Welcome to CCA’s international development blog page … the sights and sounds, the people and places as experienced by credit union and co-operative volunteers on the frontline of development.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Helping Others

This week all the coaches are working in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). Monday we hit the ground running at our new assignments. Having met with the board chair and CEO of my credit union when I first arrived, we were able to plan the week in advance. They were ready first thing with an informative and insightful PowerPoint presentation, including priorities and challenges.

I am impressed by the leadership – whose balanced view includes the macro-environment and longer term. Their passion is contagious and their desire to grow and contribute more to the livelihoods of the members is deep and authentic.

The credit union was started in 2001 by three women who were long time friends, in the home of Altan – whose name means golden flower. And yes it has blossomed despite the financial crisis, thanks in no small measure to the founders` continued leadership and support, along with an active membership.

They graciously excused me during the first day for a two hour meeting with the commissioner of the Financial Regulatory Commission. Dale, Scott and I had the opportunity to discuss the proposed credit union legislation slated for the parliamentary standing committee next week. We provided input from a Canadian perspective around a variety of issues including savings deposit insurance; stabilization and liquidity management; mandatory training for directors; language around meeting quorum requirements; and, the need for credit bureau reporting access. The legislation appears to be enabling in nature, allowing for a more sustainable macro-environment for credit unions to operate. It is another step forward along the evolutionary path of a maturing credit union sector – one that the commissioner clearly appreciates and supports.

As I work this week, I continue to be impacted by the powerful, personal stories shared by members I meet:
In the ger city portion of UB, everyone carries water. Nobody knows this better than Tsogtoo – he has lived here all his life. For many years he worked at a hard and dangerous job – welding petroleum tankers. Even though he is still in demand he admits with a smile, he has found a new vocation with the help of his credit union. Thanks to loans for materials, he now makes and sells carts for carrying water. “I have no burden in my soul,” Tsogtoo tells me sincerely. “[The] service is so good I don’t feel burdened by the loan.” That only seems fair Tsogtoo, you are helping others carry their burdens now.

And what has this relationship contributed to the family’s standard of living. His wife and three children now have a small house in the district, co-located with his business. His young son can now attend the “Lemuujin Wrestling School” – a dream come true for young Mongolian men. It is after all the country’s great sport. And it runs in the family, on his mother’s side.

Without a commitment to community by the credit union and Tsogtoo, the ambition of the next generation might not be realized. Now that’s what I call carrying the water!

The Itinerant Coach

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A van full of Canadians...

Overheard in a van full of Canadians in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia:

Random Torontonian: What part of Manitoba are you from?

Martin McInnis: Saskatchewan.

Random Torontonian: Oh.

Trudy Rasmuson: Bahahahahahahahaha!!!

Yee-Guan Wong

(Editors note: Yee-Guan Wong is from Toronto)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Uphill climbing

Friday 6:00 a.m. - I am sitting at my computer feeling the burden of my coaching role. The credit union faces major challenges as a result of the impact of the financial crisis on its members. Can I deliver enough to make a difference? A number of practical suggestions to improve efficiency, effectiveness and accessibility by members will be put on the table. Several courses of action will be outlined to address the major challenge - most of which will be under someone else’s control. I am hopeful, yet pragmatic - it will be an uphill battle.

The day unfolds quickly as the report is finalized - punctuated by a conversation with an agronomist member at the credit union who has come in for a $50 loan for personal needs. He stops by to chat because he saw the TV interview and he wants me to understand how important the credit union is for him and the subsistence farmers and herders he knows. The knot in my stomach tightens.

The scene quickly changes in mid afternoon - much like the weather here, and my interpreter, the CEO and a member who has driven up from Ulaanbaatar (UB) to open her ger camp for us are now traveling through the snow on a trail across the steppe to a camp nestled in the hills. The car takes us farther than expected - the tires being completely bald and we then walk the rest of the way to a herder’s ger for a short visit and the traditional hospitality - airag. Yes, it is always fermented.

After our visit we hike up to a steep mountain ridge to visit a sacred tree. It is difficult enough in my runners and the CEO is in high heels and suffering from a bronchial infection. She has come to pray for her credit union.

