THINGS I CAN CARRY ON HORSEBACK
New Haven, CT, USA November, 2006
As my time to leave the United States draws close, I find myself thinking of the way my relatives do their shopping. Mongolian nomadic herders visit a town shop in a particular way. They don’t care how beautiful or costly an item is, or what its brand name happens to be, or how its color might match or clash. Instead, they seek things that are necessary, durable, compact, and light weight – things that can easily be carried by horseback, or, at most, by ox-cart.
I came to the Yale University’s World Fellows Program to do some important shopping for my country. The time given to me for selecting what to bring home was one academic semester. I had four months to see, read, listen, speak, discuss, and discover the items most needed at home. The store in which I searched was the shop of knowledge and ideas.
As it turned out, Yale is a vast supermarket of thought and information. Browsing among the shelves and aisles of this intellectual cornucopia, I found it difficult to collect appropriate, nomad-sized items. I was nearly overwhelmed by the many fresh ideas and innovative approaches to problem solving that filled my head after attending the World Fellows Seminars, Hot Coffee Hot Issues at the Betts House, and my anti-corruption class at Yale Law School. The idea-filled Wednesday Night Dinner speakers and the meetings and discussions in New York City and Washington D.C. sparked my thinking. I come away amazed by the variety of good things people do in this world – most especially by my brother and sister World Fellows.
I must now distill from this rich world of study and reflection a saddlebag of the most useful ideas for my Mongolian kinsmen. So as not to over-burden my mount, the saddle-bag should contain only the most important, compact, durable, and adoptable ideas and approaches – those best suited to Mongolian conditions and most appealing to my fellow nomads. In truth, my countrymen and women are not expecting any gifts from a humble democracy advocate like me, but I am anxious to bring them some all the same. After all, I am arriving home in the midst of the holiday season. Packaged as best I can, my gifts will await curious hands beneath the New Year’s tree.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT?
I recall my first democracy rally. It was the summer of 1992. Mongolia was experiencing a deep economic crisis following its 1990 citizen-driven decision to over-turn seventy years of communist rule and opt, instead, for democracy and a free market economy. Stores were next to empty with only salt remaining on the shelves. Salaries were worth less and less as hyper-inflation consumed our earnings. Unemployment was increasing daily. The school drop-out rate was escalating. There was anger over the economic crisis. More and more fingers pointed at the young democrats as the initiators of the nation’s woes. It was a tough time for a young democracy advocate to attend a rally in support a democratic candidate.
I entered my northern hometown of Tarialan on a Russian motorcycle and tried to arrange a public meeting for that evening.
“You can’t hold a meeting tonight. All the men are away,” my uncle Turuu said. “Where have they gone?” I asked. “They’re all at horse training field. It is their first opportunity to race their own horses in a naadam.” “Can I borrow a horse for a couple of hours?” I asked. I’d like to ride out to the training grounds.” “You can take my sister’s horse. She’s in town shopping,” my uncle offered.
Naadam is a Mongolian national festival. They are held all over the country each July. During naadam, three sport events dominate—wrestling, horse racing, and archery. June is naadam preparation time. And June of 1992 was the first election campaign for the State Great Hural of Mongolia, the parliament that was created by the country’s first democratic constitution ratified earlier that year.
The men of Tarialan were excited to race their horses in the naadam. They were all in smiles and shook my hand firmly. Their eyes then proudly shifted to their horses. These horses were not just regular animals. They were the first to be privately owned after a decades-long ban on private property ownership in formerly communist Mongolia.
Herdsmen were anxious to see their horses triumph – to hear the naadam praiser sing their names and praises before the naadam crowd. For the nomadic herders, this was the way their ancestors held their naadams for hundreds of years, and it was how a herdsman’s children and grandchildren took pride in their family. The country’s historic memory and pride returned with the adoption of democracy and a market economy. After witnessing such an important horse-training event, I felt awkward beginning my not-so-exciting political campaign.
Meanwhile, the kids singing ‘giingoo’ on horseback weren’t interested in hearing a political talk. In short, I realized that this was not a good place for a long speech. And the herdsmen concurred. “Tell us the one thing that is most important to your party and let us continue training our horses,” they proposed. “Just one sentence is enough.”
