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The Potential of Citizen Groups in Ulaanbaatar

Guest Contributor28 February 2019

This blog was written based on an academic article to be published by T. Bayartsetseg and Dr. Margot Rawsthorne in 2019. Bayartsetseg is a doctoral student at the Department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy, Ghent University, Belgium; lectures in social work at the National University of Mongolia; and is a paired researcher with Dr. Rebekah Plueckhahn on the Emerging Subjects team. Dr. Margot Rawsthorne is an Associate Professor and lectures on community development at the University of Sydney, Australia.

A couple of years ago, a story of a teenager who has been cleaning the Selbe river bank voluntarily after his class hours was circulated on mass media. The story was widely spread from TV interviews to the Mongolian Ministry of Environment and Tourism as an exemplary civic contribution to environmental well-being. Driven by a personal aspiration to create a recreational spot in a one of the ger districts, another man turned the dumpsite in the ger district of Chingeltei into an artificial pool where children can steer small boats for a small fee. More similar homegrown, communitarian examples are emerging particularly as Ulaanbaatar is becoming a more divided city with contestations over land. Today the growth of ger settlements surrounding the capital Ulaanbaatar is a striking illustration of social and spatial polarization similarly found throughout East and South East Asia [1]. With increasing urban poverty (up to 40% of the population in ger district areas) and other pressing issues such as air pollution and health threats, the Mongolian national government has been narrowly focused on these issues with less attention being paid to the potentials of citizen driven initiatives [2]. Whilst it is must to focus on these pressing concerns, a more localized, nuanced political perspective provides much more hope. What is at stake for the ger district residents is their ‘right to the city’—a demand for political, social and economic recognition [3]. In addition, in the case of research conducted by the authors, more participatory habits and autonomy among the public is critically needed for more effective democracy. These demands appear to be rising through citizen groups and citizen actions in ger areas.

Citizen groups in the ger districts

People know more about financial saving groups in disadvantaged communities in Mongolia even though it is only one stream of citizen group activities in our country. ‘Citizen groups’ exist either as non-governmental organizations (NGO) or as cooperatives because their status is not yet legally determined. But it is definitely emerging as a form of civil society organization (irgenii niigem or ‘civil society group’ as we may call it in the future) in both rural and urban Mongolia. Citizen groups are less formal—similar to community-based organizations found in some other countries—and are marked through the possibility of receiving small grants through the Mongolian government’s Local Development Fund based at the respective sub-district administrative unit (or horoo in Mongolian). It is also common that they receive small-scale funds from international organizations for micro-scale environmental and infrastructural actions. In rare cases, they raise funds from its members as monthly donations. Membership is open for everyone in the neighborhood, but women dominate the membership overall by up to 80 percent. Forums, networks, councils and coalitions have started emerging in the civil society spheres of Mongolia for more ethical, collective and collaborative responses to social issues [4]. The development of self-help groups, community development associations and other groups specifically for demographic variations such as women’s, children’s and elderly groups have been emergent in several other countries within Africa and Asia [5]. Taylor and Mackenzie (1992), for example, highlighted that citizen group activities and micro management of community resources (particularly through various income-generation activities and savings groups) brought better results in comparison to any other anti-poverty interventions implemented by the governments of Tanzania and Kenya [6].

Image 1: Footpath built by a citizen group in Chingeltei district funded by the Mongolian government’s Local Development Fund. Photo by Bayartsetseg, T.

From a critical perspective, more research-founded elucidation is needed in order to reveal the multiple functions, classifications and possible contributions of civil society organizations to contemporary Mongolian society. Bumochir Dulam has noted that Mongolia lacks consistency in understanding the content and application of the term ‘civil society’ despite the fact of this term being widely used in social and political discourse not only in Mongolia but also in many other countries worldwide [7]. This is also the case with citizen groups as its members are challenged and asked by public executive bureaus what they mean by ‘citizen group’ when they approach bureaus for support and collaboration. In other cases, they can be a target of suspicion as a group of constituents representing a politician or a political party. The law on NGOs in Mongolia, approved in 1997, does not specify community-based organization or citizen groups in its provisions. In addition, there are fewer local NGOs that support community initiatives compared to those that work in more mainstream areas such as child protection, gender issues and violence against women. In many cases, the idea was initially introduced by international donor organizations such as UN Habitat in Mongolia, however, there are many local ideas and initiatives that are growing as part of greater aspirations to bring about change in peoples’ living environments. However, regardless of the concept’s origin, citizen groups are becoming an undeniable part of emerging civil society in addition to more formal NGOs and cooperatives to support the community from grassroots level.