Soon we are at the ger camp and a meal of buuz - meat filled dumplings, is being prepared as we sip milk tea. I am about to become welcomed into the heart of Mongolia. A jug of homemade vodka, steeped in an age old concoction of nettle and other herbs appears, along with a silver drinking bowl - a family heirloom. The bowl is filled by our host and words of honor and esteem - borne of an ancient etiquette are shared. We drink. It is my turn to respond and I find that the words flow without hesitation, heartfelt and sincere. We drink. And we continue, caught up in the moment.

My hosts then begin to sing, one at a time - songs of nature and of mother, the melody rising like wind words...   and I realize my stomach is no longer tight. When it is my turn to sing there is no doubt...   Amazing Grace. We smile and talk as if time has stood still.

Like waking from a dream it is time to dash back to the city for our board meeting before catching the train back to the capital, UB. The meeting goes well and there is unity and a firm resolve to press forward.

The air seems more invigorating as we stride towards the train, yet I know winter is coming and can’t help but wonder what it will bring to Erdenet – which the CEO called `her beautiful city`.

(The Itinerant Coach)

Changing the Course of History

Moonlight in Mongolia

An Inukshuk built by CCA coaches on top of a hill just outside the Mongolian
capital city of Ulaanbaator.

The blue pile to the left of the Inukshuk is an owoo, which serves as a landmark
and a place of worship for passerby. At right is Megan Sinclair of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
Ever wonder if the work you do is having an impact?  Well, here in Mongolia, we are learning the effect of our recommendations may have wide reaching consequences.  

In addition to the many coaching teams working directly with credit unions, Dale and I have spent the week working with the Mongolian National Co-operative Association to examine operations, strategy and financial sustainability to see if there are any areas where we can see opportunity for improvement.  The MNCA is a newly formed (2 years) umbrella organization mandated to coordinate policy and legislation work and to support and promote a strong Mongolian co-operative sector.
Following our report of observations and recommendations to the Executive Director and Board member yesterday, we learned they will take the report to the upcoming AGM in November and create specific action items which will impact across the entire co-operative sector in Mongolia – talk about buy in!
 During the week we also had the opportunity to meet with the Director of Micro Finance at the Federal Regulatory Commission of the Mongolian government.  She described to us the tumultuous recent history of credit union growth, corruption and crisis (circa 2006), where 23 credit unions failed and a significant bite was taken out of savings assets in the system.  The FRC was then formed to bring regulation and appropriate legislation to the credit union sector to restore depositor confidence and ensure a solid future. 
The Director went on to share that amended legislation is in process and about to be brought forth in parliament for final approval.  We have been asked to review the legislation (sounds like an English version should be available shortly) and provide feedback to assist in presenting the legislation in parliament in a way that will ensure approval.  Once again, an opportunity to have a hand in a significant step in ensuring a trusted and healthy credit union sector enabling economic resiliency in the towns and villages across Mongolia.
Scott Hughes
(Scott is a coach from Vancouver)

Otgoo and Mongo

Otgoo, Entrepreneur (left), Mongo, credit union CEO (right).
Let me introduce you to Otgoo = youngest. Being the youngest of eleven children she is acquainted with poverty and knows that it takes commitment create hope for her family. Her dream – to see her three children educated and self-reliant.

Enter Mongo, the credit union`s CEO. When they first met 5 years ago, Otgoo had a small shop, but needed to expand if there would ever be enough for post secondary education. Mongo believed in her and provided the necessary loan – at a fair rate instead of the 10 – 15% per month some money lenders charge for “`higher risks”. One son would attend and graduate from university.

Then came the financial crisis…   but Otgoo had a dream. 30% of the copper miners in Erdenet are Russian, so why not import some of their favourite products. But where do you get money in the midst of a recession for import business start up costs? Where trust lives of course – at her credit union.  Today her children are educated and she has even been able to help one son start a small transport company. And yes, he`s a member too.

“Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet.
We all breathe the same air.
We all cherish our children’s future.
And we are all mortal.”

               - John F. Kennedy

“Union is a source of success.” (Evlevel butne)  - Mongolian Proverb


Erdenet, Airag and Pauzirik...