Here came my failure and my party’s. We lost the election because we didn’t have a single proposal that could be described in a sentence or even a single page of words. It is very hard for a political campaigner to reduce the issues most important to her or him into one simple sentence.
I learned my lesson even harder when I lost another election in 2000. The next election for which I am preparing myself is in 2008. Will I have my one sentence by then, I wonder?
I now have a list of serious issues that we explored at Yale. Among them are global warming, global health, democracy, corruption, energy, the environment, urban sanitation and clean water, free trade and development, globalization, human rights, identity and cultural understanding, global institutions and governance, corporate social responsibility, and many more. All these issues are being discussed in Mongolia today All of them are hot issues that beg solution. Among them, I ask myself, which top the Mongolian agenda?
By the end of this essay I hope that I will have an answer to this question, but for now, I pin this question to the outside of my saddlebag.
WHAT IS DURABLE?
Try repeating the same ten sentences over and over 150 times within 30 days. It will require your true passion and belief to say the same thing over and over that many times and still sound convincing. You have to like what you are saying. You have to believe in what you say. And you have to know what you are talking about.
This is about what I am preparing to go through in the 2008 parliamentary election campaign if I am included in the candidates’ list. Because 30 percent of the candidates from the political parties must be women, I am optimistic about being selected as a Democratic Party nominee. What I am not yet sure about is whether my ten sentence stump speech will be durable enough to remain fresh and meaningful throughout the long campaign.
Yale was generous to offer its many resources to us World Fellows. For the first time in my fourteen-year political career, I had an opportunity to catch up on my learning and receive professional feedback on my lectures, speeches, television interviews. I even received a press kit. It was shocking to know how ignorant I was about such a simple thing as a handshake. No wonder people didn’t always listen attentively to my proposals back home. I had a terrible handshake.
The program’s writing workshop was superb. My close observation of the American election campaign this fall was also very informative about how to deliver messages that can be durable throughout a long tiresome campaign. I was fortunate to witness how democracy works in small towns and witness firsthand how citizens are involved in community decision making.
Every aspect of life, beginning from traffic safety to the construction of a new housing development to the replacement of a sewer pipe is shaped by two powerful hands in America: the invisible hand of the market and visible hands of citizens. The more I studied American grassroots democracy, the more I became convinced that the local community is the best and the most durable haven for democracy. Next week I will visit Hamden’s Zoning and Planning Commission meeting and perhaps a city counsel meeting before I depart.
It was amazing to observe how the citizens of America’s towns accommodate to the new realities of globalization. While jobs in the old factories fled to Mexico or China, Americans kept busy inventing new industries while maintaining their old values. Trips to New England’s towns and cities affirmed the durability of American institutions in a fast-changing world.
I saw how the quality of education, mix of culture, and deeply imbedded democratic values sustain America. The American experience reminds me that education, culture, and values are present in all societies, and they are among the most durable social elements. So, I will put three words into my saddlebag: Education, culture and grassroots democracy.
WHAT IS COMPACT?
After speaking at some seven meetings in nomadic communities during a windy day in May, I traveled on to a three-ger community of herders. There, the number of voters was surprisingly many – nine! The time was just short of midnight, and I felt terribly sleepy, cold and dirty from the bouncy, dusty ride. All I wanted was a warm ger (Ger is a round shelter known as yurt.), hot tea and soup, and a bed with or without sheets. I found everything I wanted in a traditionally hospitable herder family’s spring place. My hosts surrendered their biggest bed in the prestigious north side of their ger and gave me clean sheets.
After I thanked them and flopped on the bed, the host herdswoman whispered into my ear.
“Our neighborhood would like to listen to your campaign talk tonight rather than tomorrow,” she said. “Oh no, I can’t talk now. I am exhausted,” I murmured sleepily. “Can’t they wait till tomorrow?” The host lady nodded silently and left the ger to tell her neighbors that her guest preferred to sleep.
I awoke the next morning to the sounds of dismantling a ger. I opened my eyes to the beautiful blue sky above me. The ger’s wall and ceiling poles were coming down one by one. I jumped off the bed and asked what was going on.
“We are moving,” The host herdswoman smiled. “Our neighbors are all gone. We are the last to go. We must hurry to reach our summer place by afternoon.” “What?” I said while pulling on my deel. “What about my campaign talk? Didn’t your neighbors want to hear it?” “We were all anxious to hear it yesterday,” she replied, “but today is an auspicious day for migrating, especially now. It is the most auspicious hour.”
