Once I'd entered Mongolia I could have paid a surrogate to do my traveling and photography for me. After all, I'd still have a stamp in my passport so that I could prove I'd been to that country. My surrogate might have taken a photo like this one. I'd been staying in semi-nomadic Mongol herding communities in the steppe. On this occasion I chose not to pay a guide to accompany me. I paid a tour company to arrange the logistics, but otherwise it was just me, my Mongolian phrasebook and a willingness to go with the flow — come what may.
There are many companies I could have paid to write this article for me. After all, who would know whether I wrote it myself? One such company is called EduBirdie. It was in the news last month when the BBC exposed the extent to which vloggers were promoting it to students in their YouTube videos as a surrogate for writing their essays and papers. I went to their web site and read: "The professional essay writing service for students who can't even." Not the best marketing phrase, I thought, to promote a professional writing service: I concluded that EduBirdie can't even... understand basic grammar.
Education in Mongolia has progressed at a fast rate in recent years. Literacy is now close to 100%. Literacy is a prerequisite for the pursuit of other forms of education such as engineering. The young man in this month's photo is an engineer. His ancestors were semi-nomadic herders, but he now lives in the capital. He was one of four engineers staying in the same herding community as I. After finishing work that day (they had been surveying as part of a water resource monitoring program), they invited me to join them in an impromptu archery competition.
Very few people in Mongolia have the financial resources to pay someone to be their educational surrogates. That all four engineers spoke English almost fluently told me that they did not pay surrogates to learn English for them. It was a humbling experience for me: for all my own education, I could not do their job, speak their language or compete with them in their chosen sport.
Engineering is an important subject in Mongolian schools due to that country's wealth of natural resources. Industries such as mining and construction there once depended heavily on foreign workers' knowledge and expertise. But that is changing because of people like this man. He cheated during our archery competition by firing three arrows at the same time and his colleagues duly disqualified him. But make no mistake: Mongolia is becoming less reliant on foreign engineering expertise because he did not cheat when acquiring his education in engineering.
Because I didn't cheat by paying someone to do my traveling and photography for me, it is now I, instead of a surrogate, who is educated about Mongolian engineers. The YouTube vloggers exposed by the BBC last month target students in many countries where anti-immigration fervor is at an historical high. Those of them who use companies like EduBirdie may not know that, although they will eventually have a certificate 'proving' that they have an education, if they cheat, they lose.