Trains, planes and automobiles! The train bound for Erdenet – a young 35 year old copper mining city of 100,000 souls, departed on time at 9:00 pm. If you have ever experienced a long bus ride in Canada you know what I was in for – a dozen or more whistle stops (I may have slept through a few).

The overnight on the train was quite interesting. Mungu (my interpreter) and I had a berth for four to ourselves until about 2:00 am when we stopped in Darkhan (third largest city) when we gained a couple who took the top two bunks. As the sun rose I could watch the scenery and see gers dotting the countryside (rolling hills much like Alberta) and surrounded by herds of horses. Sleep? Not much!

Incredibly, waiting on the platform when we arrived was the only person I have ever met from Mongolia (2009 ACCU conference in Bangkok). I could already feel the hospitality! So, it was off to the hotel for a quick shower, shave and breakfast before work.

At 11:30 am we had airag (interesting coffee substitute) or mare's milk – the traditional drink of choice. Mongolia without this healthy beverage would be like North America without Coke. Oh and did I mention it is fermented? While enjoying our airag I was informed that the city’s TV station would be here in 10 minutes to do a live to tape interview. More amazing - they were on time. I guess it went well because the CEO said she was almost moved to tears. Chalk it up to the airag!

After a full day at the credit union we toured the Erdenet carpet factory late afternoon – a personal treat as my family had been associated with the wool goods industry for five generations. I couldn’t resist the Pauzirik carpet, which is a pure wool reproduction of an ancient pattern found 10 years ago at an archeological site in the western province. It can only be purchased from this factory. Haven't quite figured out how to get it home yet...  

To top off the day, our hosts took us to a 6 course/6 wine Italian Dinner, put on by Wine World (a member’s marketing event) featuring a German Sommelier. Some else who speaks English? No such luck. His German was translated into Mongolian and Russian only, so the tireless Mungu had to interpret for me.

I’m beginning to understand why Mongolian hospitality is legendary.

The Itinerant Coach

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Sense of Partnership

What a city of contrasts. Modern, new construction in the midst Soviet style blocks and government buildings, punctuated by historical treasures – Gandan Monastery, Winter Palace of Bogd Khan and the Choijin Lam Temple Museum. And everywhere traffic! Being a pedestrian is like playing dodge ball, but with cars. Just crossing an intersection takes nerves of steel for a newcomer as you stand in the middle of traffic, cars whizzing by on both sides, while you wait for an opening to escape to the other side.

Flying in yesterday we could see the sere grasslands, grayish sands and reddish gravels of the Gobi. Approaching the capital, the treeless, undulating ridges of central Mongolia became prominent, and most particularly the large flat-topped and treed mountain – Bogd Khan Uul, as we lost altitude in preparation for landing.

Today is our first meeting with the representatives from the organizations that provide oversight and leadership for the credit unions and cooperatives in Mongolia. These include the Mongolian National Co-operatives Association (MNCA), Mongolian Co-operative Training & Information Center (MCTIC), and Mongolian Confederation of Credit Unions (MOCCU). Add in the CCA and GTZ (German) partners and you have 5. We are relieved that our colleagues graciously use shortened nicknames and I hope to introduce you to Myga, Oyuna Mungu and others in later blogs.

Many challenges face credit unions here, yet the sense of partnership and desire to create synergy between these organizations is strong. Co-operation has helped Mongolia overcome obstacles in her past – starting back to ancient times.

According to the Secret History of the Mongols a woman named Alan-goo once gave her 5 sons a lesson in unity by giving them each an arrow to break, which they did easily. She then bundled the 5 arrows together and instructed the sons to break them – which they could not. “When you are by yourselves like the five arrow shafts…   you can easily be broken by anyone. When you  are together and united, like the bound arrow-shafts, how can anyone easily overcome you.” Eight generations later, Chingis Khan would rise from a clan of one of her sons.

Our hope as coaches is that we may contribute in a small way to enable the credit unions to rise to meet their challenges – continuing along the co-operative path and making a difference in the lives of their members.

Selected hosts provided the coaches with a taste (literally) of legendary Mongolian hospitality during afternoon lunch. When the team caught up with each other later at the hotel in preparation for a late afternoon city walking tour, everyone was smiles – sharing their culinary experiences with borscht, dumplings, hoschuur and the like. I bade them a good few days as my translator Mungu and I are off to Erdenet in the north, by train tonight. My first train trip…   should be interesting...


