This fall, World Learning welcomed a new class of emerging leaders participating in its Leaders Advancing Democracy (LEAD) Mongolia program. Funded by USAID, LEAD Mongolia is cultivating the country’s next generation of democracy advocates who will transform their communities. It does so through leadership programs, civic education, and international exchanges.
Thirty-seven of those Mongolian leaders arrived in the United States for a three-week exchange that is one component of the overall program. During the exchange — which focuses on themes like social inclusion, youth engagement, and social cohesion — they learned about American democracy, project management, and how to build peace in conflict.
Since their return to Mongolia, the LEAD fellows have teamed up on projects to address serious issues in their communities, such as poverty, environmental sustainability, and corruption. One team is working with entrepreneurs from socially disadvantaged communities, helping them find funding, build networks, and access training. Another group is launching a project designed to raise awareness among youth about transparency and corruption through an innovative filmmaking competition.
These LEAD Mongolia fellows share a passion for making the world a better place: They care deeply about protecting children, preserving Mongolia’s traditional nomadic culture, and empowering their fellow citizens. Meet a few of this year’s fellows in the profiles below and discover the many ways in which they’re seeking solutions to critical local and global issues.
Taking the Lead on Fighting Corruption
Munkhjargal Munkhbat has cared about fighting corruption in Mongolia for a long time. He remembers seeing it as a child, waiting to see a doctor at the hospital while wealthier children swept to the front of the line. As the first person in his family to earn a law degree, he committed to using his position to root out corruption and help the disadvantaged.
“I want to heal society and people,” says Munkhbat, founder and managing partner of MJL Attorneys law firm in Ulaanbaatar. His firm’s Strategic Advocacy arm takes on social issues — such as supporting people with disabilities — and won a court case that resulted in regulations requiring the accessibility of public buildings.
Munkhbat joined LEAD Mongolia to connect with a cross-section of activists, each with ideas about improving Mongolian society. At the same time, he also found the program’s emphasis on American-style democracy and concepts like social inclusion inspiring. While he used to wait for disadvantaged groups to come to him, Munkhbat is more determined than ever to seek out people who need legal advice to fight discrimination.
He also plans to work with other LEAD Mongolia fellows to combat corruption and bribery in public schools. “We don’t have to wait to change society,” he says. “If we want a good future we must start now.”
Preserving Mongolia’s Nomadic Culture and Economy Through Tourism
Bayarsuren Yalalt recognized early on that Mongolia’s tourism boom was not always to the benefit of the Mongolian people.
Fascination with Mongolia’s traditional nomadic culture has brought people from all over the world to rural Mongolia, where they sleep in yurts and share meals with families. But as a travel professional herself, Yalalt realized that tour companies based in Ulaanbaatar were banking nearly all the profits while rural Mongolians were increasingly forced to trade in their nomadic lifestyle and move to the capital city to find work.
She is determined to ensure that Mongolia’s rural communities benefit from tourism rather than suffer at its hands.
“Nomadic culture is the foundation of our country’s history, economy, and society,” Yalalt says. She believes that culture is at risk of being lost — which would damage Mongolia’s economy. “We need to help them live in the countryside.”
She started within her own industry, founding Ger to Ger, a sustainable travel company whose name means “family to family.” Ger to Ger works with 200 to 300 nomads in 10 different regions. These families lead tours of their communities using traditional means of transport and offering home-cooked meals and homestays. In 2009, Ger to Ger was a finalist in National Geographic’s Geotourism Challenge.
Yalalt joined LEAD Mongolia to build her skills as a change-maker. During the international exchange, she learned from LEAD participants about financial strategies Ger to Ger families could use to support themselves. She was also inspired by the program’s emphasis on social inclusion, which she now plans to make part of her work back home. “All of us can combine our experience and skills so we can bring a bigger and more positive impact,” she says.
Giving Back Through Public Service
Bolortuul Tsoodol knew from a young age that she wanted to give back to her community. Her mother worked for an NGO and for the Mongolian government, and Tsoodol realized she also wanted to work in public service. “Working for society and a better livelihood for the community is very inspiring work,” she says.
Tsoodol now leads environmental policy planning in the Governor’s Office of the Darkhan-Uul Province, the second most populated and industrialized province in Mongolia. She focused on the environment due to concern about climate change, which is causing Mongolian herders to lose their land and, therefore, their livelihood. Tsoodol’s work focuses on planning, programming, and creating action plans, but her interest in public service extends beyond the environmental sector.