In less than ten minutes I and my driver were left at the site of the herder’s spring encampment with a pot of hot tea and two bowls of fresh soup. The host herdswoman, with her dismantled ger and easy-to-pack utilities waved from an ox-cart and wished me good luck in the campaign. “I got two newspapers about your candidate from your driver. I will read them at my summer place and share them with my neighbors.”
What a pity that I didn’t even ask the name of this nice woman while being hosted and dined during her most busy night and morning! Migrating is one of the most important activities a herder family does each season of a year. I understand why migrating on an auspicious day at auspicious hour is more important to them than hearing about a presidential nominee from a party activist. I wished I had something to share with her.
Not necessarily a material thing, but something useful to her. It could be how and where she might acquire a solar generator, for example. How compact, environment friendly, and peaceful was her lifestyle. How I wished it would never change.
Recalling my campaign regrets while at Yale, now I make notes of any information on compact engineering solutions that would help Mongolians maintain their traditional lifestyle while providing additional comfort and access to the world outside their family. The speakers to the program and our fellows shared the good news that compact renewable energy sources, self-sustainable and cheap sanitation models, and cheap communication technologies are all attainable to our people if only we know where to look.
Moreover, there are many institutions like universities, think tanks and social entrepreneurs who could help develop local solutions to very local problems. A past World Fellow is working to make renewable energy affordable and cost-effective to developing countries like Mongolia.
With this news, I add three more words to my package: Clean energy, sustainable sanitation, and a network of problem solvers.
WHAT IS FEASIBLE?
Sustaining economic growth and achieving a higher of GDP growth have preoccupied Mongolia’s governments over the last sixteen years. The economy showed signs of recovery in 1998 when inflation finally dropped into the single digits. Eight years of economic dark ages came to an end after a series of Washington Consensus reforms were implemented. The reformists, as predicted by many researchers, paid a heavy political price. The Democratic Party won only one seat in the 76-seat parliament after a four-years of hectic reforms during their time in power from 1996 to 2000.
The economy, once on the right track, improved each year ever since. Now Mongolia’s GDP grows by 6-7 percent each year, occasionally reaching over 10 percent. However, a much less welcome boom began, as well. Ulaanbaatar’s green, a modest sized park along side the central street of the city, was usurped by a rich foreign investor. A city authority issued a land use license for the construction of a Shangri La hotel right in the city park. Trees were cut down and a horseman’s monument was carted away. Chess players, who socialized around the monument lost their space. A beautiful piece of public green disappeared.
Ominous signs of the wrong kind of economic activity surfaced everywhere. A golden statue of Buddha was suddenly erected at a site of Bogd Khaan Mountain, Mongolia’s first national protected area. Ironically, the Buddha’s construction was financed by the Minister of Environment. No one spent so much on a stature before. Ministers receive a modest government salary. Other construction projects began appearing in protected areas. Children’s playgrounds began to disappear, replaced by new business buildings. Even hospitals were losing their land to developers. What was going on?
Signs of serious corruption were suddenly everywhere. Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia, for whom I worked since 1996, was in power when civil society organizations began demanding an end to corruption. The Prime Minister spoke against corruption and outlined his plans to combat corruption despite determined resistance from half of his coalition government cabinet members. Ten ministers of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (the old Communist Party) in Elbegdorj’s cabinet of 18 Ministers submitted their resignation under pressure from their party’s political council.
The government fell on the day of 14th anniversary of the adoption of the Mongolian democratic constitution and the very day the Prime Minister was scheduled to submit his ten-point program to combat corruption to the cabinet meeting of the Grand Coalition government. The fight against corruption was temporarily over.
However, it didn’t die. Two days of demonstration in January freezing coldness showed the resolve of Mongolian public demands to end corruption. Legislation requiring the disclosure of assets of parliamentarians was approved this year following strong public demand. Parliament and media are now giving voices to citizens’ demands against corruption.
The fall of the Grand Coalition Government freed me from my government responsibility on the same day. I came to Yale with one lingering thought: Is it feasible for a country like Mongolia to control corruption? I was happy to learn that World Fellows have the opportunity to audit classes at Yale and access Yale’s many resources.
