Joining us on the blog today is fellow MIDP student, Felipe Urrego Gonzalez. Felipe reflects on what it means to ‘develop’ and encourages us to debate whether development is always the answer.
When I think about development I automatically think about vulnerable communities. I think about how to reduce the gap between them and us. I think about how we can help them to improve their standard of living, their level of democracy, their wealth, their happiness, and many other aspects that most of us enjoy where we are right now.
Last semester I took Research Methods, and one big consideration was to be ethical about your research. You always have to consider how your research may impact yourself and the communities. Have we considered how development may affect ourselves or communities? Do we have any method or guide to measure how our development projects may impact communities? I know in Project Planning and Management for Development we talked about monitoring and evaluation and its importance; but are there any methods to tell us when not to develop, when not to bring our outside ideas to a community that already has an endogenous model of change that is working for them?
All these questions came after a discussion with a friend. If we develop those that we consider are in need, it already sets a power imbalance between us and them. What about helping powerful companies become ‘less’ developed? Should we, perhaps, focus our efforts on ensuring that the so-called developed world becomes more sustainable or more equal to the rest of the world? That does not mean becoming more violent, or less democratic, or poor. What I am trying to say is that instead of helping communities to understand financial schemes, we should run programs to help international companies to understand indigenous processes. We should contribute to ‘un-developing’ those that are ‘too’ developed.
Think about the investment broker working eight hours a day, making money to have enough to enjoy a nice retirement in a sustainable village in the middle of a forest without any worries related to modern life. Now think about the villager that lives in a sustainable way in the middle of a forest without the worries of modern life. Many agencies try to teach this villager how to use his micro-loan to get more money so he can live in a better place and send his children to study to become brokers and make more money and … (Can you see the irony here?)
I am very glad that during my experience at Monash University undertaking this Master I have become more critical of the role we will play as development practitioners, and the necessity of thinking about the impact our decisions will have in the future.
Let us help to reduce the gap among the world citizens. My idea is to build bottom-up approaches and use them in top-down organisations and processes.
The International Studies Association 58th Annual Convention was held in Baltimore, Maryland from February 22nd – 25th, 2017. It was organised by the International Studies Association, a premier organization promoting research activities since 1959 through connecting scholars and practitioners in the field of international studies. The theme of the convention was “Understanding Change in World Politics”. The theme resonated with the current political climate in America which impacted the participation of some of the potential attendees in the convention. The travel restrictions led to thoughtful exchanges and a number of protest events in solidarity with ISA members who were denied entry and could not attend. In fact, several members of the panel boycotted the conference altogether in solidarity with their fellow ISA colleagues.
Despite these setbacks, the conference brought about 6500 people together from all corners of the world, both north and south. The participants were academics, researchers, young scholars, educators, and activists coming together to debate and discuss future world events, with a particular focus on research and activism. As a Young Career Scholar, the Presidential address by Ashley Leeds (president of the International Students Association) was a particularly riveting start to the conference. It was an amazing experience to see academics and scholars (whom one has read and heard so much about!) under one roof. To witness such a big turnout at the event was both intimidating and overwhelming. I could see scholars dressed up in suits with their name tags hanging around their necks debating and discussing everywhere around us, whether it was outside the Hilton, (which was one of the main venues for the event) or at the cafeteria and bars around famous areas of the city. The sunny weather in Baltimore was an unexpected bonus and certainly added to the charm of the city.
Early career scholars like me were discussing experiences of their paper presentations, as well as their ideas. It was an opportunity for us to expand our networks and showcase our research, in addition to learning some essential tricks of the trade. In short, it was an opportunity for us to grow both personally and professionally. The Early Career Scholar Lounge was a space dedicated especially for young scholars like me to prepare our presentations, recharge and create early networks.
