Dave Vosen I’m very keen to see as much of Mongolia on foot, on bike or on horse

Gogo Mongolia is introducing the honourable Dave Vosen, Ambassador of Australia to Mongolia. He is a career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was most recently Director, North Korea Section. He has previously served overseas as Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy, Vientiane; and Counsellor, Australian High Commission, Port Moresby. In Australia, he has served as Director, Afghanistan and Iraq Branch, AusAID; and also in various positions in the Departments of Defence and Finance.

-It has been not so long ago since you have been appointed as an ambassador to Mongolia. How far the difference of what you have expected is compared your experience after you came here? What have caught your attention the most? 
-Mongolia is country that features on many Australians lists of places to visit. Many Australians are aware of Mongolia’s history and of course, of the legend of Chinggis Khan. Many Australians through their studies have been exposed to Mongolia – whether they be students of history, archeology, geology, mining or international relations. So it’s true that many Australians know of Mongolia’s history – but fewer are engaged in contemporary Mongolia.

The most striking thing I have experienced so far is the gap between the urbanized and developed city of UB and the traditional herder and nomadic lifestyle of rural Mongolians. Given Mongolia’s rapid economic growth, I had expected to see a greater degree of modernization in agriculture and technology playing a greater part in supporting this aspect of the economy.

-Have you travelled around countryside in Mongolia yet? 
-When in Australia, I live in small rural community with just over 1,000 people. I’m keenly aware of the impacts of weather events, including droughts and flooding and some of the challenges faced by rural communities. 

So I am very interested in understanding each aimag, the opportunities and the challenges – and understanding the differences. I visited Arkhangai last week and spent some time in Tsesterleg. I’ll be visiting as many districts as possible, and travelling with the range of Australians who contribute to the economic and social development of Mongolia.

I’m also very keen to see as much of Mongolia on foot, on bike or on horse. I’m very interested in seeing the country at a speed where you can engage and understand the lifestyle, how people live and the choices they make. Planes and cars are too fast for me to get a real taste of life.

I’m open for suggestions on the best and most engaging way to see each aimag!

Mongolia is an environment with challenges and clearly cold being one of these. But the vast space provides economic opportunities and exploring this potential is something I am keen to do.

-Where do you frequent in Ulaanbaatar when off from work? 
-I love riding my bike, which is a challenge in the depths of winter. So if you see a very enthusiastic, but slight slow bicycle rider on the streets of UB please give me a wave. Cycling is an amazing activity and one that has great health and environmental benefits. It’s a great social activity. I’m hoping to take a bicycle on as many regional trips as possible. Swimming is another great activity to get away from work, especially as it’s hard to speak underwater. 

Spending time with family and friends is important. But we’ve been able to see some amazing opera and ballet in the short time we have been in UB. The fat Cat Jazz club has opened our eyes to amazing musicians and young Mongolians also.

We’re also looking forward to seeing Australian Football develop in Mongolia. We know how well loved cricket is already in this country and being able to have a kick or hit on a weekend with a very active Australian expat community is a great way to relax and have a little taste of home.

-What are your plans for the starters as a serving ambassador? Is there any project you have started already?
-As Australians we are pragmatic. We seek to build on success. Australia has had a presence here for many years including through Austrade and the Australian Chamber of Commerce. So there are many good initiatives that we’ll continue to implement and support. Many of these relate to the extractives sector and in education. I’m keen to continue doing the things that matter to Australia and Mongolia and keep doing good things if they are achieving good results.

I’m very interested in understanding more about technical and vocational education and training. It’s clear that Mongolia has a very high standard of education and human capital is a huge advantage. Mongolia also faces some challenges with its young demographic. Mining will always be a mainstay of both our economies, but much of the growth in Australia has been in the services sector. Successful TVET reforms and engagement with the private sector has been critical to this economic diversification.

We all want to see Mongolia’s economy grow and this will mean more investment, especially FDI in the mining sector, but also greater productivity in agriculture and a diversified services sector.

TVET is the platform for these enhancements. So, it’s not specifically my project and we are aware of the reforms already initiated – but it’s something I want to explore with government and with business as we look to supply the jobs of today and anticipate future demand.

