Making rural life a little less vulnerable for Mongolian herders

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Better materials and student participation characterize the READ schools project. (photo by Prateek Tandon)
Mongolia’s extreme climate was brought home to me again last week as I went with our World Bank team on a retreat about an hour and a half out of the capital city Ulaanbaatar. Wednesday afternoon was hot and summery, but on Thursday a cold front brought extreme storms that knocked out power and left a dusting of snow on the hills around UB. The life of the rural population, mostly herders, is inherently vulnerable in this extreme environment. Yet a number of projects supported by the World Bank have reduced this vulnerability somewhat in recent years.

Traveling around the countryside now I am struck by the fact that – for better or worse – my Blackberry keeps me connected most of the time. One of our innovative projects has offered subsidies, which private phone companies have competed for, to expand coverage in the countryside. The economics of cell phones is such that a one-time subsidy to erect towers will enable private companies to offer connectivity on a commercial basis.

Modern amenities reduce the vulnerability of the herder lifestyle. (photo by Andrew Goodland)
Sparsely populated as it is, it is not feasible to provide coverage for every inch of the vast country. But now, in all parts of the country, herders know that they can mount their horses (or motorcycles) and get to a “hot zone” within half an hour. For a family with any kind of medical emergency, or simply a need for information, this connectivity significantly reduces their vulnerability.

Another innovative project introduced commercial livestock insurance on a pilot basis. The clever feature of this initiative is that the payout is based on average losses in a district (something that the government keeps good statistics on). This eliminates “moral hazard” – a clever herder in a freeze – or drought-hit area who can keep his/her herd alive both gets the payout and keeps the herd. This also reduces the transaction costs for the insurance companies since they do not have to try to confirm individual losses by herders dispersed over vast and desolate areas. In the locations covered by the pilot, about 15% of herders quickly took up the opportunity to insure, and numbers are growing.

Another challenge of nomadic life is how to educate children. The government has expanded years of education, especially at early ages. The World Bank’s Rural Education and Development (READ) project has focused on improving the quality of education through enhanced materials and an approach to teaching that involves more active input from students and parents.

Saying goodbye to my colleagues on the Mongolia country team.
Finally, our Sustainable Livelihoods Project provides grants to rural communities for their chosen small-scale infrastructure projects. In my travels I have been struck by the diversity of choices: one community is renovating its public baths, a second is building new dormitories for the boarding students of the middle school, and a third is erecting a nice community center complete with karaoke!

This trip was a farewell for me since I will be moving on in two weeks. It has been a great privilege to work with the talented team that has helped design and supervise these interventions, which collectively have made life a little less vulnerable and richer for Mongolia’s herder population.


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