The area around the conference venue was bubbling with activities. During the day difficult choices were made regarding which panel discussions to attend. The conference was structured around Panel discussions which catered to different themes such as Global Development, Feminist Theory and Gender Studies, Ethnicity, Diplomacy, and International Security Studies amongst many others. Presentations and panel discussion allowed all participants to enter into meaningful, practical debates around the above mentioned themes. It was an excellent opportunity for a future development practitioner and researcher to educate herself from the diversity of experience that participants brought to the table. In the evening, networking events were organised such as various receptions which provided a chance to meet people working in similar fields. Some of the discussion would carry outside the conference venues.
Personally, this conference was an eye opener in many ways. Firstly, I travelled to America, a trip I know I would not have the courage to take in near future if it was not for this conference. Secondly, I engaged with some of the smartest minds pursuing their PhDs . There was always so much to do like attending discussions, establishing networks, getting nervous about my own ideas and of course to explore the charming Baltimore.
Recalling my presentation, I had never been as nervous as I was when I saw a room full of people who came to hear the panel discussion. The theme of our panel was Peacemaking, Peacebuilding, and Post-Conflict Transformation: Gender, Agency and Political Change, to which I contributed with my paper on Afghan Women; Peacemakers and Resilient Survivors. The paper talks about how experiences and perceptions of men have historically shaped the politics and discourse of conflict resolution. This simultaneously implies the silencing of a large part of the population and making their experiences invisible. It is important to explore the brilliant work carried out by the women in these silent and private spaces where they are subsequently confined to during the conflict.
As you can probably imagine, the experience of the presentation itself and all the feedback I got afterwards has been incredibly informative and rewarding. I am glad I took this chance to go present something that bloomed from a little idea that I had. This was my first international conference abroad, so I am positive this experience will stay with me for a lifetime. I am now more determined and motivated to pursue my academic career so I am hoping this will have been the first of many presentations to come. Watch this space.
For our fourth segment of On the Record, our Managing Editor, Kathy Hofilena, talks about Indigenous knowledge and their relationship to the environment. She also invites us to reflect on Indigenous Rights based on her experience in the Philippines, as well as considering the danger of appropriation and exploiting local knowledge.
Q. Can you describe what is happening in this picture? A. 2 years ago, a couple of friends and I were invited to visit one of the indigenous communities in the north of the Phillippines, in Buscalan. At that time, batok- a traditional tattooing technique- was becoming popular, so tourism to the region was increasing as a result. In this picture, you can see me getting a traditional Kalinga tattoo by Apo Whang-Od. She is the last mambabatok; the last traditional tattoo artist.
Q. Why did you choose this picture? A. I chose this photo because thinking about Indigenous rights brings me back to that experience, to that tattoo. When I was there I also struggled with a lot of issues when it comes to Indigenous rights. Because I was acquiring something from their traditions, was I commodifying indigenous knowledge? Or was I helping them empower themselves by encouraging cultural economy? I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to the elders and other community members, and they were actually very welcoming to tourists. They saw the influx of tourists as something that would benefit their community, as it would increase their income. In that way, they could become more independent and develop themselves in the way that they really wanted to. It definitely eased some of my concerns, but not all of them.
Q. What issues were you still concerned about? A. Commodification, mostly. The tattoos were traditionally for headhunters, as a sign of bravery. For women, it was used as a sign of beauty. Some people, therefore, believe that these tattoos should only be had by headhunters and the elders, but others believe that it is something that should be shared with the wider community. This technique is something that they want to spread, and make known. It is important to note that this opinion was not imposed, but rather the community came up with this decision by themselves.
Q. What tattoo did you end up getting? A. I got the traditional symbol for the scorpion, which represents strength and protection. A lot of their symbols derive from nature, like insects, eagles, centipedes, mountains… This relates to how, traditionally, their sense of spirituality and identity was drawn from nature. This is something that I really identify with and that I admire about them. It was actually when I was in this community that I truly witnessed how there are different kinds of ‘development’. Before that, I would only think of development as high-rise buildings and better public infrastructure. But indigenous people have their own self-determination and their own ideas of development, and it is only by respecting their ideas that you can have diversity in thinking about development instead of being stuck in one mind frame; that was what truly inspired me to pursue a career in international development
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My story began very unremarkably: I applied for a last minute internship opportunity with Oxfam’s gender justice unit that had been created as a result of the Oxfam-Monash partnership. I emailed back with my CV within a few minutes (thank you email notifications!), and was eventually shortlisted for an interview with Kim Henderson, Oxfam’s gender justice lead.
