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Mongolia's hard times

By Beth Watts

A decade of economic transition combined with three years of drought and bad winters have pushed most Mongolians into severe poverty. The Red Cross is helping the most vulnerable people survive these turbulent times.

The Mongolian Red Cross offers medical assistance as part of its social welfare programme for the elderly.

Life for Lahagvasuren, a herder in Mongolia, was good. He was able to support his family and care for his animals. "We were happy, life was simple," he says. "But that's all gone now."

For Lahagvasuren as for many thousands of traditional herders, the harsh winters of the last three years have taken their toll. Today they have lost all their animals, and along with their families, have been forced to move to the regional town centre in the hope of finding a better existence. Now they have nothing.

"We can hardly find enough food to eat. We have one meal a day and sometimes nothing at all," he says sadly. His daughter, sitting by his side, is wearing only a thin T-shirt and no shoes or socks, despite the lack of heating inside and the freezing temperature outside.

Lahagvasuren's family are by no means unique. In the past ten years, poverty has exploded in this vast country. "People have lost everything and are living terribly miserable lives," explains David Easson, former Federation programme manager in Mongolia.

Tackling the root causes

Increasing poverty levels in the country is a complex problem and its roots lie far deeper than the treacherous weather conditions. The transition from a Communist-led regime following a Soviet model of centrally planned economic growth to a democratically elected government and free market economy in the early 1990s has left the country vulnerable and hugely in debt.

"What we're looking at is a steadily impoverished population, many of whom are forced to go now to one of the three main cities with very little assets where they end up living in very bad conditions — basically slums — and where there are very big problems with welfare, shelter and unemployment," explains Chris Hurford, team leader of the Federation assessment team that visited Mongolia in late November.

In the capital Ulaan Baatar, thepopulation has risen from 700,000 in 1999 to over 813,000 in early 2002 leading to overcrowding and increased poverty. The social welfare system cannot cope with such an influx of people. And with no income and no skills to find employment, many families are being plunged into destitution.

To receive any sort of social and medical assistance or to apply for work, families are required to register with local authorities. But this comes at a cost of nearly US$ 50 per person meaning most families are slipping through the social net.

"I often wonder how we will cope anymore," worries 34 year-old Bichee, a woman living with her family in Ulaan Baatar. They cannot afford the registration fee. To survive, Bichee and her daughter are forced to travel four hours each day to a forest area to collect firewood. They sell this by the roadside for 500 togrik (50 cents) per bag. "We use the money to buy a few pieces of bread," she says. "It's not enough."

"My husband is very ill but he can't get help. I think he will die soon. My daughter can't go to school as we haven't enough money. What can we do?" Bichee asks.

"The poverty levels are quite appalling," says David Easson. "There are numerous food and nutritional problems, the public health situation is deteriorating and there is widespread depression. Many people are distressed and physically and psychologically exhausted. We have heard many reports of suicides. Alcoholism is becoming a large-scale problem and there are increases in domestic violence. People just can't cope anymore."




Red Cross action

In response to the growing problems in Mongolia, Red Cross assistance has so far largely centred around emergency appeals during the harsh winter periods. Focus has been given to herders with the provision of food and materiel aid such as radios and warm winter clothing. But this assistance offers only short term solutions to a more profound development problem.

"We have to really start addressing the long-term issues," says Chris Hurford. "The Red Cross has traditionally been seen as a response organization in the country. Now there is a real need to look harder at the ongoing disaster, especially growing poverty in the urban areas and the situation for the people who have fallen through the social welfare net — for these people the problem will not be solved by any quick fix."

The Mongolian Red Cross is aware that emergency assistance is limited. They have initiated a number of small social welfare outreach programmes to offer more long-term support especially for the elderly. But these projects are small and difficult to sustain.

Encouragingly, a number of branch initiatives are providing the skills for people to move out of poverty. In one Ulaan Baatar branch, a legal advice course has been set up to educate vulner-able families about the registration process, their rights and other legal matters. Some of the participants go on to take a life skills training class in areas such as sewing or cooking, offering them new livelihood opportunities.

"These courses have been successful," says David Easson. "When we ask people about what they most need, the resounding answer we get is that they want to work. They want their dignity. In this way the Red Cross is helping to empower people and give them back their lives."

"But these projects are just too small, helping maybe five or six people at a time. They need to be expanded," he says. "Branches need more support and advice to be able to really make a difference."

Volunteers the key?

A committed and enthusiastic volunteer base means that the Mongolian Red Cross can help address the poverty crisis — if the right support is given.

"Volunteers and youth could be the key to how the Red Cross can help address the longer-term problems in the country," claims David Easson.

"Volunteers - both young and old — are astoundingly dedicated and motivated. They will walk miles to help those in need with no incentive or support, just because they want to help," he adds. "When the Federation assessment team came to the country, we had volunteers walking up to 25 kilometres on foot in temperatures of minus 35 celsius just to talk to the team and show their support to the Red Cross. That kind of force could really make a difference."

Under-secretary general of the Mongolian Red Cross, Dr. Jadamba agrees. "Volunteers are already giving their all. They even neglect themselves to go and see and help other families."

"But these volunteers have to be supported. If we improve capacity, support and recognition for the volunteers I think we have a possibility to make a lasting impact and help people living in poverty."

But there is no quick fix. To alleviate poverty in Mongolia, the government, together with the support of the international community, must promote efforts towards sustainable economic growth and set up affordable safety nets to assist the most vulnerable during this transition period.

The Red Cross can play a larger role in helping this change come about. By building on the good profile it has gained from successful relief operations, the Red Cross must now emphasize and advocate to donors and governments the need to look at Mongolia as a country facing an ongoing development disaster that is much more complex than is currently represented.

Mongolia does not have to be a hopeless case. Mongolian Red Cross volunteers have not lost hope and belief in their country. Now is the time to honour their strength and spirit.

Beth Watts
Beth Watts is Federation web site officer based in Geneva.

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