Ron Smit's Blog
Ron Smit's Blog
I've just come back from a very nice dinner at "The Square", a very pleasant bar/restaurant in the Central Tower, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I had a table overlooking the Sukhbaatar Square, as the picture below shows.
The square itself is full of Mongolian and other visitors, walking around, taking pictures, cycling, skating and skateboarding, around the statue of Sukhbaatar, a national hero, and under the watchful eye of an even larger statue of Chinggis Khan, a better-known, older national hero. This square appears to be populated like this every day and every evening, I guess more so in summer than during the bitter winters. On this evening there were extra people due to the graduation of many students, with many smartly-dressed young adults in evidence, all sharing the glorious sunset.
After finishing my excellent "Mexicano Burger" accompanied by a draught Chinggis beer (what else!) I was enjoying the view when I suddenly heard the person behind me speaking Afrikaans! A bit unexpected, to say the least... So I spent the next couple of hours chatting to two South Africans (one of which a medical doctor) who are based in Australia, and are here to promote the use of health, safety and environmental software. Probably very interesting for various branches of industry: mining, construction, etc., etc.
Strange (but fun!) to share experiences and points of view between us, all 3 of us born and bred in South Africa, and now we meet in Mongolia, but based from The Netherlands and Ausralia, respectively. All of us (even me) still able to speak Afrikaans properly. They were too polite to comment on my accent, I think.
I think we are recolonising the world, haha. Putting it in a more politically correct way, it is obvious that many of us who were educated in SA are able to make our mark in the wider world.
After a full day in the Mongolian Ministry of Mining office, I had the opportunity to participate in a hash on the foothills and ridges below the Bogd Khan Mountain, above Ulaanbaatar. For those of you who don't know what a hash is: Shame on you, and google "Hash House Harriers". For those of you who do know, not many words are necessary, just look at the pictures posted below. Oh, and by the way, thanks, Brigitte, for doing all the arrangements!
(Remember to click on the pics for the full experience.)
No more words needed, don't you agree?
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It's early Sunday evening, 9th June and I've been in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, again for a few days. After quite a cool day, the sun has come out from behind the clouds, providing some nice low-angle sunshine through the windows of my apartment. The following pictures show a few views from the apartment windows, illustrating the changing skylines in the city:
This is the second time that I'm in this city, consulting to the Mongolian Ministry of Mining in connection with a review of mining governance-related policies and institutions. Together with my colleague from New Zealand, we have just about completed our Inception Report, and are well-advanced with a Diagnostic Report, describing the problems and challenges that we see here. What makes this project interesting is the quality of the people we are working with, as well as the mix between the new (opened-up market economy) and the old (remnants of central planning style of thinking) in the mining sector.
Later during this visit we will conduct a workshop with officials from this and other government ministries, as well as other stakeholders in the mining sector. Findings reported in our Diagnostic Report are likely to result in interesting discussions, including discussions on the difference between good governance and increased government ownership of mining operations.
Today I visited the Information Centre in the Geological Survey, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A very positive experience! Those of you who have also been in such institutions in other developing countries will understand my pleasure after looking at the pictures below. Ask yourself - when last did you see such a well-organised setup?
My pleasure only increased when I was able to obtain the requested information (some geological maps, general reports about the geology and mineral potential of Ethiopia, etc.) onto a USB stick. Took about 15 minutes. I know I'm working as a World Bank consultant right now, but I understand that anyone from the public or from any mining or exploration company could obtain the same information for a very nominal fee.
The Centre was clearly under pretty strong leadership, long may it continue!
I'm currently in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to participate in a project to carry out a Strategic Assessment of the Mining Sector in this country. Commissioned by the World Bank, carried out by Swedish Geological AB together with some other consulting firms. More about the project will eventually surface on my 'Projects' page.
After some full days this week, involving many visits and meetings, we decided to spend the day walking through parts of this city and to find some agreeable places to have brunch and to drink some of the excellent coffee they have here.
