Yolanda: My feelings about Mongolia has not changed

ZGM DAILY

2018-08-29 10:59 GMT+8

             ADB FOCUSED ON HIGHER EDUCATION FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MONGOLIA
ZGM Daily had the opportunity to sit down with Yolanda Fernandez-Lommen, Country Director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), about social projects, particularly the implementation of higher education reform, during her visit to Dornod aimag for the monitoring of the higher educational reform project. At the financing of the ADB, several projects were implemented at the Dornod University, such as the establishment of an oil laboratory, expansion of sports hall and Distance Learning Center.

-I had many positive informations and admired the result of the ADB’s higher educational project. What impressed you the most during this trip?
-I had been quite impressed myself with both projects on education. If the petroleum research center is completed and expanded, they are planning to present many important opportunities in terms of implementation. Because it is a new area that will have a very positive impact in the petroleum market, even Dornod is engaging in oil prospection. I am also confident in the university, because if they can establish it with oil companies, they can charge for the services.

The regional diagnostic and blood center is also very impressive and modern. The quality of equipment is excellent and kept in very good conditions. I was also impressed with some of the numbers. They used to prepare only 40 or 50 blood products before. But now, they can prepared 240-260 products and that really saves lives. Also maternity center is a top quality facility. Particularly, these facilities are for women from remote areas and countryside. This is one of the highest standards that I have ever seen.

-What are the main purposes of ADB in investing in social projects. What results do you expect?
-Overall, the purpose of the ADB is to foster social economic development and eradicate poverty. Then the different countries on the ADB have different needs depending on the level of development. In case of Mongolia, for the social projects, our objectives are usually in line with the Government objectives. What we try to do is to increase quality of social services, also to increase the access of services.

You could have very good quality services in several locations throughout the country, but the access for people living even in remote areas is very difficult. One good example, for instance, is telemedicine program. We are able to bring medical services to the very remote areas in Mongolia. In cities, we can do other things like the blood center etc. We have flexibility to address the quality in the access to key social services education, social protection and health in different ways depending on the location and needs.

I would like to emphasize the idea of not only providing good quality services, but also access. One example is national transfusiology center in Ulaanbaatar, which is a huge blood center. We also develop blood units in hospitals under the same project. So, of course Ulaanbaatar is the largest in the country by far and needs more facilities, more blood etc. But when the building was created, the idea was also for this center to help provide blood products to many aimags not only Ulaanbaatar. So it has a capacity to provide blood and blood products to many aimags very quickly.

-Aside from improving teachers’ skill, one of the main purpose of the higher education project of the ADB is to give quality education to students, as well as changing their perspective. For example, a student with tenacity and willingness can be better than students with good grades. So, what do you think about the benefits of having a tenacity at the macroeconomic level?
-There is a very strong linkage between education and economic development. This is mainly through the labour market channel which is essential for any economy to grow. So, higher and stronger education background of the people in any country is better quality of the labour force that you will have. The better quality of the labour force also means that you will be more productive, which means you can produce the same things cheaper and in less time.

This increases your competitiveness compared to other countries. It gives you an advantage, for instance, in terms of export goods you will produce. Also, if you are better educated, you will be more innovative and open to adopting technology. All these elements have very positive impact in the way pro-education system in any economy works and it always has a very positive impact in terms of economic growth. 

-Since 1991, the ADB has been supporting Mongolian economy in many spheres. Which sector receives the higher amount of support from the ADB?
-Overall, we had the privilege to have been involved in many sectors throughout so many years. Because we are lucky to have sufficient resources to be patient in many different sectors. So, we had loan in different issues changing from education, health, social protection, regional cooperation, roads, energy and power plants.

We also assisted in the preparation of the airport reconstruction, financial sector reform, public management, finance management, agriculture, natural resources and climate change etc. So we are present in many areas and every 4-5 years, we prepare company partnership strategy (CPS) and there, we decide which sectors we are going to focus in alignment with the Government priorities. So, there might be changes every 4-5 years in the share of each sector. But overall, we are present in these sectors since the very beginning in most of them.

Traditionally, energy and transport in the beginning where large sectors of attention. Because of that, there was an urgent need for support to public plans. We were not good in condition. There was also an urgent need to habilitate the constructive road. There were not many roads at that time in Mongolia. But this is changing and we are thinking about a new strategy, which covers from 2017 to 2020. Perhaps the CPS shows the largest change even though we were impressed in same sectors.

But we have larger locations for urban development including water. We are greening our portfolio now, turning into climate change and environmental protection. We organized many operation in these areas in the past, but we only had small support. They are now becoming important operations with agriculture and urban development. While we maintain sectors of innovation, we are also exploring new areas in CPS. For instance, where we are taking actions in gender.

Both in terms of gender disparity and the declined process into support women, girls and children victims of domestic violence. Another area that is new is sustainable tourism in Khuvsgul Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia, and to support people with disabilities. This is the first time ADB in history of over half century doing projects of this nature, and we are pioneering in Mongolia, and are looking into disabilities from a different angle instead of the traditional angle of medical point of view.