I was pretty nervous, but the interview ended up being a casual chat over a coffee in a café across from the Oxfam office. I say casual chat but, in retrospect, there was still a huge amount of information to absorb! It was exciting though; I felt that even if I was not successful in securing the internship, I was still doing something hugely proactive for my future. I was even more excited when I found out I had secured the position!
Things moved fairly quickly after that. I enrolled in the internship subject, completed online Oxfam inductions, and arranged my first day with Kim for a general orientation. It was only then that I discovered a major perk of this internship: Brazil.
AWID is an international feminist organisation committed to achieving gender justice by supporting and resourcing the collective action and impact of global women’s rights advocates, organisations and movements. AWID hosts a global forum every three to four years that is attended by about 2,000 feminist activists from around the world. These forums provide a platform for activists to collectively strategize and mobilise, share feminist knowledge and information that can support women’s rights movements, and develop a more just development agenda.
AWID hosted its 13th international forum between the 8th and the 11th of September 2016, in Costa do Sauípe, Brazil. After applying for this internship, I was asked whether I could potentially go to Brazil in September (my answer of course was a quick and absolute ‘yes’). This had not been raised in my interview so I was thrilled about the opportunity. Forwarding back to my first day on the job, I found out that not only would I be able to attend the AWID forum, my attendance would be funded by the Oxfam-Monash partnership!
Once I was set up and ready to start working, my first task was helping with the logistical coordination of Oxfam’s presence at the forum. Oxfam took care to send only a small delegation of employees, so as to not crowd out the space at the forum. Instead, they invested in the attendance of activists from partner organisations. These forums offer opportunities for smaller organisations and for activists from all walks of life to have a voice, and it is very important for international non-governmental organisations like Oxfam to enhance these opportunities instead of dominating them.
My role also involved helping with the preparation of the event strategy, policy positions and key messages that were used to ensure that Oxfam had a coordinated presence at the forum. I performed a lot of this work independently from home and worked about once a week from the Oxfam office. I was extremely fortunate to work directly with two inspiring, engaging, and very down to earth women, as I felt very comfortable to just jump in and get my hands dirty.
Participation at the forum itself was educational and motivational. Each day started with a plenary session (attended by all participants) that covered a broad scope of feminist issues. The remainder of the day was filled with a variety of experiences: from other participant-led sessions, to well-being activities and cultural events.
I divided my time between helping to staff the Oxfam display booth and performing general coordination, and participating in as many sessions as I possibly could. To name a few, I attended sessions on feminist resource mobilisation, intersex issues, and religious fundamentalism. Through this experience, I developed a deeper understanding of current feminist discourses and issues faced by women and the LGBTQI community across the world. I also learnt about current strategies, tools, and methodologies that activists are using to combat gender injustice globally.
Upon returning to Australia, I spent several weeks preparing some follow-up work for Oxfam, including advice to improve the logistical coordination for the next AWID forum, an evaluation of the extent to which Oxfam achieved its goals at the forum, and an analysis of how Oxfam could improve its partnerships with women’s rights organisations and become a better ally in the fight for gender justice.
I also worked on my assignments for Monash, including a short presentation, a reflective journal, and an end of mission report that outlined my goals and achievements throughout the internship. These papers required a fair bit of work and critical reflection on my experience, including some soul-searching regarding my career goals, strengths and weaknesses, and they acted as a nice bookend to the internship process.
My Oxfam and AWID experience has cemented my desire to work in women’s rights and to further my academic study by pursuing a thesis on gender. I have improved my networking skills significantly (though it is still a work in progress!), and I have built friendships with women’s rights activists from around the world.
This internship has also continued to open doors for me. I presented about my experiences at the forum in a Gender and Development class, I have kept in contact with Oxfam’s Gender Justice team and other feminist activists, and I managed to secure a second internship with Oxfam’s Humanitarian Advocacy Team performing policy mapping and research on humanitarian issues.
