A harsh reality for Mongolia's herders

Mongolia, September 8, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Faced with the harsh realities of the global economic crisis, Mongolian herders are having to make hard decisions to support their families. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

I just listened to a piece on NPR (National Public Radio) about how the global financial crisis continues to plague one of the world's most remote places: Mongolia. Even though analysts are reporting that most markets have begun to emerge from the crisis, Mongolia's people — particularly herders, who comprise 40 percent of Mongolia's population — are still feeling the worst of it.

As a relatively isolated country that mostly exports raw materials like wool, cashmere and metals, Mongolia began to experience the crisis a bit later than other countries. But when it came, it hit hard: market prices for cashmere were suddenly cut in half because of lagging sales on the world market.

Lower prices for commodities like cashmere have ravaged the Mongolian economy: today at least 25 percent of workers are unemployed, more than two and a half times the current unemployment rate here in the United States. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital and largest city, wages for day laborers are down by 60 percent.

And, as in the United States, Mongolia's people — especially nomads — are struggling to repay loans that they'd taken out under much different circumstances. Thousands of families are now having to sell off their livestock herds, their source of meeting household needs and means of surviving the countries long, harsh winters.

For a decade, Mercy Corps' Gobi Initiative has been helping rural agricultural families diversify their incomes to survive crises like this. You can read more about some of the people we're proud to serve in Boundless Horizons, a series of stories I wrote after a trip to Mongolia last year. Mercy Corps programs are helping 640,000 Mongolians — more than 20 percent of the country's entire population.

Of course I wonder how the many families I met on my journey are doing. Having seen their hard work and successes up close, I feel confident that they are handling the strain much better than some of their neighbors. Still, the harsh realities of life in Mongolia — weather, distance, isolation — are so much different than what we're used to.

Where most of us live, the global financial crisis has meant hard decisions on what we should buy. When we could buy it. What we could afford. What we should do without. But it has never been a question of survival.

Across the Gobi Desert today, survival is precisely the question. What will families do when their herds are gone but loans remain?