Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mongolia: Distance Is No Object

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mongolia: Distance Is No Object

Article excerpt

Camel-borne tutors range the steppe to back up a nationwide radio learning scheme which packages human rights awareness as well as job skills

Two years ago, life's opportunities were few and far between for Undermaa. At the age of 20, jobless and virtually destitute, she was caring for her newborn baby after her husband had left for the army. Her days were spent tending livestock beside her ger (white felt tent) on the outskirts of Darkhan in northern Mongolia. The country was in the depths of an economic depression. The last thing on her mind was politics.

Today Undermaa and her husband are living downtown, where she works for the Mongolian National Democratic Party. For the first time she has a steady income and a passion for politics.

In Undermaa's family, politics were taboo. Her grandfather had been branded an "enemy of the state" by the old Soviet-backed regime and exiled to the countryside in 1964 for supporting one of Mongolia's few dissidents. To bury this "crime", Undermaa's grandmother changed the family name and moved to a new city.

It wasn't until 1990, after the collapse of the old regime, that Undermaa learned of this dark past. But the facts were not enough, she says. How could she analyse tyranny without the slightest notion of human rights? The missing "links" came from an unlikely source: a free sewing course advertised on the radio. Undermaa simply thought the course might help her get a job. But it came complete with a primer on human rights and good governance.

Undermaa's classes are part of a national distance education project, "Learning for Life", run by the Mongolian government and UNESCO with the financial assistance of the Danish aid agency, Danida. A total of 3,000 young students have tuned into weekly radio programmes on job-oriented topics ranging from basic marketing to computer skills and carpetmaking. In between programmes, students follow exercises in textbooks and meet in groups every week or so for learning sessions with trained tutors. Special demonstrations are organized for hands-on training in the more technical skills.

While the focus is on helping students adjust to the country's economic transition to a more open economy, the project also aims to prepare them for more open government, which explains the section on human rights. At the same time, the aim is to reinforce the educational gains made under the previous communist state, notably with literacy rates in Russian Cyrillic script of about 85 per cent.

Distance education is not entirely new to Mongolia, one of the few countries where nomads make up 20 per cent of the population. During communism, state-run radio and television stations beamed educational programmes across the grassy steppes. But there was no need for a massive campaign, as virtually all children received schooling at county or provincial centres--even children of herding families living on the livestock co-operatives which dotted the vast Gobi Desert. Room and board were paid for by the stare. Even universities were free for those who gained admission.

But those days are over. University education is no longer free, leaving those without means no other option than to forego higher education and join the workforce. Local NGOs are concerned that children are dropping out of school and living on the streets in cities like the capital, Ulaanbaatar. In the rural areas, many children stay at home to help their parents tend their herds of goats, yaks, camels and horses. …

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