Badruun Gardi on Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts

​Badruun Gardi is the founder and CEO of GerHub, a nonprofit social enterprise that seeks to find innovative and creative solutions to some of the most pressing issues in the ger areas of Ulaanbaatar. Previously, Badruun worked as Executive Director of the Zorig Foundation, a leading non-governmental organization in Mongolia that focuses on good governance, youth and education, and community development. He serves on the boards of the Institute of Engineering and Technology and American University of Mongolia. Badruun is an alumnus of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program and the inaugural class of the Asia Foundation Development Fellowship. Badruun holds a BA with a double major in Psychology and Communication from Stanford University. He spoke with Erica Rawles CMC '17 on March 29, 2017.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Mr. Badruun.

Can you describe your background and how you became interested in working in the ger districts in Ulaanbaatar?

I was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar, but did the last three years of high school in Arlington, Virginia in the U.S. I did my undergraduate education at Stanford and the summer between my junior and senior year I got a grant to do research in Mongolia. My major was psychology with a focus on cultural psychology, so the topic I chose was interviewing ger district residents. I was always fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures. Coming from Mongolia, I wanted to go more in depth in understanding people's mentality and then compare that to other cultures as well. The reason I was interested in doing the work in the ger districts is because they provide insight into an interesting social segment. The residents of the ger districts have moved to the capital city and have become sedentary, but at the same time they’ve held onto the ger, a key relic of our nomadic herding past. Gers [or tents] are really meant for mobility and are suitable housing if you are constantly moving around, but residents in the ger districts have settled down and still live in the gers. I was doing research, talking to residents and finding out the reasons for their move from the countryside into the city. It was incredibly fascinating.

When I graduated I returned to Mongolia and started working at the Zorig Foundation, an NGO which promoted education by working with youth, running scholarship programs, and so forth. But the NGO also had a lot of projects on ger districts. I was at the foundation for five years and the projects that interested me the most were those in the ger districts. 

When I left the foundation I was thinking about my next steps and where I could have the biggest impact. The biggest challenge we faced as a country, not just as a city, were the issues arising in the ger districts in Ulaanbaatar. Such a large segment of the entire country lives in the ger districts. Mongolia’s total population is 3 million and we have about 1.5 million in the city. Of that 1.5 million, over 60 percent live in the ger districts, so over a quarter of the entire country is living in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. That is the single largest segment in the entire country, but it is also a segment that is being left out from a lot of the recent economic growth and development. So it’s vital that we address the challenges that people are facing in the ger districts. If we go in the same direction we have been heading without addressing the challenges, we might be in a situation where in the future there are lots of conflicts related to the widening gap between the rich and the poor.  

What does your organization, GerHub, do to address the rapid migration of former nomadic herders into the capital of Ulaanbaatar?

GerHub is a nonprofit social enterprise that was established in April of last year. We are still getting the hang of things and learning to understand where we can be most impactful. Our purpose and focus are very broad. We are not just focused on heating or sanitation or water. Generally, we want to find innovative solutions to the key challenges in the ger districts, which could really mean anything. 

One of the main things that we have to address is the lack of infrastructure. The vast majority of people in the ger districts have access to electricity, but no one has access to indoor plumbing. There is no sewage or running water. Most importantly, there is no access to central heating. The apartment areas in the city have a central heating system. Hot water is piped throughout the city and apartments are heated that way. In Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital in the world, temperatures regularly reach below 40 degrees Celsius in the very long and cold winters. Heating is the main concern for everyone. In the ger districts because there is no access to central heating, close to 200,000 households are individually burning unrefined, raw coal to survive. As a result, Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted cities in the world in terms of air pollution and the particulates PM 2.5. 

GerHub is trying to look at things in a very creative manner. We try to run many different projects in parallel and test out lots of different ideas. Say we do 10 projects, nine may fail, but if one succeeds, then that’s a success. Then we try to build off of that. Our main goal is to generate lots of ideas and pick the ones that we think are plausible and then take them to the market. I mentioned the infrastructure issues, but within all of our projects, we have a lot of social components as well because the challenge is not just the lack of infrastructure. 

For example, one of the key things missing in the ger districts is the sense of community. It dates back to our nomadic herding past. Herders live in very small numbers–just them and their immediate family and maybe close relatives. You can go miles and miles without seeing anyone. City living is such a new phenomenon. Most people have only been living in the city just for the last 20 to 30 years. This sense of community, which is so strong in a lot of other East Asian cultures where people have long lived in cities, is something brand new for us. Even the word community does not exist in the Mongolian language. We have to make sure that the residents in the ger districts are forming those kinds of social bonds with one another and have the desire to improve their neighborhoods and communities. That means creating both the physical infrastructures that allow for more interaction between residents, with more public spaces, and providing incentives for residents to interact with one another. 

What are some of your current ongoing projects?