A visit to the Wool Craft Supporting Centre

Sarah Feldberg of the  Canadian Co-operative Association (left) with TSEND-AYUSH Tseleejav (short name "Ayo") in the stock room of the Wool Craft Supporting Centre NGO.

Ayo is the executive director of the Wool Craft Supporting Centre, which sells items handmade out of wool and felt. It sources products from 11 co-ops that together support 150 members, including 10 men. We visited the centre Monday morning.

Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unexpected Saga

Several members of our group learned about murder in the Mongolian credit union system yesterday.

The details came out during a meeting in the sixth-floor office of the Mongolian National Co-operators’ Association, which acts as the national co-operative organization and counts among its members seven umbrella groups that represent the respective co-operative industries in the country.

Several credit unions had failed in 2006. Victims included families where sons and daughters had gotten jobs overseas and sent money home every month. The head of the Financial Regulatory Commission, which serves the country’s financial regulators, stepped in to investigate.

In response, the chair of one of the credit unions being investigated murdered him. You can read more about it at http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=549&Itemid=36.

Needless to say, the credit union system is still recovering. Wow. We were not expecting this.

Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist

Monday, October 18, 2010

We’ve arrived in Ulaanbaatar

We left Ottawa at 9 p.m. Friday for Toronto. After a short layover, we left at 1:30 a.m. for a 14-hour flight to Incheon, South Korea. We ate up most of the eight hour-layover there at the airport hotel until our connecting flight to UB.

Our plane touched down in UB around 2:30 p.m. local time Sunday. Cassandra from the U.S. Peace Corp, who is providing support to Mongolian credit unions, and Amarjargal Bergzsuren from MCTCIC, the host organization, greeted us at the airport.

The airport is surrounded by low-lying mountains off in the distance. The word arid comes to mind, not from experience (I don’t think I’ve ever been in an “arid” part of the world before), but from imagination (think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)  The road into town must contain more potholes than the entire city of Toronto. Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that the width and depth of these potholes will fill anything that’s ever dented a rim in all of Toronto. The road is absolutely treacherous.
Making things worse is the fact that there appears to be an equal mix of right-hand and left-hand drive cars. Regardless which seat these drivers occupy, no one, and I do mean no one, pays attention to such petty things as stop signs or red lights or pedestrians, even seniors and tykes pitter-pattering across the road. My Lonely Planet guide says crossing the street is about the most dangerous thing that you can do in Ulaanbaatar. I totally believe it now. If it’s enough to give me a heart attack, and I’ve been to Canada’s jaywalking capital – Montreal – on numerous occasions, I can’t imagine what it will do to some of our prairie friends, many of whom were scared step onto the road in Ottawa.

The final note from today is we’ve had our first rip-off story. Several of us purchased 1.5 litres of “pure ground water of Bogd Khan mountain formed 800 thousand years ago” for 600 Tugs, which is the local currency that is equivalent to about 50 cents Canadian. One unlucky individual whom we will not name paid 5,000 Tugs for it at a souvenir shop. Sorry Marty*. Stick with us next time we go shopping. Your money will last longer.
*The names of the people who appear in this story have been changed to protect their identities. Where appropriate, we’ve used hockey names instead of their real names.

Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist

"Taking one for the team"

Travelling half way around the world is an endurance test to be sure. Wandering through the Seoul airport in preparation for the last leg to Ulaanbaatar, our bodies said it was about 11:30 pm, but what our eyes saw a bright, cloudless morning. No worries though, we’ll get our 12 hours back on the return flight.

At the same time it gives the coaches – who had not previously met, a chance to get to know each other. This includes comparing notes on what resources have been brought along; what skills sets can be leveraged by the group and what medical preparations were made for the trip. 

Comparing shots, pills etc reminds me of a scene from Mountains of the Moon (historical account of explorers Burton and Speke`s quest for the source of the Nile), where Burton meets Dr. Livingston (yes, the one you “presume”) at the Royal Geographic Society in London. After exchanging pleasantries they start to compare wounds suffered on explorations – removing various pieces of clothing to display progressively more outrageous injuries.