The Oyu Tolgoi project is still number one in terms of our priorities. In part because of the Australian investment and commercial reasons, but more so because it is so critical to Mongolia’s economy. We all need the OT project to succeed because of its long-term potential in terms of revenue generation, jobs, local content and export growth but also because it is the only investment large enough to provide an economic base and foundation at present.

-Your previous experiences were quite fascinating as being in charge of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq section Director. Could you share your most unforgettable experiences or significant projects you have implemented in the countries you have served?
-It’s a great honor to be able to represent your country overseas, and it’s a truly amazing experience to work with colleagues from the various countries where we work. It’s certainly the case in Mongolia where you can develop genuine friendships and working relationships that can span careers and lifetimes. So the situations all differ greatly, but the connections between people are similar.

Working with Afghan and Iraqi colleagues as they were seeking to stabilise their countries, governments and economies was a great privilege. Witnessing and working with their commitment, their desire to improve livelihoods for their populations was evident in their courage. These experiences are unforgettable and remain inspirational.

Working with countries in conflict or post-conflict situations is a remarkable personal experience. It tests your assumptions about human nature, reasons for conflict and how to find solutions. It is great that Australia and Mongolia are able to deploy together in peacekeeping operations globally. Working together to create the environments we want, based on the protection and promotion of human rights, peace and stability is a great privilege.

-You had a career at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. What opportunities we have to develop trade market between our two countries? What is your insight?
-I hope I still have a career! There are enormous opportunities for Mongolia and Australia to develop together.

The structure of our economies, based largely on mining and exports has some similarities. Economic cooperation has many different aspects. But the opportunity in this market to truly develop the agriculture and services sector is tremendous.

Two way trade is currently very low and largely Australian exports of goods and services to Mongolia. Clearly, Mongolia is an important market for Australian know-how and technology, especially in the mining sector. 

Mongolia ranks 72nd in terms of our total exports (86th in terms of goods, 42nd service), so there is great opportunity for exports to grow further in our regional markets. 

More broadly, a successful economy needs a healthy and educated population and Australia is making a significant contribution to this through our scholarship program, which sends highly skilled Mongolians to Australian universities. They will continue to make a positive contribution to government and all segments of the Mongolian economy.

But investors need predictability as they consider investment decisions. And Mongolia is competing on a global stage. Large scale investment, in the order required to develop Mongolia’s next major project, is assessed against other markets. So new and large opportunities to grow our markets requires implementation of measures that boosts Mongolia’s competitiveness.  

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- There are more than 50 Australian companies currently operating in Mongolia, most of which are engaged in the mining sector.  Is number of companies operating in Mongolia increasing or decreasing in recent years? Do they face difficulties in maintaining their sustainable operations here?
-The Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham) provides a great platform for over 50 businesses operating here. It’s true that most Australian companies are involved in the mining sector and that reflects the reliance on mining for GDP growth and government revenues.

I will be trying to get more Australian companies interested in Mongolia and seeking to lift the volume of exports from Australia to Mongolia. Austrade does a wonderful job of presenting opportunities in Mongolia to a very active and interested export and investment community in Australia.

There are a number of factors that affect the sustainability of operations anywhere. Profit and generating a return is obviously critical. And businesses that operate on a regional or global scale are always assessing risks and calculating potential returns.

Investor confidence is a measure we look at seriously and we ask what makes a market attractive. Predictability in the legislative framework, the ability to resolve commercial disputes, access to capital/credit and appropriately qualified and affordable labour are all issues where Mongolia is competing on a regional and global stage.

Australian investors and businesses expect contracts to be adhered to. Agreements form the basis of business and provide the predictability to borrow and invest.

-Because agriculture section is an integral part of economy for both countries. Therefore, do you foresee opportunities in developing agriculture ties between Australia and Mongolia, for instance utilizing expertise from your advanced technology?
-I think your question touches on a critical issue for Mongolia. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a fundamental and transformative exchange that has allowed Australia to develop our mining and agriculture sectors. Australia faces two challenges similar to Mongolia – low population relative to our export markets and relatively small economies. We are both outside the G7.

FDI obviously brings capital. But it also brings the range of technology, systems, knowhow, and international best practice that allows a fledgling or unproductive/inefficient sectors/industry to grow. 

So the technology transfer associated with FDI is critical. But that alone – without the other benefits of FDI that strengthen the sector - will not work. It’s not simply a matter of importing new machinery, and expecting it to work.