In this timely moment of discussion to amend the law on NGOs in Mongolia, citizen groups are a form of social organization that needs to be considered, so that they can further develop legally, financially and structurally as a valid form of civic engagement in development. As a survival strategy, most capable citizen groups try to register themselves as NGOs as it allows them to participate more in community initiatives and contribute to development on a micro-scale.  Funding remains to be an influential factor for sustainability of these citizen groups as there are many cases of groups dying down after the initial excitement of donor organization funding, or from the local horoo, has stopped. Behind the curtains of citizen group funding, the clandestine interests of parliament members, horoo officials and donor organizations compete to appropriate the name of the civil society group as a symbol of their democratic efficiency. In other words, citizen groups lack ownership (in addition to funding) over what they have achieved and what they are capable of. In general, as their status is unclear, discretions involving funding and the veiled interests of horoo level bureaucrats create challenges for citizen groups but also engender politics that can divide people in and between such groups.

Image 2: Common fate of abandoned tags found in ger areas. On tag: ‘This stairway was built on the initiative of Bayarsaikhan Garidkhuu, a Member of Parliament.’ Photo by Bayartsetseg, T.

From a productivity perspective, the capacity of citizen groups is not only limited to micro infrastructural works because they can also play an important role in planning entire neighborhoods. One of the citizen groups in Songinokhairkhan district, for instance, drafted a comprehensive horoo development plan without the involvement of professional urban planners, which reflected their visions for small gardens, green areas, schools and kindergartens and even the location of their water well. The district mayor’s office endorsed the plan at that time, but, as is common in Mongolia, the effectiveness of the plan was reduced to a piece of paper when the local government structure changed with newly elected members. Another threat to such citizen driven initiatives is the politics surrounding local tender bidding for micro infrastructure development works. In some cases, tender offers from citizen groups were overridden by business entities although citizen group proposed the most cost-effective financial bid.

Developing citizen groups beyond the ‘problem-oriented’ approach

As mentioned above, ger districts in Ulaanbaatar have been predominantly framed within a ‘problem’ discourse, limiting its usefulness and generative scope for citizen participation. In other words, academic research has emphasized the fact that we tend to portray ger districts as a deficit area settled by in-country migrants with an increased necessity to develop infrastructure, to minimize health risks and to reduce the prevalence of crime and school dropouts [8]. When boxed into a ‘problem’ discourse, it is common that people resignedly accept the current infrastructurally-poor living conditions and remain passive in community initiatives. Some may withdraw from organized activities aimed towards community improvement, presuming that they cannot do anything to eradicate problems faced in the district in any way. In other words, individuals start developing ignorance and using defense and denial as a means of coping [9]. Ultimately, it becomes more difficult to recognize or foster organic or homegrown initiatives that emerge from local areas and easier to follow international practice suggestions.

Returning again to the case of the aforementioned teenage boy and the entrepreneurial man in Chingeltei district, further cases such as these can spread when residents in disadvantaged ger areas share more common aspirations and collaborate with their horoos more closely. Many Mongolians currently desire a greater sense of political agency that can effect change from a personal to a collective level. This may sound idealistic, but we need a communitarian mindset to help promote such micro movements. When Mr. Bat-Uul was Ulaanbaatar’s City Mayor, the Mayor’s Office established around 10 working bureaus to cooperate with residents in peripheral ger areas (захирагчийн ажлын алба). Unfortunately, lacking ways and means to collaborate with its residents, the functions of those bureaus were unclear and staff motivation was low. This is because local civil initiatives in Mongolia are being hindered by the heavy focus on program implementation and management of welfare payments, as well as lack strategies to work with people and informal groups like citizen groups.

