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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.

 

 

 

 

The Price of an Election: Split hopes and political ambivalence in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar

Guest Contributor13 July 2017

This post was written by Liz Fox, a UCL ESRC-funded anthropology PhD candidate affiliated to the Emerging Subjects project.

 

[The material for this blog post was collected from a variety of sources that have been anonymised. For the privacy and safety of my many interlocutors, their stories have been aggregated. It does not refer to any specific place or people.]

“Come quick! They’re giving money after all!” Baatar rushed into the ger where his relatives were sitting, discussing the Mongolian parliamentary election that was taking place that day. The road to the election had been both long and disappointing and all present were in agreement that it had been the “dirtiest” election the country had seen in its 26 years of democracy. From the start there was mudslinging, or as it is known in Mongolian, “black PR” (har pr). Each of the three presidential candidates had been accused of one scandal or another, whether it was Ganbaatar’s (of the MAHN, or Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) 50,000 KRW bribe from the Moon religious group, Battulga’s (of the AN, or Democratic Party) 44 companies and messy family life, including a Russian wife and a son connected to drugs, or Enkhbold’s (of the MAN, or Mongolian People’s Party) selling of land when he was UB mayor, his feature in two secretly-filmed viral videos that tie him to bribery and the selling of government positions, and the accusations that he is actually Chinese. Indeed, when the candidates were announced, many Mongolians said there was no one to choose from, they are all as bad as each other and that it was an “unelectable election” (songuuldgui songuul).

I arrived in an Eastern ger district of Ulaanbaatar mere days before the first round election and learned that there had been an upswing in support for Ganbaatar, the Revolutionary Party’s Candidate. For an area that had preferred the MAN over the AN in the previous year’s parliamentary election, the outright rejection of the ruling party’s presidential candidate seemed surprising; and yet, Enkhbold was said to be the worst of the worst. Ganbaatar, the outsider candidate, had managed to differentiate himself in the eyes of ger district voters from the two big party candidates as being an honest and upstanding man. Similar to the popular support that Jawkhlan the singer had galvanised in the parliamentary election a year before, this year Ganbaatar was felt to have a “heart” for the people of Mongolia. Like Jawkhlan, Ganbaatar’s lack of high level education was even seen as a bonus: “What university did Chinggis Khaan graduate from, huh?” a middle-aged supporter asked.

Two nights before the election, a ger district-dwelling family and I sat in front of the TV in a small brick home, watching the final debate. The family were open with their criticisms, tutting and shaking their heads at almost everything Enkhbold and Battulga said. They spoke back to the figures on the television regularly with a “Shaaal hudlaa!” (What a liar!) or a sarcastic “Oo saihan yarij bn” (How nicely he speaks). In contrast, Ganbaatar’s earnest propositions were followed with resounding expressions of approval, “Yag zuw!”, “Unen shvv” or “Tiishdee”. It was clear that this election had become largely driven by emotion. For those on the margins who have seen 26 year of democracy lead only to increasing inequality and economic turmoil, the fat cats at the top eating the country’s natural bounty, sweet words and promises from wealthy politicians mean little. “They’re all the same,” people repeated, “they’ll say anything and then, when they’re elected, they’ll do nothing but eat”.

While there were rumours of cash hand outs in the run-up to the parliamentary election last year, politicians also used fairly “clean” techniques in their attempts to attract votes, such as building a new road or the distribution of the Tavan Tolgoi shares. This year, however, cash was flowing everywhere. Phone calls were made back and forth and what felt like hundreds of cars descended on the neighbourhood. Suddenly the call would go around, “the car is here!” there would be a rush to check for one’s ID card and four or five people at a time would leave the ger to meet the car. After the doors closed, each person would be handed a 20,000MNT note and told, “Vote for Enkhbold! After you’ve voted, bring your little white paper receipt back to us”. The passengers would then be dropped off a little distance from the local school that served as a polling station to avoid police detection. The party workers, temporary employees who stood to gain a 300,000 MNT salary for 20 days of work, would also receive payment according to the number of ‘white papers’ they collected from voters. In some areas, parties were offering 100,000MNT for 30 papers, in other areas it was 100,000 for 5. An instant economy of white papers then sprung up: people bartered over them, sold them to one another and told each other to deliver them to so-and-so. As matters unfolded on the ground, people were also glued to Facebook checking for news. A Democratic Party car carrying 120 million MNT to be distributed to voters in Western Mongolian provinces caused a stir. It was clear that both parties would do whatever it took to win.

Ger district families were quick to take advantage of the parties’ activities. Some relatives who live in the countryside but were visiting the city had wrongly heard that they could vote anywhere. Believing they could vote in Ulaanbaatar, they didn’t return to the countryside in time for the election. That, however, did not stop them from getting in the car and pledging to vote for Enkhbold in exchange for an easy 20,000MNT. A couple residents under the voting age of 18 were able to collect the money. Every person I know who took the MAN party’s money and voted, voted for Ganbaatar. Indeed, people took great satisfaction in having out-hustled the “hustlers” (luiwerchin) who had tried to buy their votes. Although the money was a bonus and everyone chased it, there remained some ambivalence and debate over whether it was truly clean. “They’ll say they bought us poor people’s votes cheaply,” one woman exclaimed passionately, the 20,000MNT note hidden in her clenched fist, “but they’re wrong! They didn’t buy anything. We didn’t even vote for their candidate. And anyway, why shouldn’t we take the money? They sit up there eating everything without a care for us out here. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little back from what’s been stolen from us!” While there was disappointment with the electoral proceedings, no one seemed completely cynical about the election itself. People voted for Ganbaatar with their hearts and truly hoped he would win, even as they worried that with the amount of money being splashed around by the big parties, their outsider candidate would have no chance.