My advice to you would be that, if you have the opportunity to do an internship as part of your studies, do not hesitate to go for it. Even if, like me, you tend to feel nervous about networking, it could be a game changer. Putting yourself out there for opportunities is never as scary as you think it might be, and it could be a step in the right direction for your career and gaining practical experience in the field.
For our second segment of On the Record, our Marketing and Partnerships Officer, Javier Icaza Santos reflects on what discrimination means to him, how it affects us on a daily basis, and what that means for development programs. This week’s topic was chosen to honour the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Q. Why did you take this picture? A. When you asked me to take a picture about discrimination I really did not know what on earth I was going to do… then, one day, I was walking past the Law building and I saw this and I realised it was easier than I thought.
Q. What did you see in particular? A. If you look closely, you can see how the main group is almost exclusively made of Asian students, and then you can see how even people who are sitting alone tend to sit closer to people from their same race. That was when I realised how much we tend to discriminate, even unconsciously; how much we tend to pick the familiar over opening ourselves up to new people.
Q. Are you referring exclusively to racial discrimination? A. That was the most evident factor in my picture and something that is quite common in our everyday life, but no. I think we also tend to discriminate based on how we think, not just how we look. Think about it: we tend to spend time with people who share our same values and ideas. I think we can also tend to discriminate based on ideology.
Q. How do you feel that relates to Development? A. [laughs] That is a deep question! But yeah, I think that this way of thinking affects Development a lot. Nowadays, Development is undoubtedly global and, even with all the different economic systems in place, we all depend on each other. Therefore, if you support programs that favour discrimination -that is to say, favour one race in particular- then that is not development, that is exploitation; that is resource exploitation.
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Visualising Solidarity: Forging everyday humanitarianism through public representations of development
Prof. Uma Kothari
Since the 1980s there has been a vast proliferation of campaigns, charity adverts, musical movements, fair trade marketing, celebrity endorsements and media promotions to support humanitarian causes. More recently, we have witnessed a growth in the role of visual media in guiding diverse publics on how they might perceive and act upon calls for a shared responsibility. Foundational to the success of these visual representations is their capacity to invoke care and compassion for suffering others, to motivate people in some parts of the world to donate money and other forms of assistance to people elsewhere. Despite their increased profile, the visual strategies that such campaigns deploy have provoked critiques that they reproduce racialised stereotypes, reinforce colonial hierarchies and embed inequalities, notably through reproducing iconographies of, for example, conflict, famine and poverty. Nevertheless, might these popular representations of humanitarianism and development have the potential to instil ideas of global interconnectedness and forge new kinds of global solidarity? Alternatively, do visual images and the increasing involvement of public figures, celebrities and the media obscure the structural dimensions of race, racism and inequality thus limiting the possibilities for forging a common humanity? In this presentation, I will explore these issues through an analysis of colonial and contemporary uses of popular, visual campaigns. I subsequently examine forms of resistance and creative subversion that contest problematic depictions of other people and that aim to challenge the meanings that inhere in mediatised representations. The presentation concludes by considering what kinds of visual representations might lead to more critical thinking about prevalent concepts of self and other, and difference and commonality. How can such representations solicit more considered responses to charity campaigns and thereby promote and sustain new forms of transnational solidarity?
Uma Kothari is Professor of Migration and Postcolonial Studies and former Director of the Global Development Institute, at the University of Manchester, UK. Her research interests include international development and humanitarianism and migration, refugees and diasporas. Her research has involved a number of funded projects, most recently an Australian Research Council project on International Volunteering and Cosmopolitanism and a Norwegian Research Council project on Perceptions of Climate Change and Migration. Her current research is on Visual Solidarity and Everyday Humanitarianism. She has published numerous articles and her books include Participation: the new tyranny?, Development Theory and Practice: critical perspectives, and A Radical History of Development Studies. She was recently made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and conferred the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk Medal for her contributions to research in support of global development.
