Billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros and former United States President and philanthropist Jimmy Carter paid separate but simultaneous visits to Umnugovi province in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi desert on September 8 and 9.
Although the respective visits were brief, each man and their entourages met with senior staff from the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative and discussed the project’s work and impact in areas of organized cashmere marketing and goat breed improvement, as well as in rural media enterprise and information systems development.
Indeed, after nearly three years of operations in Mongolia and in Umnugovi, the Gobi Initiative has the reputation locally and nationally as a key player in supporting rural development. When world leaders come to the Gobi, they talk to the Gobi Initiative.
Financed by USAID and managed by Mercy Corps in partnership with Land O’Lakes and Pact, the Gobi Initiative is a five-year program dedicated to working with herder and commercial entrepreneurs as well as with other policy-making and information leaders to stimulate private sector-led economic development in Mongolia’s southern Gobi region.
The Gobi is characterized by large numbers of sheep, camels and goats, the most destructive of Mongolia’s livestock, of unprecedented numbers of herders, unprecedented rates of overgrazing and desertification, and the least densely populated territory in the country. Indeed, the challenges to private sector development are great, and yet through targeted interventions implemented in collaboration with local enterprises, associations, government and other donors or development projects, the Gobi Initiative’s successes to date have been significant.
Carter, who was raised on a farm, said he felt right at home talking to herders about their livelihoods and prospects for growing their animal husbandry businesses, especially through producing and marketing cashmere. He said that herders he spoke with are focusing on producing fewer high quality goats instead of more lower quality goats, despite growing demand in recent years among Chinese buyers for high volumes of any quality fiber.
Carter was surprised by this, but was told by the astute nomads that as they have come to view themselves as businessmen, their animals as assets, and their labor, fodder, and time as key inputs, their views regarding short- and long-term business planning have changed dramatically. One example is that many herders now work in groups to cut costs and boost productivity. Another is the trend among herders to reduce herd size and focus on the quality of those products with the greatest potential market value. Herders keep financial and livestock records, and are more aware of and able to respond to key market signals in productive, and profitable, ways. When asked why and how these changes among Gobi herders is happening, Carter heard a list of reasons, led by “Gobi Initiative.”
Carter was joined by Mongolian Prime Minister N. Enkhbayar, Executive Director of the Carter Center John Hardman, and millionaire equity investor Richard Blum, who is Honorary Mongolian Consul to San Fransisco and husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Blum and Carter were especially interested in the Gobi Initiative’s recent Cashmere Market Days events and goat breed improvement strategies.