In our case, Martin and Dale topped everyone by admitting (thankfully without displaying the evidence) that they have received rabies inoculations. As it turns out, the dogs are both big and aggressive in Mongolia – and play a protective role, particularly in the rural regions. Now those who know me and my phobia of large dogs (usually explained away as an allergy but my family knows better) are probably getting a good chuckle about my predicament as we will no doubt experience a close encounter. But I have a plan! I will practice the saying, “nokhoigoo!” translated as “call off the dogs”, while those best prepared (read Martin and Dale) can act as bait. So thanks guys in advance for taking one for the team.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Forget Mongolia. I’m too busy learning stuff about my own country this week.

Megan Sinclair tells me hoodies are called “bunny hugs” back home in Saskatchewan. Bannock is apparently a very hard bread that should not be consumed during an eating contest (thanks Peter McNair from Kelvington, Saskatchewan). Karen Howatson says her search for the best lunch under $10 is Babylon on Robson Street in Vancouver. Dale Boisclair of Summerland, BC reminisced about jam can curling, which isn’t a relative of Toucan Sam, but is a game played with jam cans way back in the day.

These are just some of the insights that I picked up during downtime this week in Ottawa during the Centre for Intercultural Learning’s inter-cultural effectiveness training. I learned stuff during the training of course. Stuff like how not to judge cultural nuances. At this point in time, that is much easier said than done. How can I not judge others when here I am judging jam can fans and bunny huggers? It’s gonna be a long trip.


Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist

Sain bainuu (hello):

The stage is set - with CCA`s preparatory work for the Mongolian Project having already begun in late 2008; and, the players (7 Canadian credit union coaches) are in place. Mongolia`s days of Soviet control are 20 years behind her and the Prime Minister has declared 2010 as a "business renovation year". So, the time is right for Canadian co-operators to extend their hands and hearts - to assist our colleagues on their journey along a not so ancient path, by building bridges and weaving our experiences, practices and tools into their unique cultural tapestry.

The objective to improve the management and governance of the credit unions to better serve and improve the livelihoods of their members is an urgent one. Roughly 1/3 of the population lives on less than 1 USD per day, with no improvement since the 1990`s. The credit unions have the potential to be a vital part of the solution and are in a rebuilding phase since the economic downturn.

We have just finished two days of inter-cultural training which is the last step before departure. Late Friday night our journey begins - think "Amazing Race", ending some 30 hours later in Ulaanbaatar. The city just happens to be the coldest capital in the world, so we prairie coaches should feel at home!

And we head out on our coaching mission mindful of the wisdom of the Mongolian nomads who say; "If you endeavour, the fate will favour you."

I hope you accept this invitation to join our expedition and follow along... we'll be in touch again soon.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My two biggest regrets about Mongolia:

The Dukoral (it makes you very gassy) and the fact that I’ll miss the launch of KFC’s Double Down sandwich.
Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist
Central 1

Friday, October 8, 2010

And so it begins... well almost

The sun is shining here in Toronto. Today was preceded by a stretch of days that were cloudy and drizzly and just really yucky. I hope the sun holds out until Tuesday when I fly to Ottawa for cultural training. At that point it can snow here for all I care.
Not that I wish ill weather on my fellow citizens. But the truth is after Tuesday I’ll be going to a couple of places that can do much worse than Toronto in terms of the weather: on Tuesday I’ll be flying to Ottawa, which is the fourth coldest capital city in the world, and next Friday I leave for Mongolia’s Ulaanbaatar (sounds like Ulan Batar), THE coldest capital city. (I will save you a click to Wikipedia by telling you that it lists Astana, Kazakhstan and Moscow as the second and third coldest capital cities respectively.)
I’ll be there with fellow blogger Ken Doleman as well as Martin McInnis, Karen Howatson, Scott Hughes, Dale Boisclair, Megan Sinclair, Trudy Rasmuson and, Sarah Feldberg. We’ve had a couple conference calls to discuss the upcoming trip. They all sound nice and I’m sure they are. I’m sure they think I sound nice too. That’s because they don’t know my shortcomings as a travel companion; I get very crabby when I’m hungry and that I snore pretty loudly on the plane. They’ll find out soon enough… heh…
Yee-Guan Wong
Communications Specialist
Central 1