This week’s guest speaker was Nicole Rendell who claims to be a Mongolholic after living and working in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar from November 2014 to November 2015. Nicole lived and worked at the Mongolian National Tuberculosis Program (NTP).

In her talk she made a number of interesting observations about living and working in Mongolia. Some of the key things she said were:

Nichole Rendell

Guest Speaker Nicole Rendell

“Mongolia is a country wedged between two super powers – China and Russia. It is most famous for its nomadic lifestyle, living in gers (sometimes called yurts), horses and Chinggis Khan (aka Genghis Khan, the great 12th century warrior).

The NTP is a government organisation that is administratively placed as a department within the National Center of Communicable Diseases (NCCD). As the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) adviser, it was my job to build capacity in the area of TB surveillance. This means anything to do with program data collection, data processing, reporting and research.

In practice, M&E is about the feedback mechanism where program data, is turned into information, that is used to inform decisions. It allows stakeholders to monitor disease patterns and identify areas for improvement in service delivery. Initially when I arrived in Mongolia, I was bursting with ideas that had a potentially large impact with a relatively simple implementation. Progress on these ideas was difficult due to the cultural challenges of the professional environment.

As result of these challenges, I had to readjust my expectations, about what I could realistically achieve that would be of value to my organisation. I created a lot of materials and discussed a range of ideas with the expectation that they could be drawn upon in the future – a concept I refer to as ‘seed planting’. I was also in the habit of showering my colleagues with questions anytime they were discussing work, prompting them to think more critically. The nature of the professional environment, mainly the transactional mindset, means that my colleagues did not instinctively think this way. In addition, I received positive feedback for merely showing up on time. In Mongolia, people do not feel the pressure of time. In fact, the only thing that started on time were the movies at the cinema! The director of the NTP commended me for this commitment to punctuality and felt that it provided a strong example of the professional conduct for the other staff to follow.

Personally, this was my first time working in a development role with the primary purpose of capacity building and I found it far from simple. Human skills plus financial support does not automatically equal results. As a public health professional, my year in Mongolia was an opportunity to refine my technical skills and grow in confidence towards being an expert in my field. Mongolians are exceptionally resourceful and I think this definitely rubbed off on me. I have become a much more creative problem solver and a lot more patient (at least in a professional capacity). I met some very impressive young people and was touched by the hospitality of the Mongolian people, particularly in the countryside. I look forward to seeing how Mongolia develops over the next 20 years as it cements its place in the world.”