We have two students from Stanford University in Ulaanbaatar right now. They’re from Stanford's Design School and they are from a course called Design for Extreme Affordability. This course really influenced my thinking when establishing GerHub.  They develop affordable products and services for people in communities in countries all around the world. This academic year we have one team of students looking at tackling a challenge that we have presented to them, which is how can we affordably keep a ger warm. So they have been doing a lot of background research back at Stanford, but two students have come to Ulaanbaatar for a two-week trip to better understand the context and the usage of the potential product. We have been doing a lot of fieldwork and interviewing residents. The students did a homestay in the ger district. We are meeting with lots of stakeholders and trying to understand more in order to generate more ideas.

We also have an ongoing project with Rural Urban Framework which is an architectural center based at the University of Hong Kong. The project that we started with them was GerHub’s first ever project, called Incremental Urbanism. It tries to develop ways in which the ger district could become more developed incrementally. One of the first concepts we developed is the concept of the “ger plug-in,” which is a structure that would plug-in directly to the existing ger. It would have toilet, shower and heating systems, with under-floor heating. We are currently in the process of constructing the first working prototype of the plug-in in the plot of a ger district resident. That family will move into the plug-in and test it out for an entire year. We will do lots of studies on how the structure is performing and we’ll see what works and what doesn’t. 

What are the biggest political and socioeconomic problems that recent migrants face after having moved from rural areas to the country’s capital?

Besides the infrastructural challenges, we face lots of social issues. One of them is the high level of unemployment in the ger districts, which does not necessarily mean that everyone is just sitting in their home doing nothing. There’s a lot of informal work done. People are trying to survive and make ends meet. A lot of employment is seasonal, like construction, for example. It employs a lot of people, but for a limited season in Mongolia because of the cold. There are really only five months out of the year where construction can be done. 

Unemployment is a huge issue especially for someone who just moved from the countryside into the city. A nomadic herder in the countryside basically does not spend any cash. It is a self-sustaining lifestyle. Everything is dependent on the livestock. Herders have everything they need with them. They monetize the wool of the sheep, or the cashmere from the cashmere goats. However, in the city there is no longer access to the livestock and everything requires cash on hand. For example, herders burn the dung from their livestock in the winter, so they basically have an unlimited amount of fuel for heating. That is no longer the case in Ulaanbaatar, where one has to buy coal for the stove. It is a very different situation that people have trouble adjusting to. It requires that more and more people need to have the skills that employers want.

Many herder migrants cite the dzud–extremely cold winters and extremely dry summers–as reasons for leaving their rural nomadic life. How do you foresee the ger districts and the history of the herding culture in Mongolia changing as the climate continues to change and high numbers of people are expected to move to the capital?

A dzud is a very harsh winter and a lot of time it follows a very dry summer when there is not a lot of rainfall and grass does not grow much. The livestock does not have access to a lot of food and when winter hits, large numbers of livestock perish. We had a bad dzud in 2000 for three years straight. Just recently from 2009 to 2010, we also had a dzud that was devastating. People do say that a dzud is the reason they move into cities. People lose their entire livestock, which is their entire livelihood overnight. When that happens they basically have no choice but to move to a settlement. That does not necessarily mean they move to the capital city. They may first move into the provincial center and then later a larger city. The migrants in the capital, for example, do not all come from being a nomadic herder. Many are coming from other towns within Mongolia. The second largest city has a total population of 90,000, so there is a huge difference between the two.

Over the past 15 years, the annual rate of migration into Ulaanbaatar has been about 30,000, so every three years the size of the second largest city moves into the capital. The city municipality expects the annual rate to be 40,000 for the next decade. That is going to put a lot of strain on the city and its resources. We are already pretty much at full capacity when it comes to energy and electricity usage. Our freshwater system is under strain; there are issues with sewage and waste. All of these things have huge repercussions if they fail, so we have to make sure we are addressing early on the problems that will arise in the future. 

In terms of the herders in the countryside, we still have a relatively large portion of the country living in a lifestyle that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The percentage of the population herding has fallen to about 30 percent. We are starting to see herders with much larger herds of livestock. Previously, we considered a herder very wealthy if the herder had 1,000 livestock, but now we are starting to see herders that have 10,000 and more. So there is a higher concentration of livestock and fewer herders. The total number of livestock is at a historic high this year, having reached 60 million heads of livestock. Just 30 years ago, the number was 20 million. 

In terms of the ger districts, we need to start having a clear vision for how we want to develop them without taking reactionary measures that act as BAND-AID solutions to problems that are already there. We need to foresee the future and take measures before the problems arise. We have already failed with air pollution. We’re the most polluted city in the world, which is certainly a title we don’t want to have. 

How is the Mongolian government addressing the pollution and integration problems for residents of the ger districts? Have they presented solutions for migrants to learn skills for job opportunities or electrical heating systems?

