Oasis in the Gobi Desert


July 23, 2001

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    Corey Flintoff of National Public Radio trains journalists in Mercy Corps' Gobi Initiative program in Mongolia. A vibrant, free press is a vital component of an active civil society. Photo: Layton Croft for Mercy Corps Photo:

[Editor's note: This story was prepared by Layton Croft, Program Director for Information Systems with the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative. Other stories he has written about the positive impact partnerships and information have played in Mongolia’s rural development.]

Mongolia’s southern region, the Gobi, is the country’s least densely populated, and characterized by rugged, semi-desert terrain and a harsh, dry climate. But amidst this arid vastness dominated by goats, camels and nomadic herders, an informational oasis thrives.

Gobi Wave Information Center is rural Mongolia’s first independent regional media enterprise. Registered as an NGO, Gobi Wave’s status as financially and editorially independent of the state is remarkable given seven-decades of communist control and censorship. And though a national Free Press Law was passed in 1999, Gobi Wave is one of very few rural media to follow it.

Today more than 300,000 listeners in five Gobi provinces, mostly herders, regularly tune in to Gobi Wave’s news and information broadcasts. They ration precious radio batteries to get practical and educational weather, market price, animal husbandry management, and government policy information. These programs are made possible by the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative, whose relationship with Gobi Wave is one of many partnerships that have contributed its success, and promise.

The Gobi Initiative is a five-year rural economic development project funded by USAID and managed by Mercy Corps in partnership with Land O’Lakes and Pact. Shortly after launching operations in early 1999, the Gobi Initiative was approached by a group of Gobi journalists eager to create an independent, financially sustainable media enterprise. Their aim was to provide herders and other Gobi people with critical information, to give them tools to improve their lives in social and economic ways. Since an informational needs assessment indicated that business and economic information was a top priority for Gobi people, the Gobi Initiative pledged skills training and technical assistance support.

These journalists realized that strong, mutually beneficial relationships with local and international institutions would be critical to their success. After creating Gobi Wave, they built on the skills, knowledge and confidence gained from their partnership with the Gobi Initiative. They approached local NGOs, businesses and local government interested in working together. They solicited paid programming and advertising contracts. They successfully lobbied local government for private office space. They won a grant from the Soros Foundation for a state-of-the art FM station to complement their regional broadcasts. They established a rural network of more than 50 volunteer and commissioned stringers and marketing agents across the Gobi.

The true nature of the Gobi Initiative/Gobi Wave partnership is illustrated by the fact that as each entity accomplishes its goals and satisfies its clients, the other benefits. For instance, as the Gobi Initiative contributes to more profitable and productive herder and rural businesses, Gobi Wave has a larger listener and client base. Likewise, as Gobi Wave constantly provides programming rural listeners use to improve their lives, Gobi Initiative development objectives are further realized.

The real power of this partnership, however, is its ability to breed other productive partnerships. Last year, the Gobi Initiative led a coalition of five international and domestic organizations to apply for a professional journalism expert from the Knight Foundation. In late June, 2001, Corey Flintoff of National Public Radio, an experienced rural radio trainer and now Knight Fellow, arrived in Mongolia for six months. The Knight Foundation selected such a distinguished expert for the job because of the nature of the coalition’s application, which was submitted by the Gobi Initiative, Soros Foundation, UNESCO, Press Institute, and Globe International. And though these five organizations have unique goals and development mandates, they chose to build on their common vision of improved rural radio journalism serving Mongolians with little access to useful news and information. In the end, they opted to work together, and their partnership resulted in acquiring needed technical expertise, for free.

While in Mongolia, Flintoff will spend considerable time and energy working closely with Gobi Wave. Meanwhile, Gobi Wave has continued the ricochet trend of building new partnerships from existing ones by establishing a nascent Rural Radio Association among several other rural, regional radio stations across Mongolia. Indeed, the Gobi Initiative/Gobi Wave partnership has resulted in impact beyond their respective mandates and geographical scopes, proving the procreative power of true partnership.

And it seems likely that those partnerships which have fueled Gobi Wave, and which brought Flintoff to Mongolia, will continue to flourish and strengthen institutional and inter-organizational capacity beyond the Gobi, and beyond the life of projects like the Gobi Initiative.