I took professor Rose-Ackerman’s class of Corruption, Development and Democracy. Her approach to corruption was different from what I expected. I expected to learn more about how anticorruption laws can be drafted and how law enforcement institutions can be mobilized to combat corruption. However, she is an economist. Professor Rose-Ackerman looked at corruption from the perspective of economic policy reform and regulation. Her approach enriched my understanding of the root causes of corruption in developing and developed countries, alike.
Without access to good affordable housing, better salaries, and protected property rights it is hard to expect people to change their behavior. One office or even an entire generation of right-motivated people can’t clean up corruption. Human nature decrees otherwise. Laws and processes must be put in place and vigorously enforced if we are to control the baser inclinations of the human disposition. The rule of law is essential. Controlling corruption is possible when we adopt appropriate economic regulations in concert with even-handed, vigilant law enforcement and have the active support of the people.
One example of a proper economic regulation was written on a wall of a New Haven’s small branch of Bank of America. It was a short notice that all savings accounts of the bank were insured by the Federal Reserve up-to 100,000 dollars. I could see easily that my account was going to be fully protected as it was well below that amount. Therefore, my confidence in my bank is high. I know I am not going to lose my money even if my bank fails.
How different is the situation in Mongolia – especially for those who have been on a month-long hunger-strike in the cold and snow and shiver outside Government House even as I write. Among thousands who lost money in a corrupt investment scheme, two women of my age are encamped on Sukhbaatar Square demanding their lost fortunes. They are desperate and rightfully feel cheated by corrupt practices in the Saving and Credit Unions of Mongolia.
A Saving and Credit Union in which each of these ladies invested some $70,000-$80,000 suddenly collapsed. It was a part of a chain of bankruptcies of more than sixty Saving and Credit Unions in Ulaanbaatar. Savings and Credit Unions came into existence in the 1998 Law on SCUs and a 2002 modification of the law removed key consumer protections from the law.
As a result, SCUs mushroomed promising investors rates of return much higher that the banks paid. People closed their bank accounts and shifted their savings to the SCUs where billions of tugriks were lost to corrupt networks that used SCUs’ money for all kinds of activities including personal enrichment and political campaign financing.
Many owners and managers of SCUs are now in pre-trial detention centers. Others are under investigation, but no agency is reimbursing the lost savings to account holders. There is no national insurance system to protect bank accounts. At least the controversy shows that Mongolians, at least past one year when the controversial activities of SCUs were revealed, have the political will to sustain a fight against corruption, but the needed regulations are not being enacted by the current government.
“Look at the economy of corruption and fix the economic regulations first. This fixing is going to require strong political will and economical knowledge,” is what I learnt at Yale. Only when political, legal and economical measures are taken in combination, can we hope to control corruption.
Laws made without regard to their wider implications can be as dangerous as no laws at all. As a human rights advocate, I was anxious to exchange ideas with other World Fellows and Yale professors how rights violations can be caused by short-sighted economic regulations. For example, Mongolia has a rule that policemen and investigators receive their full salary only if they resolve a specified number of cases or bring in ‘planned income’ in fines.
These regulations encourage the use of torture in police and investigation practices so that investigators get quickly get confessions and collect their full salary. Traffic police often target cars owners who appear more “able to pay” and ignore other traffic dangers. Reform in police incentives that favor quick confessions and income from fines will help reduce torture and corruption in the police department.
Implementing an economic approach to controlling corruption gives me cause for optimism. I am optimistic because, if we can successfully regulate away the incentives for corrupt behavior, we will go a long way toward bringing corruption under control. The beauty of an economic solution to the problem is its sustainability. So, for the first time, since I started working in government to devise a plan of action to combat corruption, I feel that controlling corruption is really feasible.
This feeling prompts me to put three more important words to my saddlebag: Political commitment, appropriate economic regulations, and property rights.
WHAT IS LIKEABLE?
In a Mongolian traditional ger, a whole family lives together in one room. Although it is no longer true for almost half of our population who have opted for settled lifestyles in towns and cities, all Mongolians have their ger-style living values in some corner of their hearts. In modern apartments and houses, at least one room or a corner of a room is treated like a ger.
A ger is like a small world that harbors the entire family from harsh winter cold and the dusty windstorms of spring. To comfortably share this compact space, Mongolians follow certain rules. Everybody has a predetermined personal space in a ger. Every part of a round ger is devoted to specific activities. However, there is one place that is shared by all. It is the hearth.