So it’s a question about how Mongolia makes itself attractive to FDI, in mining as with agriculture, that will enable sectors to develop and the economy to diversify.

Australia has a lot to offer, and we’re happy to share our experience with FDI in our agriculture and mining sector and to look at issues around being an attractive investment destination and one that is competitive in a global market place.    A key lesson for Australia has been to establish a competitive policy platform, clearly communicate the rules of the game and for government to allow businesses to do what they do best.

Agriculture products, as with mining exports relies on a complex value chain. Technology and innovation is one step on this spectrum, but all inputs needs to be developed in order to achieve growth.

-Last month, during the meeting with Mongolian Prime Minister Mr. Khurelsukh.U, you both agreed on having more room in developing international relation at the regional level between two countries. Please share us your opinion for instance? 
-It was great discussion with the Prime Minister and we look forward to continue to build our relationships between our respective parliaments, governments, businesses, education institutions and citizens.

At each level, there are great opportunities. I’m very keen to extend the number of visits we have between Mongolia and Australia to include senior government, parliamentarian and business exchanges. We have a lot to offer each other.

Rules matter for countries like ours. We don’t have the economic, political or military weight to get our way through force or coercion. And nor should we. We value our relationship with Mongolia deeply and because we share similar values, a determination to protect and promote human rights, and both have strong vibrant democracies, we can continue to promote the rules and institutions that advance these interests in our region and globally.

So the very foundation of our relationship with Mongolia, as strong and vibrant democracies, is to advocate for the application of rules that allow our nations to develop. So there is a lot that we progress together in a bilateral relationships and we’re working hard to do this. But we are also working closely on issues that matter in our region and working together to promote these practices and behaviors.

-Australia has had a longstanding volunteer presence in Mongolia. Since 2002, over 250 Australian volunteers have contributed to Mongolia’s development, with around 22 new volunteer placements in 2018-19. What is the common and main sector of volunteer presence? And what is the result of this project?
-Volunteering has a special place in Australia. Many Australians have participated in a range of volunteering that extends from firefighting with their local Country Fire Authority (CFA), patrolling beaches through surf lifesaving, enhancing community safety through their local State Emergency Service (SES) and many other pursuits.

Many of these organisations have special meaning in the lives of Australians, particularly those in need. Many of these organisations have also provided learning and development for thousands of individuals and helped shape careers and a life of continuous community services. 

So our volunteers program comes from a deeper origin than just volunteering overseas. It’s also a natural extension from Australians desire to travel, experience the world and leave a positive mark.

The range of volunteers that have worked and lived in Mongolia is staggering and the various organisations numerous. There’s no limit to the areas where we can place volunteers and we’re keen to ensure that we place Australian volunteers with organisations that can demonstrate a need and commitment to host. 

The critical success factor that sets this program apart is the skill sets and experience of the volunteers. Many have had long a distinguished careers. Some are young and newly graduated. But the care and effort we place in working with institutions to define and articulate their requirements, and then match them with an appropriate volunteer ensures success.

Each placement is different and each volunteer is different. Finding the right volunteer to support fundraising efforts, or conduct advocacy, or assist with management of organisations – when the support is needed - is also a factor for success. 

The result of our volunteer placements is also diverse. Every volunteer returns to Australia with a huge range of stories and experiences. The connection developed between organizations continues to strengthen every year.

-Australia Awards in Mongolia scholarship program has enabled more than 530 Mongolians to study in Australia. Especially some of Mongolian youngsters are looking forward for this scholarship in recent years. Is there any opportunity to expand quote of Mongolians?
-Our Australia Awards program has been one of the best investments we have ever made. You’re correct, there are well over 500 students that have benefitted from the opportunity to study in Australia, but many more are choosing to pay themselves. We have over 4,500 Mongolia students in Australia at this moment.

All Australian alumni are able to join our alumni program and through this we continue to maintain a very active platform for future engagement.

As Mongolia’s economy continues to grow, more and more students, business and government will be able to support overseas study. I hope that Australia will continue to be an attractive destination as individuals consider their options.

Our annual allocation needs to reflect our broader budget situation. Education should always be at the top of our list of priorities, but budgets are always about choices and reprioritization.

We never make promises we can’t keep!! But we continue to advertise the great success of the program and this is the best business case for future growth.