In the 1980s Robert Chambers introduced a participatory approach to development: an approach that gets the development practitioner involved and engaged with the community and the individuals that are being ‘developed’. This approach also acknowledges that within the local community there is knowledge that can be valuable but that knowledge can be difficult to express. Therefore it is important that this knowledge becomes accessible in some way, such as from participatory methods.
The participatory approach is also thought to be a way to allow projects to be owned by the locals. But how do these participatory methods actually work? How do you actually make people participate in a way that will encourage them to share the tacit knowledge they possess?
As part of my bachelor thesis, I worked with a Danish NGO taking part in a project about street food vendors (SFVs) in Calcutta, India. The final product of the project was a trainer manual for SFV workshops, which would teach SFVs about hygiene, sanitation, savings and their rights.
The Truth but the Whole Truth?
The most important aspect of this project was that the trainers felt that the manual was made by them and fitted their needs. As part of this, several interviews, workshops and focus groups were held. We used different ethnographic methods but experienced a great challenge with it. The idea for an anthropologist is to ‘blend in’ and study the natural and unaffected behavior of people. The problem we experienced was that people seemed to act differently when we came, we did not blend in very well and our appearance impacted the social environment.
We chose semi-structured interviews as part of our research. SFVs were willing to participate but many of the interviews were done while they worked, or by our interpreter, all of the interviews were done on the street in action. Some of the interviews took part while a boss was in the background. All these factors had to be carefully considered when using the material, as much of it could be biased. We found that simple questions where most giving, while also asking question that were easy to relate to and would make the SFVs answer in a narrative form. An example could be ‘Can you tell us about a situation where xx happened?’, ‘How did it make you feel?’.
Besides these two classic ethnographic methods, we used creative and participatory methods. In our workshops we used several design games to encourage the trainers participation.
The main idea of a design game is to get the participants to talk, it is not important if they do things right or wrong. It is just an intermediary to make participants think, talk, be critical and try to be explicit about the tacit knowledge that is part of their community and problems. In terms of culture, design games are very revealing: we discovered that the way ‘we’ think symbols and icons obviously mean something, is completely different to what it may can mean in another culture. Design games often have a very different outcome than what was planned. For example, what we found valuable was when the participants did something ‘wrong’ or unexpected, this helped us understand some of the values and preconceived ideas we brought into the field. So this was also a way to reflect on the work we were doing.
The key to design games, especially when used in development areas, is to make them simple. Avoid too much text, too many rules and too many steps. It is usually a good idea to leave space for new ideas, e.g. by having ‘blank’ papers that encourage participants to contribute with their own ideas. Furthermore we experienced that it is valuable to ask many questions such as ‘Why do you think xx is a good idea?’, ‘What do you need in xx situation?’, ‘Why do you think xx is important?’
I am an advocate for participatory methods, but there are many challenges with them in practice. It can be very difficult to make some kind of design game that will make participants talk about a chosen subject, without forcing the answers that one has preconceived they might have. Language and culture is also a challenge. What I learned from this experience is that it is important to facilitate and explain but not take control and force actions. Furthermore I find that asking questions is one of the most rewarding methods to get an understanding of a person’s situation. And lastly, learn from and reflect upon unexpected situations – differences is a key to understanding culture.
Do you know that feeling? When you have learnt something and you want to try to do it by yourself so badly. Like when you know how to dance, you just cannot control your body and keep moving all the time. Well, that is how I felt about to finish my first year of MIDP study. I was like the fledgling who wanted to challenge the sky. I believed that I was ready for the field, that I am ready for the development sector. I just wanted to know if all the methods I have learnt at university will really work in the field. That is the question I took from Australia to Malaysia.
The field trip itself was actually a winter unit provided for Monash students. During the two weeks, along with the unit coordinators’ guidance and support (Bruce and Narelle from the Faculty of Arts), we worked with local staff members from the Southeast Asian Community Observatory (SEACO) to conduct small-scale research projects, gather data in the field, analyse that data and present our findings. It was one of the most wonderful study experiences of my life and I want to share this experience and the things that I learnt from this trip with you.
