Monday, November 19, 2012

TEDxUB: Moving Beyond Development

Moving Beyond Development
Documentary Project for Mongolia
Julia Leijola


I stand here before you today, not only because I am passionate about Mongolia, but also because, like all tech speakers, I want to change the world. Don't we all want to change the world sometime?

The way I hope to achieve this is by producing a documentary series to help Mongolians to better choose how you want to participate in this ever more globalized world. And also, to help non-Mongolian audiences better understand this ancient culture. And perhaps even, see ourselves in a new light.

But before I tell you more about the project as such, let me tell you what brought me to it.

I traveled to Mongolia for the first time in 2008 and I was struck by the fact that people here see and do things very differently compared to where I come from. I wanted to understand this further and I went on to do a masters in anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

I was intrigued by the fact that most anthropology textbooks talk about development programs more in terms of the harm they do than the good. So I wanted to find out for myself about the situation here in Mongolia.

I studied poverty, or more specifically, concepts of poverty. That means that I talked to Mongolians from all walks of life and from different backgrounds, but also to development workers from different organizations and from across all nationalities, and asked them what does it mean to them to be poor.

What I learned was that here in Mongolia traditionally, poverty is not simply about the lack of money, it is more a moral and social relation or a problem with moral and social relations. But what I also learned was that there is a huge gap in understanding between the people who work in the development sector and those who are the supposed recipients of development aid programs.

I'll give you an example. Doing my research, I interviewed many people. One of them was the head of the local branch of the particular large international development organization. To prepare for this interview, I read the report of this particular branch of this particular large international development organization produces about every country in which they do work. Now this report about Mongolia noted from the very beginning that some of the concepts that this organization takes for granted and considers universal were actually hard to translate into Mongolian terms.

During the interview, we talked about many things and the report came up a few times. Soon enough, the person I was interviewing asked if I had indeed read the whole report which I had because it was part of my research. He said to me I was very lucky. He was so busy at work, that he did not have the time to open the report let alone read it. But what I realized is that too often local realities go completely silent in favor of the targets that are set by the headquarters of these large international development organizations.

Now, where are these headquarters positioned? They are usually in a so-called developed countries. I personally do not believe that there is a single developed country on this planet. We are all as individuals, as countries, as societies, of nations, as states, as peoples, in the process of development. We are all developing.

So, what gives a certain amount of peoples, of countries, of organizations, the right or the justification to impose on another people their way of seeing the world or their values or their economic models.

I think we should instead of doing this, we should be learning from one another, and sharing the knowledge we possess. And this is what my project is about.

Now, the media has far reaching consequences and influence on all the people across this world. This is also true here in Mongolia where you will find a TV set in a ger in the middle of the Gobi desert as you would in downtown UB..

The media shapes the way we perceive the world, the way we perceive each other, and the way we perceive ourselves as well. And I've noticed the tendency amongst the younger generation in Mongolia to disregard completely ancient Mongolian wisdom and traditional ways of life in favor of the very simplistic vision the west presents of itself.

The thing is, this vision is not a complete image of how the west is. We to suffer from hardship. We have poverty. We have abuse, like we heard earlier, with drugs and alcohol. We do not possess all the answers to all the questions. We should be honoring alternative points of view.

I am producing a documentary series that is for Mongolian people in the Mongolian language and by a Mongolian team that will be looking at how people across different countries are dealing with or who have indeed dealt with in the past challenges and issues similar to those Mongolians face today. This team will be traveling to these countries so that they can see for themselves and report in their own terms what they see.

I'll give you an example just so you have an idea. For example, we can talk about mining. We all know that Mongolia is going through an economic boom on the back of the mining industry. But Mongolia is not the only country that has gone through this process or is going through this process.

If we look at the nineteenth century, Great Britian went through a great economic boom thanks to its mining industry. But when that boom went bust, people suffered severe hardship. Thousands upon thousands of people had to emigrate in order to survive.

Or we could look at Bolivia where the mining industry that has been expanding has led to political strife and social injustice.

But I am just a foreigner. I do not have the right to impose on Mongolian people what you should be looking at and how you should be looking at it.

This is why last year I organized a small competition inviting Mongolians from all across the country and all walks of life to talk about their daily lives, to talk about their daily frustrations, their daily challenges but also their desires and hopes.

It is the content of the submissions to this competition that form the thematic base of the documentary series.

Not only that, but a handful of the participants makeup the team that will be traveling to different (countries) to look at how different people have dealt with or attempting to deal with issues that are similar to those here in Mongolia today.

Normally, as we see in development today, there's a certain amount of people or organizations that are imposing their point of view or their perception or values and economic models onto another.

I propose we turn it around. Let the Mongolians look at the world in their own terms so that they can find alternative solutions to the problems that you (Mongolians) are facing.

Because, in the west, we are told "Consumerism, capitalism is the only solution to the problems we have."

Yet, it is this model of consumerism, that has led us, in Europe especially and in other western countries as well, to an economic crisis. But not only that, but an environmental crisis that has global implications for all people on this planet.

Why don't we let Mongolians decide for themselves. Make informed decisions. That way, decision makers on all levels, be they herders or mothers at home or politicians, make better informed decisions.

Because the quality of any democracy depends on the quality of information available to people.

But that's not all. It is not enough.

To present this model which is in a way an alternative model to development, I'll also be following the Mongolian team with my own team. Because this model can be adopted everywhere. And I want to present this way of looking at the world to all audiences, not only Mongolian audiences.

The other thing is, if we're looking at the world through someone else's eyes, we can also think about the problems we face daily, from a different perspective.

Not only can we look at our global system, in a different perspective but we can also look at ourselves from a new point of view.

In essence, what I am preposing is that we move from the current form of socioeconomic exploitation on a global scale, to embrace the plurality of points of view and thoughts and ways of doing things. So that we can find solutions not only to today's problems but also to tomorrow's problems. Because the solutions to today's problems will not be found in the models that have brought us to these problems. We need to embrace everybody's points of views and bring them onto the table.

What I propose is that we move into an age of mutual respect and of knowledge sharing. And this I hope is a thought for change.

Thank you.

Word List:
  • struck: to come into somebody's mind suddenly
  • intrigued: very interested in something/somebody and wanting to know more about it/them
  • gap: a difference that separates people, or their opinions, situation, etc
  • recipients: a person who receives something
  • targets: a result that you try to achieve
  • consequences: a result of something that has happened
  • tendency: they are likely to behave or act in a particular way
  • disregard: to not consider something; to treat something as unimportant
  • boom: a period when something suddenly becomes very popular and successful
  • emigrate: to leave your own country to go and live permanently in another country
  • frustrations: feeling annoyed and impatient because you cannot do/achieve what you want
  • thematic: connected with the theme or themes of something
  • essence: the most important quality or feature of something, that makes it what it is
  • embrace: to accept an idea, a proposal, especially when done with enthusiasm


Julia Leijola is driven by a fascination for humanity and the many cultures it has birthed during our specie's relatively short existence on this planet. She turned her fascination into a passion by travelling on her own around the Northern Hemisphere. As a third culture kid, she has spent most of her life trying to understand why people fail to understand each other, and how this failure shapes our international relationships in an ever more globalized world. She has worked as a journalist and photographer, and obtained a Master's degree in Anthropology at Cambridge (UK) specialising in issues surrounding development in contemporary Mongolia. Combining her enthusiasm for Mongolia and the media, she is now producing her first documentary project, which aims to provide better and more in depth knowledge to decision makers on all levels - from politicians to herders - to help them move beyond development as it stands today.