Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Water for elephants

We'll give the last word to Ken Doleman, CEO of Swan Valley Credit Union and a partcipant in both the 2010 and 2011 coaching missions to Mongolia.  In this post, written following his return to Canada, he reflects on Mongolia's environmental future and the role of the Zoos Hurd Credit Union in environmental sustainability. 

There is a bridge in Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar that rises to broach the river, then descends to ground on the other side – much as one would expect. The difference? The river dried up some 25 years ago.

Credit Union water conservation project. Foreground: Zoos Hurd SCU Executive Director Nara
Global climate change, mining development and changing human resource usage patterns are proving cruel taskmasters for water – something we take for granted in Canada. It appears as increased desertification in the Gobi region and a growing number of dry riverbeds throughout the country where water once flowed. The April, 2010 National Geographic special issue predicts that in 15 years, 1.8 billion people will live in regions of severe water scarcity. Furthermore, glacial loss in the high heart of Asia could lead to the greatest human migration in history. Yes, people follow water.

No, there aren’t any elephants in Mongolia. Yet, water bills in Ulaanbaatar are one tenth of the cost borne by users in Ottawa. In stark contrast, a small credit union in the north-eastern Khentii aimag (province) is facing the future by taking action today.

Ken Doleman interviews Shuraa, an environmental leader and founding member of the credit union.
Their mission: to provide financial and social service for the members to improve their income; and, through these actions to contribute to local economic development. The social component embodies a strong focus on environmental issues that seem to have one thing in common – water. The credit union has fenced in freshwater springs to protect against degradation and provide a secure water source for herder families and livestock. Citizen partnerships following a cooperative model are being supported that now see 8,400 hectares under protection – through forest fire prevention activities; and, the training/promotion of sustainable land use practices.

This concern for community can be attributed in part to founding member Shuraa - a herder and environmental catalyst in the region; and, more particularly, to shared cooperative values. He has seen small rivers and springs drying up over the years. Of water he says simply, “Of course it is very important.”

The Citizen’s Partnership he heads will be sharing best practices for environmental stewardship at an upcoming event in September – having recently won accolades from the government for their work. And he will continue supporting the credit union, whose environmental work is deeply appreciated. After all, he has the future of his 6 children and unnumbered grandchildren to think about.      

The soum or regional Governor predicts that the credit union will triple in size in the near term, thanks in no small measure to its focus on environmental issues critical to the membership. The value of being member-centric!

As we leave the Umundelger soum center for the last time, a sign placed by partners in conservation catches my eye. “Trees follow water…   water is life” it proclaims. Trees, people…   it makes me think of pillars. Pillars like Shuraa and the Zoos Hurd leaders – who by living the co-operative principles and values, are building a sustainable future for their region. In the spirit of co-operation let’s toast their promising future…   with water of course. 

-- Ken (Itinerant Coach)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An interview with Dale Boisclair

When he first arrived in Mongolia in early August, credit union coach Dale Boisclair was interviewed by an Ulaanbaatar television station about the CCA mission.  The interview was conducted in English; it was likely broadcast with either subtitles or a voice-over in Mongolian.  Here is Dale's interview. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A farewell celebration

We returned to Ulaanbaatar on Thursday night; while I had a wonderful time in the countryside, it was nice to get back to the land of internet access and flush toilets (or even toilets with seats!). Had dinner in the excellent Indian restaurant in our hotel, followed by a very good sleep.

On Friday morning, the Canadian coaches and representatives of the Mongolian credit unions they had worked with gathered in a meeting room for a debriefing session on the coaching progran. Many of the Mongolians had travelled from some distance to get to the meeting, and it was interesting to hear their comments on how the coaches had helped their credit unions. After lunch, we were free to do what we wanted; many of the others went shopping, but having not had internet access for three days, I spent most of the time updating The View From Here, checking my Facebook and e-mail and taking it easy.

Friday's debriefing at the hotel

At 6 p.m., we gathered in the hotel lobby to be taken to the State dining room for the farewell celebration dinner. The venue was certainly the fanciest we had seen since we arrived in Mongolia – it was clearly a place that was used for official government functions and the like. The meal was four courses — salad, fish, beef and ice cream — and between courses there were speeches — lots of them — and entertainment. Gregory Goldhawk, Canada’s ambassador to Mongolia, was there and made a few remarks about co-operatives and Canada-Mongolia co-operation. Lydia talked about CCA's collaboration with its Mongolian partners and the opportunities awaiting co-operatives in the future, and  Sarah talked about the coaching program.  All the coaches presented certificates to the credit unions they had worked with, and the Mongolian partner organizations (MCTIC and MOCCU) presented all the Canadians with plaques and cashmere scarves.

The entertainment was wonderful — traditional Mongolian singers, musicians and a contortionist — a beautiful woman who could twist her body in every way imaginable. Apparently, this is an artform that is very popular in Mongolia, and it was a pretty amazing performance. For me, the highlight was the septet of string players who performed on traditional Mongolian instruments — there were a few regular morin khuurs (horsehead fiddles), a bass morin khuur, Mongolian harps, and an instrument that looked a bit like a banjo but was played with a bow. A lovely evening, but not our last lovely evening in Mongolia. But that’s for another post.

The string septet at the celebration dinner

-- Donna Balkan

Thursday, August 18: It's good to be back

After a long night on the train from Sainshand, Karen and I are finally back in UB. And back to all of the comforts and luxuries we usually take for granted. We have electricity, running water, internet – all at the same time! Wow!