It turned about to be a long walk (see the map above) in a city at some 2,400m altitude, but with lots of interesting views and experiences along the way:
Karl and Paul pondering the route to take, with the aid of a good guidebook.
Not sure of the connection with George Bush's expression, but we saw this poster promising extensive services from the Universal Higher Clinic.
Paul and Karl sampling excellent coffee on the steps outside ToMoCa, the situation inside was too full and chaotic.
A street scene on our way to Serenade. Many taxis on offer, be we kept walking.
Brunch at Serenade.
Now, where to start on this serious piece of chocolate cake...
It was a long walk, almost 18Km through the dusty streets of Addis, but worthwhile. Helps to give an idea of what a city is really like, when you do this sort of thing.
My first stint of just over a week in Mongolia is coming to an end when I return home tomorrow morning. While I fly home via Beijing towards Amsterdam and Eindhoven (and while I spend quite a few hours in the airport in Beijing) I will be able to consider the very interesting aspects of the country. Naturally, I will try to find issues and aspects of Mongolia that are similar with other countries where I have worked, and there are many. However, there are also significant differences. I run the risk of making a judgement based on a single visit over a very short time, but I believe the country compares very well with other countries where I have been involved in governance-related projects.
Most importantly, all the people we have met, whether in government service, or in the private sector, are very interested indeed in building improved systems in the country. There is an acceptance that the current legislative framework is far from perfect, that the draft mining law that is being worked on, also requires further work, but notwithstanding everybody's specific point of view, people are prepared to work hard towards something better. This presence of a will to work towards change that is required, and to listen to other opinions, is very refreshing. In that sense, there is a similarity with my experiences from Colombia.
Today we also met with World Bank and IFC consultants. This required a very pleasant walk through the streets of Ulaanbaatar, and over Sukhbaatar Square. Below, you can see my colleague David Butcher next to our able assistant and translator, Bayarmaa Surenkhorloo, on that square, in front of the statue in honour of Damdin Sukhbaatar, who declared Mongolia's independence from China in 1921, on the same square in Ulaanbaatar.
There are quite significant challenges posed by the current draft mining policy, the laws and the institutional setup, which will not be simple to resolve. They never are, anyway, no matter where in the world you may work. But I do look forward to my next assignment here. This is largely due to the fact that we are working together with very pleasant and capable people.
This afternoon we drove out of Ulaanbaatar, to meet with officials in Zuunmod, the capital of the the central Tuv Province of Mongolia. The reason for the visit was to discuss with the "Aimag" (provincial authority) their governance over mining activities. Earlier today we had met with a senior officer of the Cabinet Secretariat, in a quite formal setting within the magnificent Parliament House in Ulaanbaatar. This official had explained the degree to which responsibilities and actions have been devolved to local government level, but the visit to the aimag at Zuunmod was to ask questions of the officials themselves (and of course to see some countryside!).
A little interactive map showing our route can be seen in Google Maps by clicking on this link.
This image shows one stretch of the road to Zuunmod and one of the minibus vehicles that use it. This part of the one hour long drive was quite smooth, but the road clearly does suffer from a lack of maintenance and the effects of very heavy trucks that use it. Freezing weather for most of the year can't help. As a result, there are numerous potholes and the portions where all the tar had been removed or where detours went across dirt roads, were the best.
Just outside the little town, we stopped for the two cars to catch up to each other, and two of our co-travellers used the opportunity for a quick smoke break.
In the offices of the aimag we met the Governor of the Tuv Province, as well as the Director of the Nature, Environment and Tourism Bureau. His responsibility extends over environmental monitoring of mining, too. A friendly but serious and clearly very capable man, with a good understanding of his department's functions and where the major problem areas lie. Although he spoke no English, we all had an excellent discussion with the able asistance of our translator Bayarmaa and MSISTAP consultant Surmaa.
Returning to Ulaanbaatar, with one of the four power stations visible on the left, contributing to the city's dosage of dust and smoke.