Polls closed at 10pm and the election circus around the bus stop began to clear. People returned home to hear the 10 o’clock announcement of the early results. There was great shock and happiness when it became clear that Enkhbold had done poorly. The local area had indeed elected Ganbaatar, despite the payments, and the countryside relatives were relieved to see that their homeland had also supported Ganbaatar, without their votes. While the AN candidate Battulga lead the race, Ganbaatar’s strong showing looked like it would force a run-off election as no candidate would reach the minimum 50% of the vote. That prospect was incredibly exciting as people felt sure in a two-horse, second-round race Ganbaatar would win. The results continued to come it as the night progressed, the family remained glued to the television until around 2am. By that point, the picture seemed clear and the large extended family one by one fell asleep in their little brick home.

The shock upon awakening to hear that in the night Enkhbold had somehow overtaken Ganbaatar cannot be overstated. Apparently, one province’s election centre had lost power during the count and when the power was reconnected, the numbers favoured Enkhbold enough to push him ahead of Ganbaatar. In the ger district, it was universally considered a fraud and a lie. People felt for Ganbaatar, they argued he had run a clean race – unable to raise the funds to distribute the kinds of cash that the other two candidates threw around – and yet, or perhaps therefore, he had lost. Some days of confusion and dismay followed. There was debate over how exactly the second round would be organised, but eventually it became clear Ganbaatar had been cut from the race: the second round would have no clean candidate.

In the days between the first and second round elections, the only positive people could find in the situation was the possibility that the second round election might encourage even bigger cash hand-outs. Ger district residents had heard from countryside relatives that up to 50,000MNT per vote had been being distributed and were excited at the prospect another cash bonus. This hope, however, was only half the story. Politically-speaking, people remained committed to Ganbaatar, or at the very least committed against the two remaining candidates. A plan began to form to submit black ballots at the very least as a protest against Ganbaatar’s stolen election and perhaps even to force a third election with three new candidates.

Rumours continued to swirl about the dark methods by which Enkhbold would assure his own victory: apparently, his party workers would collect people’s registration numbers and then ‘hack’ the electronic voting machines to ensure that those votes would go to him. Indeed, two days before the election a relative arrived at the home asking the family to write down their registration numbers and promising to give them 20,000. As it happened only two siblings were home at the time, one 19, the other 23. What followed was a tense but jovial negotiation. Their uncle tried to use his relative authority to ‘encourage’ them to write down all the eligible family members’ ID numbers, while the other two slid between positions, sometimes deferring to their absent mother’s authority (their mother being the uncle’s elder sister) telling him to ask her, and other times insisting that they be given the money up front or that they would only sell for a higher price. Eventually the uncle left to try to collect the neighbours’ ID numbers, telling the two he would be back in the evening.

The morning of the election came and went without event. The previous day the ruling party had released a sudden notice that the ‘children’s money’ (20,000MNT/month per child) that had been stopped for all but the poorest families since February would suddenly be restored: the full amount being automatically deposited into people’s accounts. Queues at the bank reached into the hundreds. For the ger district family, this development was a disappointment. As a poor family they had been collecting the children’s money every month as a vital part of their monthly income. As such, the windfall that came to richer families did not come to them at all: further proof in fact that the ruling party didn’t care about the poorest citizens. It wasn’t until the evening until Baatar burst into the ger announcing that there would be pay-outs after all. This time no car came and the eligible voters walked to the polling station. A phone call told them to wait behind a small shop that sells second-hand clothes. Then a further call told them to go behind the school. A third call then told them to vote first and collect the money afterwards. The family duly deposited their blank ballots and then began to congregate with neighbours and relatives outside the polling station. Rumours spread this way and that, and yet no money appeared. A middle-aged man told me, “It’s sad isn’t it to see how we Mongolians will run after only 20,000MNT. But what can we do? We need the money and if they’re going to give it out why shouldn’t we have some?” Tired of waiting at the bus stop, people headed home. Eventually that night the money came: another 20,000MNT each.

Despite his efforts, both black and white, Enkhbold did not win the election. Battulga defeated him and will be inaugurated today (the 10th). Ger district residents seemed to have lost interest in politics the day after the election. Some people even said, “Maybe it would have been better if Enkhbold had won: what can a AN president do in the face of a majority MAN parliament?” People were proud of their blank ballots: around 100,000 were cast across the country, but not enough to force another election. For the most part, however, things returned to normal: politicians don’t care about the ger district and their chronic absence speaks louder than the occasional sweet words ger district resident’s hear around elections. Ger district residents resumed their lives, briefly 40,000MNT richer but without any hope that positive change would be on the horizon.