After discussing some of our experiences over breakfast with Scott and Dale back at the Puma Hotel, I relaxed and soaked in every minute of my warm shower. Then we scheduled naps until 1pm.

From 1-5pm, we worked hard putting together our report for the Mungun Biileg Credit Union. What a good feeling to have finished putting our thoughts to paper, to help guide the credit union in their growth.

Dinner was delicious (and spiced) Indian food at the hotel’s restaurant.

Tonight I will get a good night’s sleep, so that I can recharge for tomorrow’s presentations.
-- Ramune Jonusonis

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wednesday, August 17 - last day in Sainshand

Today was our last day in Sainshand. We had a meeting with the members in the morning, where Karen and I spoke and encouraged the membership to become more involved in their Credit Union.

What was truly inspiring was the ideas that the ladies attending put forth: how they would like to help the less fortunate in the community, and how the idea of donating to community groups has really taken root in their minds.

This is what makes it worth it! We planted the ideas and they are embracing them.

-- Ramune Jonusonis

A visit to a Kazakh ger

Getting into the Mongolian groove, we met up at 10:00 am to dig further into the questions that Baiteric staff had about credit union operations.  Topics of appropriate loan criteria, sources of funding for operations, the balance between share capital and deposit funds, benefits of Credit Union membership, advertising options and some feedback about audit systems in Canada were covered. 

The depth and completeness of their understanding of the issues in credit union management was a clear indicator of the level of sophistication present within the current management team.  They demonstrated a real thirst to better understand how to meet their goal of 1000 members and 1 billion tugrogs within three years.  It seems the notion of international members was a hot new idea and they plied us with requests to increase our own investment and savings account balances!
A meal in a Kazakh ger
The afternoon was set by an invitation from the Baiteric President (Guljan) to join her at her home in Ulgii.  Finishing off a summer of weddings (two of her children were married this summer) we were ushered into the ger set up in the yard to host the waves of out of town family who came to visit.  What a feast for the eyes as the walls were lined with elaborate Kazakh embroidery hangings, bright coloured carpets covered the floor and colourful bed covers, sleeping curtains and pillow covers were laid out around the ger walls.

Kazakh karaoke?
The Kazakh gers are larger than the Mongolia gers and this was no exception.  As a summer house, there was no stove in the middle, or pole to support the dome of the ger, so there was plenty of space for the long table filled with different appetizers and the many chairs around.  Various members of her family joined the three of us together with the two Baiteric staff.  Her children are all of university age and several of them speak English quite well.  We were treated to multiple conversations in halting English as we learned more about the educational opportunities for young Mongolians, their scholarship and foreign university aspirations and the desire to return to their home soum once education is completed.

Interspersed with soup, more appetizers and rounds of vodka, we addressed some of the specific credit union questions that Guljan had.  We voiced support for the National Credit Union organization and clarified some old perceptions they had.  Given her role in local aimag politics (Guljan is an elected aimag council member) we floated the suggestion of her joining the Board of the National organization to provide relevant rural input into development of the credit union system in Mongolia. 

The afternoon wound to a close with Guljan’s husband’s uncle from Kazakhstan and his rendition of a traditional Kazakh song complete with dombra accompaniment (the traditional two stringed banjo like instrument of Kazakhstan).  Further contributions by Guljan, a song by her husband and a Canadian effort of “This Land is Your Land” added to the Karaoke-like feel of the afternoon.

We parted at 6 pm with promises to get together later for dinner if their final wedding party with the family of the bride would end early.  Alas, it appears the party went on as we never heard from them for the balance of the evening.  Given the constant nibbling through the entire afternoon, we were glad for the break from further eating and relaxed til bedtime harkened.

--Scott Hughes

August 16: Dale Boisclair reports from Ulgii

Greetings from the remote, rugged and more than just a little run down Aimeg capital of Ulgii (or Olgii, depending on which version you use) Our arrival was a little harried but all’s well that ends well. We were originally dropped off at one of the two decent (decent being an altogether relative term)  hotels in town and I was quite excited. It had a great wifi connection, small but comfortable rooms with clean ensuite bathrooms and lots and lots of hot water.

We arrived early and our rooms weren’t ready yet so while they were being cleaned I caught up on a few e-mails all the while thinking longingly of the first shower I was going to have in four days. Then, just as we were ready to unpack, our interpreter got a call from the host organization and said the whole thing was a mistake.......... we were supposed to check into a ger camp on the other side of town. So off we trundled to the Blue Wolf Ger Camp – a collection of small and large gers in a fenced in back yard that has more the feel of an abandoned gravel pit than the open steppes one normally associates with a ger. Oh well, I’m comfortably ensconced in a HUGE five man ger with electricity and sporadic wifi and it’s a short walk to the shower building where there are real toilets and hot showers – what more can you ask for!

Credit Union staff honour their newest members with a Canadian flag

Our actual work here has been with a local credit union that you would recognize as a credit union anywhere. It’s a VERY small office in a hidden corner of a rundown office building but from this location four staff looks after the financial needs of over 300 members. They take deposits and grant loans and they play an important role in the community because many of their members wouldn’t be able to access these services through regular chartered banks. And speaking of members, the credit union’s two newest members are from Canada! Scott and I both opened memberships and I deposited $20,000 MNT to a new savings account and I have the Mongolian pass book and new member coffee mug to prove it!

-- Dale Boisclair