25 February 2008

6 Months Down, 3 Bonus Months to Go

Posted by JonHaley under: Mongolia .

A few days back was my 6 month anniversary of being in UB, FUNgolia, and it sort of passed without any explanation. This should be the end of my short-term NetCorps volunteer placement, but earlier in February I put in a request to extend for an extra three months and VSO was happy to have me continue on.

For the most part I am very happy about staying as there are lots of really important projects for me to work on out here, and there are many places around the country that I’d still like to visit. However, looking back on the past 6 months, I can’t say I’m super happy about what I was able to accomplish. If I was going home right away I would feel like my placement failed to make any really important changes even though a lot things got started. So these next few months are a bit of a rescue mission where I hope to tie up any lose ends and finish any projects that have been stalled.

A lot of the time placement descriptions and objectives are purposefully vague and open ended so that, in the very likely event something changes, other projects or needs can be addressed. My main objectives were to build a volunteers’ website for VSO and help with staff IT training, both of which pretty much fell through. The bulk of my time was instead spent helping other volunteers with their host organizations web/IT/networking projects and performing odd jobs around the VSO office. I’m pretty happy with this, though I do feel with a little extra planning and effort my skills could have been put to better use.

Looking back I also feel I may have slipped a little bit into the development worker/volunteer mentality of “relax, don’t take things too seriously it’s only a volunteer gig and there’s only so much you can do in 6 months”. The other self defeating trap that I’ve heard a lot from Mongolians and other people who have been here for a long time is that when something doesn’t work or progress is amazingly slow people just shrug and say “this is Mongolia” as an explanation.

There are many problems with the whole overseas volunteering work concept and there are probably quite a few other ways to work towards the same development goals. Many of which wouldn’t involve bringing in people from the other side of the world to work in a country where they don’t speak the language and only have a year or two to make something happen. But from what I’ve seen out here so far, most people are working as hard as they can and are doing some really good things. A perfect example of a volunteer placement going “right” is Cory, a networking engineer from Ottawa who was here last year for 8 months. He was able to plan a computer network for the main hospital in the city of Darkhan, secure funding from a local gold mining company and setup a well design network with good quality equipment for the hospital. He also setup a training lab and hired a local IT student to perform maintenance and provide technical support. Last week I visited the hospital to check up on the project and make sure all the equipment was functioning and that there were no problems. The response from the doctors and nurses at the hospital was completely positive. Many of the staff had never used a computer or the internet/email before and processed all the hospital’s records by hand on paper. The project was a success because the right need was addressed at the right time, by the right volunteer, and very importantly the money was found to make it happen.

These are the main projects I will be working on over the next three months. I think if they work out moderately successfully I will be quite happy with what I was able to do here:

MOVE.org.mn – This is the first website that I completely planned and developed on my own. It will serve as a bi-lingual information portal for the Mongolian Network of Volunteer Organizations (MOVE stands for Mongolian Organizations for Volunteer Empowerment), which is a group of a dozen or so Mongolian NGOs who work to promote volunteerism within the country. When I say I developed it myself what I really mean is that I organized the webhosting, installed a CMS (Content Management System), slapped on a few plugins and tweaked a template. The content, style and translation were all done by other people, so it’s not as amazing as it sounds. There’s still a lot of work to do on it, but check it out at http://www.move.org.mn/.

Equal Step – Equal Step is a children’s charity which works with ‘street kids’ and other disadvantaged and vulnerable young people from Ulaanbaatar. They work with families and mothers providing skills training and support, plus they have a summer camp and lots of other good stuff. Read more about it on my fellow volunteer Ruth’s blog. The plan is to create a website and database for this group to help with fundraising and management. I’m really stoked to help out with this project, as I think it’s exactly the right way to use technology to empower people. Hopefully, it will workout and I will post a link once things go online.

MWFA – This project is also working with Ruth and will involve setting up a simple information website for the Mongolian Womens Farmers Association to promote their work and advertise for ecotourism at their farms. This group of women agriculturalists works by growing and selling vegetables and eggs in different areas of UB’s poorest ger districts, simultaneously raising income and stabilizing their food supply. In addition, they provide skills training, support for women and have an ecotourism program for people to stay and work at their farm. Please read more about it at Ruth’s blog. This is another example of a grassroots organization working towards their own change, which is always the best way to do things. I hope I can help out by developing a cheap, easy to use website they can update themselves, which will allow them worldwide exposure and increase their access to funding sources. Again I’ll post more in the next few months as we get things developed. (I’m also hoping I can do some “electrical engineering” work by consulting about solar panels and other methods to heat their greenhouses, which should be interesting and a little more my stylo.)

Darkhan Institute – The Institute is a college/secondary school in the second city of Darkhan were VSO Mongolia works by providing language teacher trainers and other teaching methods trainers. I will (hopefully!) be visiting this school in the very near future to consult with them on setting up a computer network and shared internet access for their 800 students. I’m not an expert on networking and the like, but if I do some initial needs assessments, planning and budgeting, it will hopefully lead to a well defined and accurate placement description for another NetCorps IT volunteer to come out in August. There are a few other “consult and plan” type projects at two local hospitals and health districts were I will be able to contribute at least a little bit by offering my free “technical opinion” on things and help the organizations decide on a way forward.

MATA & Mongol Vision – These are both Mongolian health NGOs: MATA focuses on TB prevention and treatment and Mongol Vision works towards promoting better sexual health for men. These groups both would like websites developed to increase peoples’ access to health information and to increase their exposure to potential donors. This project has been stalled for a number of months now, but hopefully can be restarted before I go. Again another case where even if I am unable to do the actual website development, I will still be able to offer advice and get the ball rolling as far as the planning and budgeting is concerned.

So that’s it, sounds ambitious, but working on my current success rate of 33% for getting projects off the ground it shouldn’t be too bad. I definitely feel very lucky to get a chance to help some of these different groups out. I think they are all doing some amazing, cool stuff, and if computers and technology can be a piece of the puzzle that can empower and lower barriers for them, then it is surely worthwhile. A process of continual assessment and objective analysis is needed, however, to make sure the tools stay tools and that technology doesn’t become a burden instead of a blessing.

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