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Difference Maker

People making a difference: Batdorj Gongor

In Mongolia, he shows former nomads how working together benefits everyone.

By Lee LawrenceContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 2009

New immigrants to cities in Mongolia often live in the so-called ger (or yurt) districts, where one of the first things they do is erect a fence around the patch of land the government grants them. Batdorj Gongor convinces residents to set up savings groups as a way of teaching them the power they gain by banding together in neighborhoods.

Lee Lawrence

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Ulan bator, Mongolia

Every week, Batdorj Gongor heads to the northern section of Ulan Bator, where apartment buildings and paved streets give way to row after row of dirt lanes and fenced-in plots.

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This is one of the Mongolian capital's ger (yurt) districts, named after the tents people live in until they can build a more permanent home. Since last May, Mr. Gongor has been knocking on doors and collaring passers-by.

On the surface, his pitch is straightforward. One hundred tugrik (about 7 cents) won't buy a bus ride across town or enough water to supply a family for three days. However, if every household along one block contributes 100 tugrik a day, soon there will be enough money to borrow against for emergencies or invest in neighborhood improvements.

The idea is not Gongor's nor that of the Urban Development Resource Center (UDRC), the small nongovernmental organization where he works as project manager. One of four full-time staffers, he is adapting a group-savings program developed by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, based in Thailand.

But this is not about money. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Sunaree Marshall says she discovered when she shadowed Gongor for eight weeks last summer, Gongor is using the savings group as "more of a tool than an end result. It's about bringing people together and building up the strength of the community," she says.

After only five months, resident Choijilsuren Erdenechuluun sees a difference. For years he tried to rally his neighbors to clean up the trash, he says. But it wasn't until Gongor introduced the concept of savings groups that things began to happen. Recently elected to head the association of the capital's seven new savings groups, Mr. Erdenechuluun points proudly to the clean street and the strip of concrete that serves as a sidewalk.

"People had lived next to each other eight to 10 years and not ever conversed," Ms. Marshall observes.

In Gongor's plan, one resident in each savings group goes door to door each day to collect the money. Then, every two weeks, representatives of the block's 14 or so households meet.

Gongor's role is to listen.

"He's respectful and understands where people are coming from," Marshall says. Gently, persistently, he helps them view their needs in a wider context.

In one of Mongolia's smaller cities, for example, one savings group wanted to build a playground; another wanted to install street lighting. Gongor suggested they coordinate their efforts, and now both blocks have access to a playground and lighted streets.

It all begins, he says, by establishing the savings group.

"Other countries are densely populated," Gongor explains through a translator, "therefore it is easier for them to collaborate. But here, we are scattered. We have no such habits."

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