Mongolia's hard times
By Beth Watts
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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 is Federation web site officer based in Geneva.
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