Q&A with Mercy Corps' country director for Mongolia


October 27, 2008

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    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Dominic Graham is Mercy Corps Country Director. Here he answers some questions about life and work in Mongolia, and how the Mongol Rally can help with our work there.

What is the biggest difference between living in Britain and Mongolia?

Dominic Graham: Mongolia is a unique country with a strong cultural identity that makes it different from anywhere else in the world. The Mongolian language is spoken across the country and the country also has its own foods, style of clothing, music, arts and sports.

While all of these combine to make Mongolia a fascinating place to live and work, the single biggest difference between Mongolia and Britain is the sheer sense of space that comes with living in a vast and sparsely populated country with few fences, walls, roads or other contructions to limit the horizon. Particularly in the countryside, the lack of physical boundaries gives you a strong feeling of freedom that it is easy to get used to!

What is the best thing about your role as Mercy Corps' Country Director?

Mercy Corps has a really strong team of local staff working in Mongolia. Mercy Corps has been working here for over a decade now and over those years the organisation has not only built a strong reputation for the quality of its work, but has also grown internally. Many of the projects we run today are only possible because of the depth of experience, talent and enthusiasm that we have within our team and I find working in that environment very rewarding.

And the worst?

The pluses far outweigh the minuses, but a job like this is not without its frustrations. Before Mercy Corps begins any new project or activity, we first engage in a careful assessment of local challenges, opportunities and possible solutions. The process is extremely valuable because it not only gives us a chance to talk with people firsthand and to support them in the most appropriate ways, but it also helps us to understand the context in which we work. Many of these assessments uncover more challenges than we can meet within the financial or operational terms of our projects so we have to work with people to prioritise them and leave some for another time, which can require some difficult decisions.

What is life like for rural communities in Mongolia and what are the biggest challenges they face them?

Life in rural Mongolia is hard, particularly because of the harsh environment. Summer is generally a very pleasant time to visit the country, but in winter temperatures plunge to well below -30 C for months on end. The climate is also very dry, with low rainfall, making many forms of agriculture risky.

Apart from the environment, Mongolia is a huge country with shaky infrastructure that makes communications difficult. There are few good roads and, though the network is spreading, many places still lack 24-hour electricity. Travel times are long and many social services are only available in large cities, reducing people's access to them.
It is because rural communities are so isolated, and face these additional challenges, that Mercy Corps has concentrated its work with them. In many areas it can be difficult to identify opportunities for individuals, families and communities to pull themselves out of poverty, but time and time again people have demonstrated that with resilience, creativity, hard work and a little support sustainable solutions to local challenges are both possible and achieveable.

How will money raised from the Mongol Rally be spent by Mercy Corps in Mongolia?

Mercy Corps uses money raised by the Mongol Rally to fund projects and activities being run by local charities and voluntary groups across the country. Every year we invite these groups to send us their ideas and proposals; we then work with them to make sure they have the necessary skills and tools they need to manage the funds in an accountable way and to organise their activities effectively.

These small projects not only enable local groups to pursue the initiatives that they believe are most relevant to their communities, but they also help to generate stronger local communities and to reduce the sense of isolation that many rural groups feel.

What is it like seeing the Mongol Rally teams arriving into Ulaanbaatar and how do local communities react?

Frankly, seeing the Mongol Rally teams limp into Ulaanbaatar after a long journey in vehicles that are often held together with little more than gaffer tape, the most common reaction you find among locals is spellbound disbelief.

The teams pass through many countries - and communities - on their way to the finish line and interacting with each is part of the fun of taking part in the Rally. All along the route, communities respond in a very friendly way to the teams as they pass through and I am sure this is one of the things that makes the Mongol Rally so special.

What is the strangest sight or story you have heard from a Mongol Rally Team?

Every team I have spoken with has accumulated a collection of "war stories" to tell by the time they reach the finish line in Ulaanbaatar. Some of these stories can give a very revealing insight into the nature of the Mongolian people.

One team told me that their car broke down in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I'm not a mechanic, though most Rally team members are by the time I meet them, so I cannot remember the problem - but in any case their diagnosis was "terminal". They decided to thumb a ride to the nearest town and, after a few hours, a lorry rumbled into sight. The driver stopped his lorry, climbed out and took a look at their car. He then got back in his lorry and drove off. Not sure what to do, the team pitched their tents and camped the night.

Just after dawn the following morning, they were woken by loud noises outside their tent. The unzipped the tent and looked out to find that the lorry driver had come back - with his wife and children - and was already under their car working away with a toolkit and spares. A few hours and several mugs of tea later the car was back in working order. The lorry driver guided them to the nearest blacktop road, showed them the way to Ulaanbaatar and left them. They arrived safe and well two days later.

Are Mongol Rally teams able to visit Mercy Corps programmes in Mongolia if they have spare time during or after the Rally?

Of course! Mongol Rally teams are positively encouraged to visit Mercy Corps projects while they are in Mongolia. All of our projects are out in the countryside, so it is possible to even visit them on the way to Ulaanbaatar. Last year, several teams visited projects, meeting the local Mercy Corps teams and talking with community members. One team even stayed on in Mongolia after the Rally had ended to help us record a 3-day county fair we were organising by taking photographs and interviewing some of the stall-holders.

The Mongol Rally is a terrific event and it is very motivating for us, and the communities with whom we work, to be able to demonstrate to the teams firsthand some of the work that is done with funds they raise.