Earlier this year, Tsoodol’s office started a program distributing grants directly to Mongolians to engage in community projects. Out of 300 proposals, they funded 129 activities such as building playgrounds and repairing community buildings. “These people are working hard and doing everything they can because they care about the community,” Tsoodol says. She believes this program has strengthened citizens’ support for their local government.
Mongolia has a very young population, which Tsoodol believes has the power to create change. She’s hoping to see more young people take an interest in public service and activism. She says that maybe they can get others to understand “how participation can change policy and how policy can change the future of Mongolia.”
Protecting Children and Mongolia’s Future
Mungunkhishig Batbaatar believes air pollution is among the most dangerous threats to children’s welfare. And for good reason: Mongolia has some of the worst air pollution in the world — its capital city, Ulaanbaatar, reportedly has pollution levels five times higher than Beijing. Rapid urbanization paired with the burning of coal for fuel during bitter winters has made air pollution a serious health concern.
Batbaatar is working hard to help protect children from harmful pollutants in the air through his work in digital communications at UNICEF Mongolia, where he focuses on environmental issues. He has wanted to enter public service since high school, when he befriended volunteers from the Peace Corps and Volunteer Service Overseas who worked in his community. “It opened my eyes to development work,” he says. “I wanted to make them proud.”
Batbaatar joined the LEAD Mongolia program to further his personal and professional development as he works toward improving life in Mongolian by fighting air pollution. He was surprised — and inspired — to learn that American democracy is not perfect. Conflicts and difficulties are inevitable and civil society must be persistent as it works toward goals like reducing air pollution. “Democracy is not a destination,” he says, adding that citizens should engage with and question their government.
Through LEAD Mongolia, Batbaatar met many other young Mongolians who are active in their communities. This experience, he says, gives him hope for the future.
Strengthening Democracy Through Social Inclusion and Civic Engagement
During a LEAD Mongolia event at the University of Virginia (UVA), Mand Batdorj discovered her interest in issues related to social inclusion and civic engagement. She had not previously learned much about either issue. As a business development expert in Ulaanbaatar and a recent graduate of journalism school, Batdorj had focused on issues of free speech and the need for a free press.
At UVA, Batdorj was struck by the words of the professor speaking to the group. She declared during his lecture that citizens who are not engaged in their communities and allow others to make decisions for them are disrespecting themselves. “It was such an eye-opening experience for me,” Batdorj says. She wanted to bring this type of thinking back to Mongolia.
Young Mongolians like Batdorj are also working hard to promote the voices of people in their communities who struggle to be heard. Batdorj believes that those particularly vulnerable to exclusion in Mongolia are poor families and those with limited access to education. She believes Mongolia must expand access to opportunities and resources so that they can lead a better life. “[Social inclusion] is a process, not a destination.”
Fighting Unemployment Through Entrepreneurship
Shagdarsuren Erdmaa is one of many Mongolians who worry about chronic unemployment — especially since 2012, when the country’s unemployment rate spiked. He believes entrepreneurship is a critical component of the solution.
Erdmaa is the co-founder of Mongolia’s first venture capital firm, helping entrepreneurs and start-ups succeed. He started the firm to address Mongolia’s unemployment challenge: Erdmaa says the main obstacle to economic development in the country is the lack of education about how to build new businesses. He believes that education about entrepreneurship is essential for start-ups to create jobs to fill the gap in the economy.
Erdmaa joined the LEAD Mongolia program to gain experience and professional contacts to help him address Mongolia’s unemployment challenge. During the program, he learned about social inclusion, a topic he did not know much about prior to participating in LEAD. “Social inclusion is giving opportunity to vulnerable people, for example, disabled people or people in poverty, to participate in social and political and economic life,” he says.
Erdmaa and his fellow LEAD Mongolia participants are incorporating social inclusion into their follow-on project. They are working together to support start-ups that work to help vulnerable social groups, including individuals with disabilities, mothers of children with disabilities, and people from rural areas. Erdmaa’s group will help with funding, mentorship, networking, and training to bring job growth to the Mongolian economy.
2017 LEAD MONGOLIA U.S. EXCHANGE FELLOWS
— Molly Varoga and Amy McKeever
Molly Varoga is the marketing and communications intern at World Learning; Amy McKeever is the organization’s writer/editor.