Australia continues to remain competitive against the world’s best universities and we’re really pleased to see many students choosing Australian institutions. But I suspect the quality of Australian beaches, our lifestyle and quality coffee might also play a small role.

-Australia participates in the annual Khaan Quest peacekeeping exercises hosted by Mongolia. What are the plans for further cooperation with Mongolia in defense section?
-Australia is a very proud participant in the Khan Quest exercise and this is a key platform for our defence engagement. 

Peacekeeping operations, including those supported by Australia and Mongolia play an important global role and also allow us to deploy and working together in a multinational team.

So we fully support Mongolia’s objectives to continue to engage in these deployment and we are looking to provide additional support if this is requested.

We already provide opportunities for members of the MAF to train and study in Australia, including English language to support participation in peacekeeping operations.

Australia soldiers enjoy the cooperation with the Mongolian counterparts. There are great advantage to learning, training and exercising together.

-Australian Embassy announced to support the direct aid programs to Mongolia. One of them is LGBTI Centre that will implement comprehensive advocacy campaigns to raise public awareness of human rights issues. How do Australians sentiment towards LGBTI community? This issue is still new and controversial for Mongolians.  Also, what kind of campaigns are held to raise public awareness on human rights issues?
-It’s an important question, so thanks for raising. 

I agree that it is a question of promoting and protecting human rights, but there is much more to the issue. This is an international issue. And it’s not about creating new rights. It’s applying existing human rights to all people, including LGBTI, to protect everyone from discrimination.

From a purely economic perspective, we want the best people engaged in the workforce and we want the greatest range of views and experiences to help address issues. Sexual identity or sexual persuasion should not be a barrier to full engagement in any workforce. It disadvantages businesses and individuals. We must create workplaces where people feel comfortable to be themselves, and supported to reach their full potential.

But more importantly from a human rights perspective, we must all recognise the inherent value of each person – regardless of our background, where we come from or live, what we look like, what we think or who we are attracted to. Or who we are.

I have not been subjected, ever, to any harassment, violence, stigma or discrimination because of my sexuality or sexual identify. And I don’t deny there is an issue. 

But any logical argument – whether economic or based on fundamental human rights - is not enough to change the minds of some members of our communities.

Therefore our job should be to change the attitudes of people who perpetuate discrimination based on sexuality or identity. Our focus should be on those that hold views or engage in actions that deny economic opportunities, dignity, protection and human rights. 

Some of the measures we are promoting, including through our DAP program involve steps to ensuring we have an appropriate legislative base and ensuring that consensual same sex relationships remain decriminalized. Ensuring legal recognition of gender identity and equal access to the labour market are equally important. We must therefore continue to ensure that work practices under our control recognize everyone’s ability (and right) to contribute.

At the same time, we need to make better progress addressing some of the social issues that your question alludes to. Stigma associated with LGBTI still affects people’s ability to access employment, education and health care in some countries.

Australia legalised same sex marriage on 9 December 2017. Steps to provide equal opportunities, including before the law, are important steps each society needs to take for itself. And Australia, for our part, will continue to promote human rights across all sections of society and the economy.

-Where does Mongolia stand for Australians in terms of a tourist destination? Will Australian Embassy make more efforts to establish sustainable tourist route?
-Countries in the top ten travel destinations for Australians all have direct connections to Ulaanbaatar including Thailand, China and Japan. So there are opportunities for Mongolia to capitalize on these passenger movements in the region.

The major factors that draw Australians to travel include direct and low-cost airfares, accessible tourist visas and unique experiences. Mongolia has a lot to offer an Australian market, especially in terms of the adventure travel and experience.

Further development of 3 and 4 star hotels in Ulaanbaatar that provide high quality and affordable accommodation would attract tourists. And further development of infrastructure that can facilitate tourism would also be helpful. The new airport will obviously assist, but further development of direct routes and more competitive prices are needed.

But it’s part of my job here to sell Australia as a destination of choice for business, investment and tourism! Australia continues to be an attractive destination for tourists in the region. Multiple airlines flying to a variety of cities in Australia keeps prices competitive given the distances. Visitors from Mongolia to Australia mention the iconic beaches, clean cities and amazing outback as drawcards. Tourists also enjoy learning about and experiencing Australia’s indigenous culture, art and music. A lower Australian dollar also makes travel more attractive to tourist in Asia. 

-Thank you for your interview.

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