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Digital Transition (and Transformation) in International Development | 1997 - 2016

UNDP Mongolia Communications Coordinator (1997-1999): David South

I launched this portal in 1997, in the middle of a major economic crisis in Mongolia. This award-winning and pioneering United Nations Mongolia development web portal was singled out by UN headquarters as an example of what a country office website should be like.

At this time, Mongolia was still recovering from the chaotic and turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy begun at the start of the 1990s, called by some "one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever" (Mongolia's Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994). There was a thirst for information: access to the Internet was still limited and access to mobile phones was just the preserve of the rich. As a legacy of the past, information, especially that about the outside world and the country’s true economic and social conditions, was restricted. During the years of Communism, even simple travel from one place to the next was strictly regulated.

While today we can take it for granted that the Internet, and mobile and smart phones, deliver the world’s information in seconds, this just was not the case in the late 1990s in Mongolia.

The UN/UNDP Mongolia development web portal addressed the urgent need to communicate what was happening in the country during a major crisis, and to transparently show what the UN was doing to address the crisis. It made critical data on the country’s development easy to find, and informed the wider world about the country and its people and culture. While the Internet had only just arrived in Mongolia, from the start the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office was experimenting with this powerful new technology to reach a global audience. This included Mongolia’s first web magazine, Ger (launched in 1998).
After the website launched in 1997, a media campaign began to inform readers of its presence. This ad appeared regularly in magazines, newsletters and newspapers.
Ger Magazine was launched on September 9, 1998 (Ger is the Mongolian word for both the traditional tent dwelling and home). The theme of youth in the transition was explored by a combined team of Mongolian and foreign journalists. The Ger Magazine project had basically three goals: first, raise the quality of journalism in the country, secondly, introduce the country to a wider global audience and, thirdly, by being the country’s first online magazine, prove the Internet was an effective way to communicate. 
Issue 1 of the magazine investigated what life was like for youth during the transition years (post-1989). Stories tackled the struggle to find work in the free market, the booming pop music scene and how it is leading the way in business entrepreneurship, reproductive health, the basics on Mongolian culture, and vox pop views from Mongolian youth.
Issue 2 of the magazine investigated modern life in Mongolia during transition. The team of journalists were hitting their stride by this issue. Stories probed the proliferation of bars and the problem of alcoholism, corrupt banking practices and the loss of savings, how the young were the country’s leading entrepreneurs, Mongolia’s meat and milk diet, “girl power” and the strong role played by women, the burgeoning new media, the rise and rise of Buddhism, and Mongolia’s dynamic fashion designers (this article inspired foreign fashion designers to embrace the Mongolian 'look' in the next season’s designs).
The UN/UNDP Mongolia homepage quickly became the top resource for development news on Mongolia in the late 1990s.
"A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be."
Consultant (1999-2017): David South

In 2000, the Kiev-based UN Ukraine team had to improve the design and capability of the mission website to handle new content and online services. There was a strong demand for information on country conditions and how to support the UN’s work (for example, on HIV/AIDS). It was a dangerous time to be involved in any online communications and the media and online communicators were routinely threatened with violence and even death.
Whilst with a UK-based international development consultancy, I worked on the drafting and online launch in 2000 of the World Bank’s Task Force on Higher Education and Society report, Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise. At the time, it was still rare to see report’s made user friendly for the world’s web audience. As a survey in 2014 discovered, a shocking third of the Bank’s publications are never downloaded, 40 per cent were downloaded just 100 times, and only 13 per cent were downloaded more than 250 times in their lifetime (The Washington Post).
As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were being communicated, the link between the powerful new digital and mobile/information technologies and development goals became explicit in information materials. The cleaner and more modern design introduced with Mongolia’s first human development report in 1997, continued in future publications and online, as can be seen in this screen grab from 2003 and that year’s human development report. The first use of infographics was also introduced in a report on the MDGs for UNDP Mongolia in 2005. Importantly, a country that had been isolated from the non-Communist world for decades, was now routinely using the Internet to tell its stories and post development data.
Human Development Infographics: Infographics have proven a useful visual aid for communicating human development concepts. This example was created for a UNDP Mongolia report during missions undertaken in 2005.
Five years prior to the MDGs deadline in 2015, the David South Consulting website went live (2010). Featuring a new branding and design, it signaled a new design phase more comfortable with developments in social media and online and mobile content sharing. Designed by Solveig Rolfsdottir, one of Iceland’s top graphic designers and illustrators, the website’s design was intentially made compatible with the new global magazine, Southern Innovator (also designed by Solveig Rolfsdottir).
The online story archive for Southern Innovator was launched by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) in 2011. Organized by theme, the stories were cited in blogs, books and reports around the world.
The new template for the United Nations e-newsletter Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched in 2011 and designed by Solveig Rolfsdottir. It included a QR code for mobile and smartphone users to connect to the Southern Innovator website.
In 2016 the mobile-friendly version of the David South Consulting website was launched.
© David South Consulting 2017