We are providing people with disabilities with skills to join and integrate themselves in the labour market. So that they can live in normal life without the need of reliant subsidies. The can have their own income and integrate into society. One of the aspects of delays is the frequent changes in the Government staff

-Since the ADB’s operation is aligned with the Government priorities, Mongolians will be thankful to ADB’s assistance for sure. What were the main difficulties during the project’s implementation?
-We have a large portfolio which means projects are ongoing in the process of implementation. So, the amount exceeds USD 1 billion in projects. That, per se, is a large portfolio many different projects on many different sectors. Just to start with implementing so many projects at the same time on different sectors is a challenge itself.

Then, we have other type of challenges; for instance, due to the harsh weather in Mongolia, construction season is very short. Cold areas like the western area maximize only about five months, South Gobi might be seven months and rest of the country might be six months. This is also a big challenge because it takes doubled time for us to build road; for instance, compared to other countries in Southeast Asia.

If we miss construction season, we need to wait one or more years. Another aspectof causes and delays is the frequent changes in the Government staff and in-line Ministries. Because we work very closely with the ministries and implementation agencies like higher education projects etc. When there is reshuffle in minister, vice minister and secretariat, also staff in the technical levels, the new team has to study stuff from scratch and they are not familiar with the projects.

Preparation of the project is not familiar with the ADB standards and procedures. Of course, we are complex and bureaucratic institution. We need to be health by rules and procedures. It takes time to get familiar with those procedures. So, if there is a new team, it implies that it will take time to them. If there is a change, we start again. So, that also causes delays. We need to extend completion of the operation sometimes two years or more. Generally, stability is the best thing anyone who wants to do something.

-What was your the first impression when you first came to Mongolia in 1991. If you compare that time against today, what has changed so far?
-There are things that have not changed at all, which is my feelings about the country. The first time I came to Mongolia, I thought it was the most beautiful country in the world. That is still the same today, I think. At that time, of course I was younger, more junior, as well as very enthusiastic country economist. I wanted to do my best to help Mongolia that was going through difficult economic situation after two consecutive dzuds (heavy wintering) at the time.

There were many losses in life sector and then large macroeconomic imbalances required support from the International Monetary Fund. But many things have changed a lot, even outside Ulaanbaatar. Of course, Ulaanbaatar city transformation is very visible, we can see all the new buildings, supermarkets, services. It has become a very developed city. If you compare what you could buy in the supermarket today, you can find range of products from many countries in the world, variety fruits and vegetables that were very difficult to find at that time.

Sometimes I remember walking for a long time to find something, maybe just to buy one apple. Now there are many types of apples everywhere. Overall economic development is spectacular. But you need to understand how much has been achieved just in the last 15 years, which is really amazing. Also, you used to travel a lot to visit different aimags that time. When I travel now, I observe many changes in the quality of life,, key public and financial services. I remember that in the Ulaanbaatar, a man with a telephone with big batteries standing in the corner. Little funny to make phone call. Now we have telemedicine. 

-Some officials in charge of the implementation of higher education reform projects mentioned that the Government is planning to establish a knowledge hub in universities. In developed countries, there is a think tank centers for gathering, networking and exchanging their knowledge. But in Mongolia, we do not have such centers and scientists complain that Government is not listening to them. What do you think is needed to be done in this area?
-In the UK and US, think tank is very prominent despite the culture and their society. It is not so common in other countries including, for instance, my own country and other countries in Europe, for universities to have a knowledge hub. We prioritize efforts in terms of knowledge in universities. Secondly, there is a very close relationship between thinktank and universities. Usually, most of the staff working in think tanks are university professors.

For myself, before joining the ADB, I was a university professor and was working in a think tank. It is actually an excellent combination, because in the think tank, you have more resources. Sometimes you have private sponsors, knowledge to actualize what you learn and get from this knowledge. You can share with the students in the universities in Spain. It is an opportunity to bring students what they can learn from their own research in the think tank. So the connection is very strong.

There are very bright scholars in Mongolia. Think tanks and universities of any country play critical role. Difference between universities and think tank is that think tanks do not teach. Universities do the same research as them and they teach. But both are knowledge hubs. In Mongolia, you have to put more efforts in pulling the resources in a coordinated manner, maybe by merging and strengthening small think tanks of universities with existent think tanks through collaborations. Think tanks should work very closely with universities. So, I am sure it will take time. 

-My last question is higher education reform project, which is expected to complete next year. How do you see the result of this nationwide project. How well is the project going so far?
-This has been a special project for us. We focused on higher education for the first time. Traditionally, the ADB is supportive to mainly primary and secondary education, as well as pre-primary education. So, this is somehow like a step forward for us to be focusing on higher education.

You need to pay attention to stages starting from pre-primary like kindergarten until university. We try to cover many centers as possible in the country; however, we have limited resources. Nonetheless, we have seen very good results in Ulaanbaatar city, Dornod and Khovd aimags. I am very looking forward to the results of new areas. So, the project has been satisfactory.

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