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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.

 

 

 

 

A Brief Timeline of the Recent Anti-Violence Movement in Mongolia

Guest Contributor21 June 2018

 

Mari Valdur is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She is currently carrying out her fieldwork looking at reproductive healthcare, gender and personhood in Ulaanbaatar

The Publicity of Non-Global Tragedies

While the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements elsewhere largely remain linked to the rights of individual women, in Mongolia, the mainstream movement against violence started in autumn, 2017, with an emphasis on the need to protect children and the responsibility, concern and emotionality of being a parent. The social and news media has been central in giving voice to the emotion-laden stories so they can reach the wider public, where they have provided a platform for people to also advocate for justice.

Surprisingly the onset of the Mongolian movement cannot directly be paralleled with #MeToo – at which core lies the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein’s long-term sexual harassment and abuse empire revealed in The New York Times’ article in October 2017. Instead, it carries similarities to the extensive international media coverage of other assault and violent deaths reported in August 2017. In that summer month, which usually tends to be somewhat uneventful in media terms, the international media reported extensively about the case of Kim Wall who disappeared after boarding Peter Madsen’s submarine in the Danish waters and the gruesome detail of her death that came to fore as weeks passed. There were several other stories repeatedly highlighted, such as the disappearance of the nine-year-old Maëlys de Araujo from a wedding in the French Alps; and seeking of court approval by the parents of a 13-year-old girl in India for their daughter to be allowed to have a late-term abortion after being raped.

The beginning of the movement against violence in Mongolia aligned with the start of a new school year after a girl was found dead in a hotel. Having gained ground primarily as mothers’ fear for their children, and ‘children being Mongolia’s future’, it soon moved onto including discussions of domestic violence. Like #MeToo, hashtags #NudeeNee (#OpenYourEyes) were adopted, but the extensive circulation of these hashtags has often been overtaken by other strands of the movement.

The Advocacy of Fear, Anger and Suffering

The following chronology looks at a range of causes that were advocated for as part of the broader anti-violence topic; And how these could been seen as having given rise to one another but also created lines of division.

1 February 2017. The current Law to Combat Domestic Violence came to force making domestic violence a punishable legal violation.

1 September 2017. The news breaks about the death of a 13 year-old girl whose body was found at a Bayanzurkh district hotel in Ulaanbaatar on 23 August. She was found with signs of violence, including sexual assault, with a fatal blood alcohol content that is later released as the cause of death by the officials. The girl’s father T. Lhagvasuren appears in the media to describe what he saw when entering the hotel room. CCTV shows that she had been picked up from a bus stop by two men. The news on television addressing this spark considerable fear, concern and compassion in parents.

October 2015. Cases of sexual assault against young children are addressed in the media. Lhagvasuren’s daughter’s case is first expanded to a scandal and later to a movement when the rape of boy younger than two years is reported. Another core story involves a 5 year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by her stepfather, taken to the emergency room and is initially turned away due to the lacked of 10,000 tugrik service fee (around £3 or 3.5EUR). In December the stepfather is sentenced to 18 years in prison. Drawing on statistics, domestic violence is given attention as the main context in which child assault takes place.

16 October 2017. Mongolian President Kh. Battulga starts working towards re-establishing the death penalty in connection to the reported crimes, providing validation and a certain outlet to anger and discontent that the reports have given rise to. The removal of capital punishment from the Criminal Code had come to effect only in July 2017.

24 and 26 October 2017. Lantuun DOHIO, a NGO established in 2012 that carries out different activities against human trafficking and domestic violence and abuse, organises two NudeeNee (OpenYourEyes) demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar. Shortly after they also create a Facebook group for the campaign that is extremely active in the last months of 2017. #NudeeNee and #OpenYourEyes are used on social media.

13 November 2017. Lhagvasuren provides an in depth account on the talk show Tsenzurgui Yaria surrounding the death of his daughter. He refutes the defamatory accounts of his daughter that had started to spread and describes the unfolding events during the past months and the lagging of the whole process in the justice system. The extreme level of distress that he reveals in this interview indicates ongoing processes of victimisation and trauma beyond the criminal act itself in a situation where democratic processes of jurisdiction and prosecution are presumed to be in some correlation with the pressures and attention to the case created by publicity.

18 November 2017. There is another Nudee Nee demonstration on Sukhbaatar Square, which is significantly bigger than the first two.

Image 1: Nudee Nee demonstration on Sukhbaatar Square on 18 November. The signs mostly address the sexual abuse of children. Photo: author

 

27 November 2017. President Kh. Battulga addresses a letter to the Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs proposing the restoring of the death penalty in cases of sexual violence, cruelty and murder of young children, linking it directly to the scandals of the past months.