Referring back to Lefebvre’s idea of the ‘right to the city’, the city has its own life, secrets and powers. In Ulaanbaatar, there is also a large amount of resourcefulness. We may need a paradigm shift from the dominant focus on planned physical structure to more flexible, inclusive and lively methods of mediating between different types of knowledge and strategies. In this effort, citizen groups are one of the social forces that play a pivotal role in invigorating ger areas’ liveliness and dynamics. The growth of citizen groups could be a way to trigger further citizen participation and community development in Mongolia in this moment of heated talk about civic engagement in development. Understanding what citizen groups are and how they function still needs further research. However, based on several successful cases, citizen groups can do more ground-up works to compensate ineffectiveness of government interventions particularly in peripheral ger areas if recognized properly. Linking citizen-driven initiatives to macro-level policy environment is vital if the government is to genuinely support citizen engagement in development. Indeed, the Government of Mongolia would benefit from cooperating with citizen-driven initiatives, where they can learn from their ‘insider’ experience as an essential step in curbing those critical issues.

 

References

[1] Fung, K., Craig, C (2017). One concept many practices: Diverse understandings of community development in East and South East Asia. Community Development Journal. 52, 1-9.

[2] Report by the Mongolian National Broadcaster, October, 2018. Accessed via http://www.mnb.mn/j/204

[3] Butler, C. (2012). The right to the city. In Butler, C (Ed), Henri Lefevbre Spacial Politics, Everyday Life and the Right to the City. Routlege, NY: USA, pp.143-159.

[4] Undarya, T (2013). State of civil society development in Mongolia. Mongolian journal of international affairs, 18, 58-63

[5] Chen, Yi, Wen, Ku.Y. (2016). Community practice at a crossroad: the approaches and challenges in Taiwan. Community Development Journal. 52 (1), 76-91.

[6] Taylor, D. R. F, Makcenzie, F (1992). Development from within. Routlege, London: United Kingdom

[7] Bum-Ochir, D (2018). Mongolia. In Ogawa A (Ed). Routledge Handbook of Civil Society in Asia, Routlege, NY: USA, pp.95-109.

[8] Kamata T, Reichert, J, Tsevermig, T, Kin, Y, Sedgewick, B. (2010). Managing Urban Expansion in Mongolia. The International Bank for Reconstruction and the World Bank, Washington DC: USA.

[8] Lkhamsuren Kh, Choijiljav Ts, Budbazar E, Vanchinkhuu S., Blanc DC, Grundy J (2012) Taking action on the social determinants of health: Improving health access for the urban poor in Mongolia. Journal for Equity in Health. 11(15), 1-15.

[8] Theunissen, T (2014) Poverty, Inequality and the negative effects of Mongolia’s economic downturn. The Asia Foundation. Retrieved from http://asiafoundation.org/2014/06/25/poverty-inequality-and-the-negative-effects-of-mongolias-economic-downturn/. Accessed 27 August 2017.

[8] Kusago T, Hirata, Sh. (2016). The evolutionary path of the 21st Hyogo Long-term Vision Project in Japan: community development, resilience, and well-being. Community Development Journal, 52 (1), 160-170.

[8] Bayarsaikhan, A (2017). Where do you dwell? Neighborhood as a determinant of school attendance in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Journal of Education and Social Policy. 4 (4): 32-41.

[9] Leipold B, Greve, W. (2009) Resilience: A conceptual bridge between coping and development. European Psychologist, 14 (1): 40-50.

 

 

 

 

Anti-offshore Movements as the Place of Political Mobilization and Discourse Setting

Guest Contributor12 May 2018

 

This piece is by Sanchir Jargalsaikhan, a political scientist and activist broadly concerned with economic and political development in Mongolia and in the Global South. Sanchir was recently a visiting scholar at the Emerging Subjects Project at UCL. His main area of research focuses on problems of late and uneven development, democratization process in post-socialist countries, issues of trade, and investment, extractivism, poverty and debt in the developing world. He has an interdisciplinary research agenda that combines political theory, global political economy, and Central Asian and Russian studies. This blog post is a continuation on Sanchir’s last entry to the Emerging Subjects Blog. 

 

Our colleagues at the Mongolia Focus blog wrote couple of posts that discussed the Oyu Tolgoi mine and the current wave of corruption investigations and arrests, most recently involving former Prime Ministers Ch. Saikhanbileg and S. Bayar. Marissa Smith’s attempt to “turn the conversation to larger systematic factors” compliments this post very well. In my last entry on the Emerging Subjects blog, I elaborated on the genesis of anti-offshore movements in Mongolia. Today, I will take up a micro lens and attempt to dissect one of these movements.

