A growing number of foreigners are coming to Mongolia to volunteer and contribute to the national development. To get insights into international volunteering experiences and problems in Mongolia, The UB Post interviewed Alice H. Y. Lee, a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong who recently visited Mongolia for a project in this area.
Alice Lee is a passionate and enthusiastic volunteer with an array of experience in various countries who also runs an NGO at her university that organizes volunteer works to support ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.
In the following interview, she talks about her project and volunteering experience in Mongolia.
I heard you’re doing a project to study volunteering in Mongolia. Can you tell me what you want to achieve through it and how it is significant for Mongolia?
I started my project to mainly see the impacts of international volunteering on local people. There are many research papers about this kind of issue at my university but they’re mainly focused on the volunteers and the benefits they get through the experience. In my case, I’m more interested in finding out if this kind of activity is really helpful to the local people and communities. I’m talking to Mongolians to try to understand how they really feel about international volunteers coming to spend time with them. The main objective of my project is to understand the local attitude towards international volunteering and figure out what kinds of improvements can be made in the future.
…Mongolia is in the middle of the development index and this type of country has a lot of things that need help with…
How are you doing your research?
I’m doing a qualitative research so it mainly consists of interviews and observations. So far, I have interviewed more than 80 people. Some of them are from NGOs that organize volunteering programs and participants like the local kids who went to summer camp and interacted with volunteers.
I’m mainly focusing my research on short-term international volunteering activities, which means that I don’t meet with people from Peace Corps and that kind of long-term programs. My key subjects are volunteers staying in Mongolia for two weeks or up to two months. This type of activity is actually called volunteer tourism because when volunteers come, they not only do volunteering work but also travel around the country. In this area, I have talked to government agencies engaged in tourism so I have a basic knowledge about Mongolia’s development in tourism and the number of tourists that come here.
What have you learned so far?
There are a few observations in Mongolia that I found interesting. Most Mongolians seem to feel positive about international volunteering. Not only the children who take part but also their parents and teachers seem to want foreign volunteers to come and teach, or just spend time with them.
There is actually an increasing trend for volunteering in Mongolia. Especially since around five years ago, there have been more individual projects here. I found that it’s hard to reach organizers of such projects because they’re more project-based. For example, let’s say a school or an organization in Hong Kong collaborates with a Mongolian organization on a volunteering project. After the project ends, the whole activity stops. A few years later, another similar project is carried out. There aren’t many organizations that run long-term volunteering activities in Mongolia. So I think it’s a little bit hard to make sustaining effects through them because they’re conducted in different places and communities.
Another thing I noticed is that individual volunteers don’t have many opportunities to volunteer in Mongolia. For example, Korean and Taiwanese volunteers can’t volunteer here unless they’re high school or university students.
…There aren’t many organizations that run long-term volunteering activities in Mongolia. So I think it’s a little bit hard to make sustaining effects
Are you saying that volunteer works in Mongolia are for specific groups of people?
Yes. This is my observation so far but the impacts seem to be pretty good. I talked to around 30 participants – mainly teenagers who got in touch with volunteers before. They said that they really liked the experience because they hardly get the chance to meet foreigners. They noted that the time they spent playing and just hanging out with volunteers from different countries was very enjoyable.
I also realized that it’s more important for volunteers to spend longer time with local people, especially kids. For example, there is a summer camp that allows volunteers and local kids to spend about two weeks together in the same place outside of the city. During this period, they have a very close connection and a lot of interaction with each other. I think this type of work is really good for building a friendship between volunteers and the local people. But then, there are some projects like voluntary teaching that involve foreign teachers to teach a few classes at a local school and then go back to their guesthouse or hotel. This kind of temporary project doesn’t work that well for both volunteers and locals. As they just teach, there’s little interaction and both sides don’t enjoy it as much.
Why did you decide to carry out your project in Mongolia?
I came to Mongolia for the first time in 2014. Many people asked me at the time why I chose to travel here but it was a totally random choice. Back then, I had just quit my previous job and had a month before starting my master’s degree program. While I was searching for places where I can do some international volunteering, I saw a program in Mongolia, which fit my schedule, and decided to come here.
Mongolia isn’t really well-known to Hong Kong people and other Asians so we have no idea how Mongolia is really like. In the past, I used to imagine Mongolia as a country with a lot of animals, grassland and nothing else but when I first came to Ulaanbaatar, I was really shocked because it was really developed with a lot of hotels and tall buildings. I spent around three weeks in Mongolia volunteering and teaching English to local kids back then. It was a really life-changing experience for me. I’m not sure why – perhaps it was because it was my first time living in nature without hot water or electricity. It definitely was a strong contrast to my usual life in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, everyone has busy schedules and there are tall buildings everywhere. The time I spent in Mongolia was really special for me. After that, I was offered a PhD program for international volunteering and that’s when I started thinking about what I really wanted to do and what kind of project to carry out.