Definitions and Methodology
Our team’s project was mapping the local health resources, therefore, understanding the local health system was very important.
Malaysia has a pluralistic health care system: as a multi-cultural country with many different ethnic groups, each group has their own traditional way to deal with different types of disease. Malaysia keeps all of these methods, merging the traditional and modern together. People in this unique country utilise a range of service providers including biomedical practitioners, herbalists, masseurs, other traditional healers, shamans, Chinese and Ayurvedic medical practitioners and other complementary medicines and self-medication.
Back to the project, there are several methods that can help researchers gather information in the field. As for my group’s anthropology field trip, a sequential, mixed methods research approach was undertaken.
Our approach to incorporated methods was participatory rural appraisal (PRA). This method emphasises local knowledge and enables local people to make their own appraisal, analysis, and plans. PRA uses group animation and exercises to facilitate information sharing, analysis, and action among stakeholders.
Transect walk and health mapping are the main tools of PRA we decided to implement. These are used alongside traditional qualitative means such as focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. The flexible and creative natures of research methods allow an in depth and layered examination of the various levels of engagement between people living in rural communities, and their interaction with the respective health services present in their localities. The following is the detail of our team’s research method which was presented in our research paper, we would like to share it with everyone:
Malaysia is a multiethnic society with a pluralistic health system that draws on both traditional and modern medicines in its approach to general health and wellbeing.
In order to formulate an understanding of the existing health services in Malaysian communities, transect walks and health mapping formed a key component of our research. Mapping the spatial arrangement of different health services within the community particularly helped to explore factors influencing the accessibility and availability of services for community members, including identification of access barriers such as transport options.
Contextual elements, such as neighbourhood features, directly affect health and the uneven distribution of health outcomes. Therefore, it is important to identify and map the health services to enable the dissection of contextual variables that both directly and indirectly impact upon the health service choices that people encounter.
Theory in Practice
An effective way of understanding the local context is a mixed methods approach, which combines data from geospatial analyses with direct participant feedback, something which is elicited through focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. This integrated research design sought to assess factors at both a community and individual level to provide a holistic understanding of the circumstances.
Focus group discussions constitute an important part of the research and allow the clarification and cross checking of information gathered during the transect walk and health mapping processes while building upon gaining a wider understanding of access to health services in the rural Malaysian context. The focus groups sought to be representative of gender, the predominant ethnic groups and the locations which we chose to represent the rural Malaysian context.
Through the focus group process, we sought to explore ideas contributing to individual and community perception of health services, and sought to describe how and why such choices are made in preference to other available services. Focus groups are designed to primarily gather detailed descriptive information upon beliefs, values and understandings of the members upon a particular topic. This has informed the design decision to assemble participants in accordance with their ethnic, gender and community identities to foster a safe and comfortable environment that encourages open discussion.
The Power of Interviews
The incorporation of semi-structured interviews into the design of this research was crucial in achieving a deeper understanding of our research objectives. As a technique, interviews house the potential to reach locations of great depth which opens up a world of insight into the underlying beliefs, strategies and constraints which have shaped behavior.
Interviews allow the discoveries made during the focus groups to be investigated more thoroughly and provide opportunities for personal stories and experiences to surface in a more intimate environment. Interviews are important to the research design as their inclusion provides an opportunity for major themes to be further discussed and details of individual preferences and reasoning regarding health services to be uncovered.
During the field trip, our methods helped us gather information efficiently. And fortunate for us, our participants were really engaged in our activities. It helped us to gather more information from them and get to know the reason behind their choice of different health services.
Trust in the Field
Another experience I would love to share with everyone is about trust. In the field, most of the time we do not speak the same language with our participants, so we will ask interpreters for help. On this field trip to Malaysia, we were blessed because our interpreters were from SEACO, professional data collectors in those communities. So after we introduced our research project, they totally understood our context. Due to this, our participants showed more trust to us and were open to sharing more information.