The last few years in Mongolia have been characterized by growing social discontent amidst continual economic decline. Many Mongolians who are angry about present economic conditions think that they cannot find any outlet within the political system and therefore have been more and more attracted to act in an extra-systemic manner. In the absence of effective political channels and class based political parties, competent civil society organizations must exist if widespread grievances are to be voiced. However, our socialist legacy and poorly executed transition to liberal democracy has rendered our civil society incapable of effectively voicing people’s concerns. During the state socialist era, civil society wasn’t conceived as a distinct sphere detached from and in tension with the state. It was totally controlled by the state, starting from trade unions and ending with children scout programs. As was the case with almost all state-socialist countries of that time, civil society mobilization in terms of political party development and labour union strength that formed the basis of progressive populism in many mature democracies, was absent in Mongolia. However, this fundamental weakness was not properly addressed during the transition. The assumption was that weakening the state will necessarily strengthen civil society, as if it was a zero-sum game. When the government was scaled down and withdrew from its wide ranging socio-economic obligations, an enormous vacuum was created that was filled with different forms of civil society permutations spurred by Mongolia’s growing political liberalization. Besides the international donor community,there are numerous religious and philanthropic associations operating in Mongolia. These include movements related to environmentalism, feminism, alternative lifestyle, minority rights movements, LGBT activism and many other forms of ‘lifestyle politics’. This new form of political activism has been hailed as a symptom of a novel, ‘post materialist’ world (Giddens, 1994), no more occupied with questions of the distribution of wealth.

It is commonly believed that of the 44,000 registered Civil Society Organizations (CSO) in Mongolia, about 2000-4000 of them are more or less active. Yet, the availability of numerous civil society organizations often precludes policy and advocacy stratification. What happens in practice is that no single CSO is powerful or vocal enough to attract an adequate response from the general publicor the government. Ottaway’s (2000) take on CSOs describes Mongolia’s current situation better than I could. In her view “many CSOs act as trustees rather than genuine representatives of the constituencies on whosebehalf they lobby, and therefore, it is not clear that they have very strong roots in society.” The result is a weak civil society that is largely dependent on international organizations for assistance with operations and finances and/or on different vested interests. This is the structural reason for very low levels of actual political participation in Mongolia. This feature of Mongolian politics distinguishes it from many developed countries where civil society organizations, such as trade and labor unions have become mediators between political parties and working-class voters. Absence of effective mechanisms to articulate and represent people’s interests has made ordinary voters prone to populist politicians and parties. Mongolian civil society leader Undarya (2013) summarizes the state of the field perfectly:

“… at the threshold of anew decade wrought with risks as well as opportunities due to the mining boom, the field [civil society] is not adequately equipped to play the crucial role it needs to play – toempower citizens and communities to stand up against corruption and humanrights violations, to hold government and private sector accountable and chart amore equitable course of development. To play this role that only civil society canplay, consistent policy measures are needed to strengthen the field.

 

People’s Anti-Offshore Committee or Ard Tumnii Onts Zövlöl’s (ATOZ):

Figure 1: Mandate for entry.

 

From September 2017 to February 2018, I visited several meetings and forums organized by ATOZ, a large movement that advocates bringing embezzled money from offshore accounts. From the outset, I became convinced that people participating in these events are casualties of various social, political and economic processes which, over time, have been internalized and reproduced in a very defeatist form of dissent – deep anger towards elites, democracy, and anything in between. The general feeling of being left out of what “was theirs” and what “was promised” rendered these discussions very inefficient from an advocacy and political stand point.

 

Figure 2: “One of my brothers is quite active in this petty ATOZ movement. But he doesn’t know term “offshore” and instead calls it “ovt shaar.”

 

What was clear was that these movements had very little resemblance to the ones lauded or ridiculed on social media. There have been several different waves of perception concerning these types of movements. The rise of environmental NGOS’s and movements that opposed proliferation of mining activities throughout the country, was often labeled as a rise of “slackers” and “racketeers”. The famous publicist Baabar went as far as describing them as “600 шантаажчин” or “600 racketeers.”