Many Mongolian customs are associated with the hearth. It is said that one must never spit into a hearth, or pour water onto a hearth. It is wrong to mix trash and fire in one’s hearth, or step over a person’s hearth. People must clean their hearth rings when moving and restore the area to its natural state. These little rules were transferred orally from one generation to another because Mongolians believed that the hearth is not only shared by current family members, it was also inherited by succeeding generations. A hearth becomes a measure of a people, part of what they are.
So, I am thinking that if I bring home something akin to these traditions of Mongolian families, our nomad society would see it as natural and appropriate. One might wonder why Mongolians need something new if they are already very good at maintaining their traditions. Well, it is not so true anymore. The younger generation -- those who are growing up in city apartments and houses are no longer hearing their nomadic grandmother’s beautiful rules about the hearth. Their mothers and fathers are busy working while the kids watch cartoons and play video games. More and more children have city grandparents who were the pioneers of Mongolia’s urban lifestyle some decades ago. It is quite evident that the nomadic lifestyle and its traditions are weakening under the influence of urbanization, globalization, and economic development.
My concerns about the waning traditions of Mongolia’s nomadic culture made me interested in the tradition in many New England cities of having and maintaining their commons. Commons are beautiful green areas, which the first settlers of New England used as a common pasture and meeting area. Commons are usually located in the city center. It is accessible to everybody and equally important to everyone. What a familiar concept to a Mongolian! The Common is treated like the hearth is treated in Mongolian gers.
The concept of a common is not limited to New England. When attending Yale World Seminars, I noted professors using the term of ‘a global common’ quite often. Easy examples of the global common are our shared atmosphere, our pure water reserves, our sea and forests resources. People around the world are coming to recognize that without saving our global common, all the people of the earth are going to suffer. The global commons are as fragile and important as a family hearth in a ger. They require careful monitoring and well crafted regulation to be preserved. The importance of the commons should to be taught to each generation and be told by grandparents or by cartoons to our children.
Therefore, I am adding one likable thing to my saddlebag: A story of the most beautiful Common – the hearth of the human family – our air, land and water, our seas, and forests, and grasslands.
WHAT TO CARRY ON HORSEBACK?
My saddlebag is filled with many thoughts on the importance of education, culture, grassroots democracy, clean energy, sustainable sanitation, a network of problem solvers, political commitment, appropriate economic regulations, property rights, and the most beautiful Common – the hearth of the human family. There remains one weakness. What if my countrymen don’t like what I bring? Or what if they didn’t care? What if they don’t have time to talk politics? What if horse trainers like those in Tarialan insist on hearing only one sentence again: what is most important?
I think that the most important thing is something most wanted by a community at a certain time. How do I know what a community wants most? So, it is hard, perhaps even wrong to answer to such a question alone, especially from distance.
From the American reality, I consider the war in Iraq. It seems that no one in Washington D.C. ever seriously asked what the Iraqis wanted. It is sad to see that even now Iraqis are not in a position to talk to each other and decide what they really want. Perhaps, to really answer to this question nations must experience a lengthy and complex consolidation processes.
In the context of election campaigns in Mongolia, I realized that many of the issues discussed above may seem distant to the horse trainers of Tarialan. That was a reason why they voted our party out of office in 1992 and 2000. Young democrats of Mongolia did not know what to offer a local herdsman because they simply did not ask the local man to tell them his most urgent concerns.
When it comes to spending the family income, however, a nomad family rarely makes mistakes. They rarely come to town to shop. They know how much money they are going to spend, and they carefully decide upon what to buy. When those items are purchased, the whole family feels happy and secure.
These reflections help me realize that I should not be the one to tell people what is important. Therefore, I think it is better not to answer to the question of what Mongolian voters want or need from here. Instead, once I return, I will ask people what they really want for themselves, their community, their nation, and their future. In the context of discussion, they are quite capable of deciding for themselves what is most important to them.
So, I am happy to bring home some ideas ‘on horseback’ and share them with people and encourage discussions among my countrymen and women and listen to their most important concerns. When people really know what is important in their lives and the lives of their children, a way can always be found to solve problems. Of this I am now very optimistic, thanks to Yale World Fellows Program.