ULAN BATOR ― On a vast expanse of grassy meadows in the suburbs, some 25 kilometers east of the Mongolian capital, a group of local teenagers shout and laugh while playing basketball and volleyball at a campsite.
As one adult tells them it is time for their next class, they wrap up their games and rush to a one-story building on top of a hill overlooking the river, the mountains and a couple of Mongolian traditional nomadic dwellings, or yurts.
The East-West Cultural Development Cooperation Council, a Korean non-governmental organization based in Ulan Bator, uses this place to teach the Korean language every year.
Assisted by a group of volunteers from Seoul, the three-day program is also designed to help familiarize them with the Korean culture and learn about vision, leadership and the globalized world.
Over 20 students from as afar as Zavkhan Province, some 1,000 kilometers west of the capital city, participated in the course.
As Korean dramas and songs are increasingly popular in the country, students following the lyrics or dancing to the music of idols such as Big Bang or Girls’ Generation are common during the break.
ECC director Lee Cheol-hee, who has led the NGO since 2007, said the Korean language program is aimed at helping the children prepare for their future in this globalized world.
“It can lead them to set higher goals for themselves, and visualize what they want to be and what to do for their country as they learn foreign languages,” Lee said.
ECC director Lee hands out certificates to students after they completed a Korean language program in Ulan Bator. (ECC)
He added that it is also to help students rediscover their own identity as Mongolians as the landlocked country makes a transition to capitalism from socialism, which can often be followed by social confusion.
In a session where the students were asked to outline their visions, almost all expressed a desire to study and work in Korea one day, then come back and contribute to the prosperity of their homeland. Their career goals ranged from professor, doctor to architect and actor after studying in Korea.
This has given ECC a sense of achievement in its work for children, as well as for Korea, whose image should further improve through such goodwill activities.
However, Lee said he feels that the future seems bleak for NGOs to remain in this country.
Mongolia has made significant economic headway over the years, thanks to its rich natural resources such as coal, uranium and rare earth, becoming what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as a “role model for other developing countries.”
Rapid growth has made NGOs become less wanted as they are usually branded as organizations that aid poor countries. And Mongolia, which saw its gross domestic product grow 17 percent in 2011, does not want to be perceived as a poor nation by the international community.
The downside of this economic progress is that it has fueled inflation and widened the gap between the rich and poor. Its basic infrastructure such as roads urgently need attention and to be upgraded.
The country is also facing serious issues such as alcoholism stemming in part from social inequality. Even the World Health Organization has recognized it as one of the main risk factors for Mongolia’s growth.
This is where NGOs can still play a crucial role in helping the country make social progress, Lee said, noting that ECC provides alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs in line with the country’s nationwide alcohol-free campaign.
However, Lee added that inflation, which reached 15 percent as of June, has made it even harder for ECC to maintain its operations as price hikes require more funds to finance its programs.
It would need to start seeking diverse channels of funding or sponsorship, which Lee expects would be difficult, especially in Korea, as there is a lack of understanding of NGOs.
“Many still see them as some sort of money-losing organizations rather than contributors to social progress and the image of Korea,” Lee said.
By Park Hyong-ki (firstname.lastname@example.org