“We hope to ignite and empower their inner resolve as leaders. It is this combination — the new skills, knowledge, ideas, and new relationships — that will enable our LEAD-Mongolia Fellows to create the change they wish to see in their country,” said LeClair.
During the three week exchange program participants met with members of Congress and other leaders and advocates working on environment, transparency, and poverty issues in the U.S. The program started off in Washington, DC, with orientation, sight-seeing, and workshops on leadership, conflict management, and organizational change as well as digital storytelling. The group then continued on to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they participated in intensive courses and seminars in leadership.
The group hoped to visit the White House on their sight-seeing tour, but plans changed due to road closures and intense security preparations for inauguration.
Instead, they visited the Treasury building and toured the Capitol.
The participants found it exciting to be in DC as the 45th President came into office, giving them a chance to witness the orderly transfer of power, which is new to their country.
Mongolia is a relatively young democracy.
In 1990, a peaceful revolution brought an end to the 70-year rule of the Mongolian People’s Republic, ushering in a new era of a democratic rule and a new constitution. Young people played a pivotal role in bringing about change.
Mongolia is a country dominated by youth. Nearly 60 percent of the population of Mongolia is under 30 years old. Nurturing democratic values among the nation’s youth is critical to the country’s future.
Despite the important role they played in bringing an end to authoritarian rule, young Mongolians do not feel today’s political leaders take their ideas and opinions into consideration, according to polls.
Faced with rising unemployment and growing discontent with the country’s political climate, Mongolia’s emerging leaders are losing optimism and less likely to engage in civic or community work, according to a report from IRI. World Learning’s LEAD-Mongolia program seeks to combat indifference and help young Mongolians work toward a common vision for the future of the country.
Nyampurev Galsanjamts, a LEAD-Mongolia fellow, is a civic activist with more than 10 years of experience, who is trying to eliminate the stigma around HIV and AIDS.
He says it’s very encouraging to see how democracy works in the U.S. and appreciated the opportunity to attend a city council meeting in Staunton, Virginia.
“I was impressed to see the diversity of participants in the meeting,” he says.
Last year, then Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare cabinet-level visit to the country and hailed Mongolia as an “oasis of democracy” in a tough neighborhood sandwiched between Russia and China. Encouraging continued reforms Kerry declared: “There’s more we can do to open up the economy. There’s more we can do to get transparency and accountability in place, to push back against whatever corrupt policies that may have existed from old times into the present and begin to modernize.”
Freedom of the press continues to be a struggle for Mongolian journalists, and a concern for LEAD-Mongolia participants.
Many participants say the government has made it difficult for journalists to report the news.
However, progress has been made, with more press freedom extended to Mongol HD TV and a handful of online sites.
In addition to corruption and press freedom, air pollution is another major area of concern for LEAD-Mongolia participants.
Delgerzul Lodoisamba works at the Department of Environmental Health and spent the past few years raising awareness about air pollution in Mongolia and the looming health crisis. She says in the winter it’s almost as bad as China’s notorious air pollution.
Lodoisamba believes the government should use the vehicle taxes it collects from citizens to reduce pollution.
“We could use that to help our environment,” she says.
Other LEAD-Mongolia fellows share her concerns.
While visiting the University of Virginia campus they staged a peaceful protest calling for their government to address air pollution in settlements outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and provide protection in schools. This protest followed a recent demonstration by Parents Against Pollution in front of Mongolia’s parliament.
During their program, fellows met with environmental nongovernmental organizations in Virginia such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Centre.
Bulganchimeg Bayasgalant, who worked for Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Green Development several years ago, said it was useful to learn how the NGO involves the community in environmental protection.
“They carry out training and awareness campaigns for children and youth; and also involve them in those activities,” she says, noting that “they are self-sufficient and do not receive a state subsidy. “
LEAD-Mongolia fellows returned home brimming with new ideas.
Their vision for Mongolia is clear: Youth need to be more engaged in politics. It will fall on the next generation to tackle corruption, air pollution, unemployment, freedom of the press and many other issues. The fellows are energized and ready to launch projects for positive change in their local communities.