The government is mainly focused on providing infrastructural solutions. The government has not done something that is that effective to help ger residents learn skills and find employment. The latest measure I can think of that the government took was for air pollution. For nine hours at night, electricity is free of charge for certain areas in the hopes that people will adapt more to electrical heaters. Coal is very cheap and abundant in Mongolia, so everyone uses coal to heat their gers, but the hope is that people will use more electric heating when it is free. 

The government collaborates with international financial institutions, like the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank to develop pilot projects on how to develop the ger districts on affordable housing. Still, a lot of these projects are taking a bit too long to develop and we have to understand that every year there are 30,000 to 40,000 people moving into the capital. We have to work extra hard to make sure that everyone is on the same page, trying to solve the same issues. For that to happen, it is important for the projects to cover a large base instead of just a one-term project that maybe solves an issue for 10,000 residents and that’s it.

One of the key things that needs to happen is regional development. Migration into the city cannot be taken as a given because if it is, in a few decades everyone will be in one city and that is just not sustainable. Therefore, we also have to make sure that we are strategically developing the different regions in Mongolia to incentivize people to stay there. If the government can create employment opportunities for people to strive and succeed in the rural areas, then I do not think people will want to move to the capital. It is a very competitive environment and there are a lot of challenges in Ulaanbaatar that residents who move into the city do not fully understand initially. A lot of people come misinformed about what it entails to live in Ulaanbaatar. If more and more people understood the real challenges and opportunities that exist in the city, I think people would make much more informed decisions as to whether it's worth it to come or not. 

Can you talk about your partnerships with Rural Urban Framework at the University of Hong Kong and Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability? How do these partnerships help the mission of your organization?

Those partnerships are really at the core of what GerHub is trying to do. They have the technical expertise to develop products, which is why we need these partners. Universities are a natural fit because university students and professors are interested in tackling issues that are new to most people. Not many people know about the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. At a grand scale, if you can do something that is innovative in the ger districts, you can also really quickly change the lives of a lot of people and affect an entire country. The potential to do that is always attractive, especially for a university audience. We have partnered with the University of Hong Kong, Stanford University and Columbia University. We also partner quite a bit with local universities and organizations. These international organizations are able to provide leading expertise and cutting edge thinking, but we have to make sure the local context is also provided to serve as a bridge to understanding the residents and users of our products. Our goal is to develop more of these local partnerships.

I’m really intrigued by the architecture and design aspect of your organization. How does your organization take architecture and design into consideration when thinking of the difference between nomadic and urban cultures for recent migrants in the ger districts?

I am personally quite fascinated by design and architecture. Whatever we do, it has to be very functional. However, at the same time, the design and aesthetic value of the product are incredibly important as well. It’s not just cut and dry functionality that people are looking for. In the end, users are looking for things that appeal to them. I think it is very important that we do things with all sides covered. A lot of organizations make the mistake of creating something that will not accepted by people because it is big and clunky. It may function well but if it does not have good interface or the residents are unable to interact with it well, then it’s not going to be used. Therefore, it’s so important that whatever project we do is always interdisciplinary. 

What are the most valuable lessons you and your colleagues have learned in working in the ger districts in Ulaanbaatar?

One of the key things I’ve learned is that understanding the full context of how something came to be is extremely important. We have worked to understand historical context, tradition, lifestyle, how people are dealing with issues and the sense of pride that people have. It is so important that we look into everything and do not think of design as an independent activity. We have to understand the mentality of the end users. To do that, it is so vital to build trust with the people that we work with–the international partners and the communities. Everything that happens is based around the trust that people have for one another, trust in the process and trust in the alignment of the vision that people have. This requires time. Trust allows for much freer exchange of information and allows people to be open with one another to get at the core of what we are trying to do. If you just go to random strangers and ask a very inquisitive and deep question, they are not going to tell the honest answer; a lot of times they say what they feel you want to hear, but it is so important that we get at the core of every issue that we are trying to solve, and that requires a lot of trust.

Is there anything you’ve learned by talking to members of the community that has surprised you?

There is always a whole lot that surprises me, especially when having long and in depth conversations with the residents. Even within Mongolia there is a big variety of people. Mongolia is generally a homogenous society–we do not have many ethnic differences or many religious differences—but there is a huge difference being from a western province or an eastern province. A lot of times when we have these conversations, we see the differences that people have and the different reasons people chose to move to the city and how they are going about trying to improve their lives there. 

One thing that has always stuck with me is everyone has a strong sense of pride. No one wants to feel like he or she is failing or not doing well. That is just human nature. It is not necessarily specific to Mongolians or ger district residents. Asking questions in the right manner is a very delicate process when trying to get at core issues. To understand the pride that people have is to better understand how to approach dealing with these tough issues and not pigeonhole people. I don't know if that's something that surprised me, but it is so prominent in all of the conversations that we have that it always sticks out. 

Erica RawlesStudent Journalist
Featured Image Source: Billy Macrae Photography —
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