My previous study was focused on tourism, social development and volunteering, so I was looking for a place where I can study about it more through a project and then I thought why not Mongolia? When we think about international volunteering, we often think about Thailand, Cambodia and Africa that are considered as the poorest countries in the world. But since Mongolia is a developing country, it’s neglected most of the time by other countries. I really think that people from other countries can help Mongolia develop more if they come to volunteer. So that’s my reason I chose to do my project here and besides, it’s a special place in my heart.
In the past, I used to imagine Mongolia as a country with a lot of animals, grassland and nothing else but when I first came to Ulaanbaatar, I was really shocked because it was really developed with a lot of hotels and tall buildings.
What makes Mongolia attractive for foreign volunteers?
Mongolia is a very attractive country to volunteer in. I’ve talked to many people from Asian and western countries and they agreed that Mongolia is very mysterious to us, especially because we have no idea what’s happening here. You see, the local newspapers don’t cover anything about Mongolia.
Volunteering in Mongolia is kind of fresh and new for us. Asian and European volunteers are more interested in coming to a place close to nature and far from their usual city life and Mongolia certainly can offer that. The nomadic culture is another attractive part of Mongolia for tourists and volunteers from different countries.
How many NGOs have you talked to and how many volunteer works have you participated in Mongolia?
I’ve spoken to at least 12 NGOs. Some of them work on community development projects while others provide international volunteering opportunities. As for camps, I don’t really visit a lot of them but mostly talk with the people who went there and the people in charge.
How do you get funding for your project?
The funding is mainly from my university. I applied for an overseas fund and the university gave me some funds to come here.
Is there a difference between volunteering in Hong Kong and Mongolia?
I think they’re totally different because, in Hong Kong, volunteering is very developed. Since junior high school, students are required to do volunteer work such as visiting retirement homes and doing activities for patients in hospitals. So we’re really used to this kind of activities. People become more active in doing community services when they enter university and some start their own projects that are more focused on their area of interest.
In Mongolia, the concept is still quite new. Only a few young Mongolians know about volunteering, and the opportunity to volunteer is still limited. A few NGO representatives told me that in the perspective of a Mongolian, volunteering means doing something for free of charge like a neighbor who helps for free.
How can we raise people’s awareness about volunteering and develop volunteering activities in the country?
I think it’s important to start teaching about volunteering in schools when it’s easier for children to get in touch with the concept. During elementary and secondary school, children are easily influenced by their peers and teachers. That’s why Hong Kong educates children from a young age about volunteering and encourage them to help those in need. If people learn to help others when they are young, they will grow up with that mindset and pass it onto the next generation.
Currently, the younger generation in Mongolia is trying to understand more about volunteering but because their parents don’t know much about it, they’re unable to discuss it at home. The good thing is that teenagers started to get an idea of what volunteering is and are trying to serve the community so it’ll be easier for the next generation to grow closer to the concept.
Will you conduct the same project in other countries?
So far, I have volunteered in many countries but Mongolia still gives that special feeling. I’m not sure how to describe it though.
Mongolia is in the middle of the development index and this type of country has a lot of things that need help with. For example, there are many good teachers in Mongolia but they lack methodologies for teaching. If volunteers come, they can share their teaching methods and experience, which will help the society considerably.
What kinds of challenges are limiting international volunteering opportunities in Mongolia?
I think it’s similar to the challenges faced by the tourism sector. Volunteers are able to travel to Mongolia only during the summer. When I talked to representatives from the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism, they told me that the short tourism season is a major challenge in the sector. Volunteers and tourists can visit Mongolia in the summer for about three months, which is relatively short in a year.
Secondly, I think there are some transportation problems in terms of freights, international freights and local transportation. In Mongolia, there are limited freights from different places, tickets and visas are expensive, and it’s hard for foreigners to travel around the country unless we hire a driver. I tried to take a bus but I can never do it because the routes aren’t written in English. These things are some of the difficulties faced by tourists and hinder in the development of tourism.
You have two more years to carry out your project. What do you plan to do during that time?
This is my fourth time in Mongolia. I have finished my data collection period and now I will analyze everything, maybe write a few papers on it, and write my thesis about what Mongolia can do in the future.
Some NGOs have contacted me for collaborations in the future. This isn’t related to my project but I’m personally interested in doing such activities. I’m sharing my experiences at local universities and schools so that more local students can learn more about how volunteering is done in different parts of the world. I think this is an important thing because university students are at the age to start thinking independently and they have a lot of ideas.