However, one interesting thing did arise. During the one-on-one interview, there was a lady X who provided totally opposite information to two different research members of our group on the exact same question. What we noticed was that one of the researchers could speak the same language as her and they were from the same ethnic group. The other researcher who asked the same question was using an interpreter and the three of them were all from different ethnic groups.
So Does Theory Prepare You For Practice?
Our group struggled over this discovery of cross-ethnic communication. After consulting with our project supervisor, we finally made our decision about how to deal with this information. However, in this situation, what would you do with such a discrepancy?
Last weekend, our group finished our research report for this field trip. And that marked the official ending of this field trip to Malaysia, but my trip in the development sector is still ongoing. I prepared a lot for my first field trip, apparently in the ‘real’ field you will never know what is going to happen. My advice for newbies like me who want to undertake your first field trip is to be prepared for your task, but also accept those unexpected happenings and mistakes. I believe it is a good thing that unexpected situations arise in the field because that is how people learn and gain experience.
Research Members in Malaysia:
Bowen Guan, Bridget Lorenz, Lee Jane Yap, Thomas Kirby & Rose Dickson
This month I traveled to Mongolia and was completely blown away by the beauty and grace of the land and the people. I have never been anywhere like it, in fact, I do not believe there is anywhere like it.
The strongest emotion I felt when leaving was one of concern, that the rich nomadic culture would soon be engulfed by Western modernisation. But then I checked myself, is it even my place to consider modernisation a negative influence on Mongolians and their lifestyle? Modernisation does not always mean of Western origins after all.
As the above picture of a traditional family ger shows, the nomads are adapting beautifully to technical advancements that, instead of taking away from their nomadic way of living, enhances it. Here you see the solar panel, charging the battery during the day for their lighting at night and provides sufficient energy for a refrigerator. Likewise, we will all recognise the satellite dish for their television, a welcome addition to the family home during the cold winter months: the vast landscape and sparse population meaning a family may not see another nomad for days at a time.
Or perhaps is my concern coming from some misplaced Western sense of nostalgia for anything “other”? Just as people talk of Cuba, an island stuck in history, here I am wanting to maintain the “Mongolian way of life” as it was. But what about what it could be, or should be.
If you look at a map of the country, all roads lead to Ulaanbaatar the capital city. However not all roads go everywhere. Having lived in cities for the past decade, it was a fascinating lesson to really understand what it meant to be aware of the weather and its impact on us mere mortals. We stopped for lunch by a creek one day and watched as a cloud system lazily crawled towards us, the fuzz of drizzle shrouding the distant hills. It was very far away.
Our driver felt differently. He rushed pack up and soon we were racing away from the front, skirting the sides of the valley rather than driving in the center as had been the norm all week. Suddenly confronted with thick pine trees either side of the valley he aimed at the basin and we soon found ourselves stuck in deep sloshy marshland that had not been there minutes before. This was the impact of the rain, which had not even passed overhead yet.
A criticism of modernisation in the Western sense has been that it alienates individuals from their communities. The rich tapestry of their ancestral existence, their traditions and beliefs, that sense of belonging can be stripped away. Aside from Ulaanbaatar, each province has its own central “village”, which these days tend to be the size of large towns. Although still considered nomadic, each family administratively belongs to a provincial centre and they only move within one province throughout the four seasons.
The above is a picture of Arkhangai Provincial Centre. One consideration for maintaining the nomad’s existence could be for the government to invest more in these provincial centers. With stronger infrastructure they could potentially stem the growth of the capital, which houses one-third of the population.
With more opportunities outside of the capital, young people might be less inclined to leave their families and communities behind, chasing their dreams to Ulaanbaatar. We met a young guide on our last day and when asked about tradition he responded “it is very important to young Mongolians that we preserve our nomadic culture” but he has lived in Ulaanbaatar his whole life and admitted he would not know how to erect a ger.
What do you think of when you think of developing a community? Would it occur to you to consider nomadic peoples or is it always a sedentary system you imagine? How should Mongolian development agencies consider the integration, but without destruction, of nomadism to the country’s future economic growth models? And as an outsider, is it right for us to step in and focus on what we know, what we are familiar with when it is so different to the locals lived experience?