Winter 2017-2018. Outdoor events come to a halt, while discussions continue online and in the news media.

8 March 2018. International Women’s Day, which is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Mongolia. A march takes place that advocates more directly for women’s rights drawing obvious parallels to the international women’s movement.

16 March 2018. Bolortuya (Beverly) Dorjsuren, a woman in her 30s, goes public with the story of a severe assault on her on 8 March that left her injured and temporarily unable to work. She posts on her Facebook timeline and the post is shared 569 times reaching the existing anti-violence groups. In the coming weeks she appears on television and social media sharing her struggles concerning the stalling of her case. Talking to Bolortuya more than a month after the attack, it becomes obvious how advocating for her case to be taken seriously and pushing for progress with it has taken over her everyday life, adding to the stress and cost of her on-going treatment. Unlike many other women who she encountered at the emergency room and police department, she acknowledges that she is in a position to do be able to do this due to her stable financial situation, support of her family and her professionally respected platform.

21 March 2018. Odgerel Chuluunbaatar establishes Huuhdiig hüchirhiilliin esreg taivan jagsaaliin alban yosnii grupp (The Official Group for Peaceful Demonstration Against Child Abuse) on Facebook. Only about a month later on 23 April 2018 it has 416,691 members. Odgerel, who has a son herself, says she created the group in reaction to increasing child abuse ahead of a demonstration the following week. She invited six other mothers to join her moderating the group and did not expect such explosive online following. None of the moderators of the group are linked to the Nudee Nee movement and advocate only against child abuse.

30 March 2018. The president compiles a draft law on the death penalty to decrease and tackle violence against children. The Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs Ts. Nyamdorj has not responded to the president’s proposal to restore the death penalty sent in November. Deputy Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs B. Enkhbayar comments at a meeting with the representatives of the Delegation of the European Union to Mongolia that the ministry has not found a legal basis for this.

31 March 2018. The largest demonstration to date addressing violence against children, No More Tolerance (Dahin Tevchihgui) takes place. It is accompanied by aggressive exchanges online about the death penalty, creating division and making some worry that the gathering could become violent.

Image 2: A photo posted on the anti-violence group of a car decorated with stuffed bears and labels that had been seen driven around on 31 March. Photo: Facebook user Happy Time.

 

9 April 2018. Directly unrelated to the movement, 3333 students wearing deels recite the poem Independence (Tusgaar togtnol) on Suhkbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar as the president attends the event.

Image 3: School children celebrating Mongolia and Mongolia celebrating children on 9 April. Photo: Kh. Orgil on peak.mn.

 

25-28 April 2018. Lantuun DOHIO in collaboration with Gallery 88 showcases clothes of victims worn at the time of their assault, artwork, personal belongings and audio at an exhibition What Were They Wearing? (Ted Yuu Omsoj Baisan Be?) taking a personal and intimate approach to individual stories and portrayal of violence. Meanwhile, also in April, Lhagvasuren’s daughter’s case is still on-going; Bolortuya continues to post on social media, get treatment and add to the number of her visits to the police department; And the number of members of The Official Group for Peaceful Demonstration Against Child Abuse Facebook group is slowly decreasing.

The Exhausting Ways of Justice

This chronological review presents a handful of events that lead towards a brief and non-conclusive outline of the unfolding the recent anti-violence movement. This movement instigated a sudden rise of public interest and involvement of those who were previously not actively advocating against violence. Therefore, it has not done justice to the important efforts of organisations that continuously work toward moving forward the legal and discourse machine.

The freedom of press is shown to be problematic in today’s Mongolia owing to private ownership and links to politically active figures (see 5 May 2018 Defacto Review). However, it is curious how heavily the ideas of democracy and law enforcement remain linked to the sourcing of public knowledge of, and attention to, the particular cases. This is done through sharing one’s struggles on television or via other media, however taxing it may be. The speed of trials is presumed to be linked to the position of defendants: if they belong to wealthy and influential families there can be quite a lot of stalling and confusion with the validation of pieces of evidence, which become relaxed in their interpretative qualities during prosecution, similarly to what Lhagvasuren describes in the interview concerning the reason of his daughter’s death.

The attention to and discussions of law enforcement have been somewhat overshadowed by the emotion-provoking and releasing appeals for re-establishing the death penalty as well as false news on the existing law of punishment. While the Criminal Code could use certain updates and additions, this becomes a secondary focus in this context, where these laws are not implemented properly, or only eventually through other lanes of victimisation for those involved in lengthy legal processes.

This post was written in early May 2018. For an alternative perspective and a high-profile rape allegations case against a Mongolian MP, D. Gantulga, please see Lily Kuo’s article in The Guardian.