 

Figure 3: “ATOZ is the last chance to save our people!”

 

Another trend is to describe the people engaged in these activities as types of saviors and imbue them with responsibilities far exceeding their true potential. Since political parties do not represent Mongolian citizens interests and do not  allow people a platform to air grievances, these movements give a sense of hope that non-systemic movement could garner enough support to influence decision-makers or even contest an election.

 

Figure 4: A delegate is presenting and reading a poem.

 

The second main point that I observed was the division between ATOZ members into groups according to different potential strategies. One group was quite hesitant to approach politicians and was clearly suspicious of any type of “ulstorjilt” or doing politics. This group organized its meeting in a large hall that is owned by National Labor Union. Delegates from many aimags /provinces/ districts were allowed to present at the main podium along with main speakers. In between these speeches, singers performed and pledged their support for the cause. In order to speak on the podium people wrote their names on the queue spreadsheet paper and presented in that order. The time allotted to them was on average longer than at any meeting or gathering that I have attended in recent memory. Many participants delivered energetic and fiery speeches that concerned structural problems affecting Mongolian society as opposed to concentrating on specific issues such as offshore practices.

 

Figure 5: Tax specialist from Switzerland is presenting.

 

The other group’s meeting was held two weeks later at another hall that was rented. This group was explicitly working with the current president Kh.Battulga and his administration on the issue of offshore money. At the event I attended, two tax professionals who were invited from Switzerland through President’s Secretariat gave very technical presentations. The general impression was that a set of technocratic steps could be a way to fight tax evasion through offshore schemes. The audience was allowed to ask questions only after all the presentations were done and very little time was left. One person summed up the lingering feeling that was left at the end of the meeting, this is “politics as usual, where knowledable people come in, preach something and leave without trace.”

 

Figure 6: “Lets save our state from traitors [offshore account holders] and release our people from MANAN [MANAN or cloud refers to dominant two political parties stranglehold on Mongolian politics] bondage.”

Two overarching themes dominated both of these events: skepticism about foreign/hybrid interests, which was perceived primarily as a reason for the loss of national identity and sovereignty; and skepticism about politics, elites and democracy as well as about politicians embodying these processes, who are increasingly believed to only protect their own interests. Skepticism about loss of national identity and national independence arises from two interrelated suspicions. The first suspicion concerns the suspected widespread influence of foreign interests, be they government sponsored or corporate and the hypothetical infiltration of Mongolian society and politics in particular, by hybrids. The second suspicion was underlined through very colorful comment by one of the presenters at the ATOZ meetings. According to him: the “Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the Democratic Party(DP) are both skeletons and I am proud that I denounced my membership years ago. Glue, wood and a horn make up a bow.  Thieves, bandits, and prostititues make up [modern political] parties.” These suspicions have been frequently used by different political parties at an increasing rate that consequently reinforces latently held beliefs and worries by repudiating claims of politicians in vicious negative feedback spirals. These trends found its clearest manifestation during the 2017 Presidential elections and are likely to persist in future.

 

Figure 7: Discussion during the interval.

However, a parallel theme that I was able to observe as I was participating in ATOZ meetings and demonstrations was that sense of many disengaged or disenfranchised people finding solace and community with one another. People were donating substantial amounts money [by their standards] to the cause and participating with great vigor and energy. A lady from Khovsgol province in North-Central Mongolia even volunteered to work as a secretary if ATOZ set-up an office in Ulaanbaatar. What was even more evident was people’s desire to understand and/or modify complex socio-economic terms built around a technocratic discourse. One delegate from a western province came up with an ingenious idea. According to him, “changing the term off-shore to “ovt shaar”” [cunny bastard] would “make it more relatable” since any person who owns an off-shore account is by definition a thief and bastard. Taking these different aspects of the movements into consideration begs the question – is it possible to attribute these movements and their underlying reasoning to only material or political motives? What if these movements play parallel functions and acquire their own life with a different internal logic? From this point emphasizing non-strategic aspects of protest, such as its discursive potential and subjectivities of different actors, certainly complicates the idea of rational social movements. They direct us to pay more attention to the varied aspects of the action framework of these movements.

 

References

Giddens, A. (1994). Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ottaway, M. (2000). Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.