This last weekend it was nice to catch a ride with a colleague and some new friends, out of Ulaanbaatar, the busy capital of Mongolia, and into the countryside nearby. Here are some pictures from that very pleasant day, just to show that an assignment to another country should really also include a look at more than only the interior of the offices there:
Massive statue of Chinggis Khan, the legenday Mongol leader, at Tsonjin Boldog. The stainless steel-clad statue of 30m high, on a 10m pedestal, towers over the countryside.
Standing on the viewing platform on top of the horse's head, this is the view over the surrounding countryside, looking from under Chinggis' right hand, holding the golden horsewhip.
A view of so-called "Turtle Rock" within the huge Gorkhi Terelj National Park.
A "ger" camp within the National Park. The very nomadic Mongolians used to erect tents like this when they swept across the steppes, conquering most of Asia and Eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages. We just conquered a nice picnic lunch in one of them.
Excellent advice from near the Princess Temple in Gorkhi Terelj, a buddhist temple perched on the mountainside. Maybe I'm not so very young anymore, but nevertheless I try to do good before I;m really senile.
Watch this space for more news and images as my visit continues...
I have recently arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to start work on a World Bank-funded project, providing advice to the Ministry of Mining, in connection with the policies and institutional framework here. It is an interesting city, clearly experiencing a welcome but brief spring interlude between a cold winter and a short summer, before autumn and a hard winter sets in again. I do hope that I will still be able to experience some of that brief summer in my next trips during June and July, and maybe a tolerable bit of autumn, in September.
I've met a new colleague, David Butcher, who is carrying out this assignment with me, and also a number of very pleasant and very professional Mongolian counterparts and assistants. David and I have rented a small apartment in Ulaanbaatar, much preferable to extended hotel stays. Here are some views from the of the apartment windows:
We are planning to visit a nearby nature reserve today, with some old friends of David's. Watch this space for news about that, and some pictures.
Looking at the news as presented over TV over the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that we all worry and complain about various issues in (or close to) our daily lives, while we often disregard more important issues.
Let me avoid the ongoing European problems with national debts and poorly-managed banks. Undoubtedly these are very real problems with long-term effects, but I struggle to get my head around the various issues involved, not to mention any acceptable solutions in the short term.
No, I would like to contrast news items about (for instance) the expected level of Easter egg sales and resulting supermarket turnovers, the demand by unions that the board of Holland Casino should resign, the fact that Easter here in The Netherlands will be colder than Christmas, with other issues like the increasing level of aggressive posturing from North Korea and the ongoing (though not often news-worthy) looting of mineral resources by millions of illegal small-scale miners around the world.
Sure, it’s good for supermarkets to enjoy healthy business (and for us to know that there is no threat to the Easter egg supply) and we all like to complain about the weather. But surely the fact that a megalomaniac leader from a pariah state is waving his nuclear middle finger at us all, is more important? Or the fact that the USA deemed it necessary to fly a couple of bombers over the borders there and carry out military exercises with dummy bombing runs?
How about the fact that large numbers of people in many developing countries are participating in large-scale illegal mining, with no regard at all for healthy working conditions, environmental or social impacts, and without any contribution towards taxes and royalties. Even though usually presented as some sort of poverty-reducing, temporary activity for local people who lack other means of earning an income, it still amounts to stealing wealth from fellow citizens and even future generations in any particular country. And I would in fact contest those claims of poverty reduction and the temporary nature of such mining activities.
Well, I guess the world has problems that we cannot easily solve. But I choose to at least have an opinion on some issues that I think are important, and I am lucky to be able to participate in project work to help address some of these issues, albeit in a very small way.
Now I can go back to complaining about the current cold weather. After all, I have earned the right to do so by virtue of my Dutch roots and the warm South African soil where they were planted.
A reminder: If you have persisted and read all the way through this blog entry, and if you have any particular opinions, positive or negative, you are urged to comment by clicking the “Add comment” button below. I would love to hear from you.