X Close

Emerging Subjects Blog


Emerging Subjects of the New Economy: Tracing Economic Growth in Mongolia


Recap of ‘Mongolian-Made’ Capitalism Workshop

By Lauren Bonilla, on 9 December 2016

What forms of capitalism are emerging in Mongolia?  How capitalist is Mongolian capitalism?  These are questions that an interdisciplinary group of scholars associated with the Emerging Subjects project at University College London and the National University of Mongolia (NUM) explored at the workshop, ‘Mongolian-Made’ Capitalism, held at the Mongolia-Japan Center in Ulaanbaatar on November 16th.  The goal of the workshop was not to produce a definitive answer about what capitalism ‘is’ in Mongolia.  Rather, the workshop explored the ways in which capitalist economic activities have become part of many Mongolian peoples’ everyday lives, and how this in turn shapes capitalism more broadly.

While we called the event a ‘workshop’ during planning, in actuality it felt more like a conference given the large number of people in attendance and the quality of research material presented.  Expertly organized by Rebekah Plueckhahn and Bumochir Dulam, the workshop brought together junior and senior researchers from disciplinary backgrounds including anthropology, economics, geography, and sociology.  As Rebecca Empson explained in the introduction, the workshop served to feature aspects of research conducted within the larger Emerging Subjects project, especially collaborations between researchers at UCL and the NUM.  Because the workshop occurred a little past the halfway point of the Emerging Subjects project (2014-2018), and followed many months of fieldwork in Mongolia, it provided a chance for us to present initial findings and get feedback from others before the next phase of analysis, writing, and publication.

Audience 3

Over 100 people attended the workshop, including a large number of undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at NUM, as well as faculty from other university departments, researchers, journalists, and politicians.  Workshop panels were chaired by a wonderful group of university professors and public leaders: S. Munkhbat (NUM, Political Studies Department), B.Tuvshintugs (NUM, Economics Department), and Ts. Delgermaa (Ministry of Environment and Green Development, Director of Onon River Authority).

In addition, interlocutors involved in the research of Emerging Subjects’ project members – such as herders, mining investors, entrepreneurs, and environmental activists – came from Ulaanbaatar and the countryside to attend the workshop.  The diversity of backgrounds and the availability of simultaneous English and Mongolian translation during presentations contributed to lively engagement among those in attendance, especially during tea and meal breaks.

Tea break



Making Capitalism

Rebekah and Bumochir kicked-off the workshop by calling attention to the varied meanings of capitalism, both as a theoretical concept and as an empirical experience.  Rebekah drew theoretical insight from scholarship on the heterogeneity of capitalist practices, highlighting how capitalism is never a complete project, but always something that is being constructed through the interaction of local and global processes.  She explained that the workshop presentations demonstrate the concrete, grounded ways in which capitalism is constantly made and remade through social practice and engagement with the material world.  Attending to the specifics of capitalism in this manner is quite different from approaches that tend to treat capitalism as an abstract background context from which economic activities and interventions take place.

Bumochir’s presentation extended these points by critiquing the notion that capitalism is a singular as well as recent economic form.  By tracing the long durée of capitalism in Mongolia, he explored how practices associated with capitalism, such as private property ownership, wealth accumulation through debt and usury, and market integration have deep historical roots in the country, particularly during the period of independence in the early 20th century.

Bek and Bumochir

From this overview we also learned that Mongolians have long been co-creators, not just recipients, of capitalism.  I built on this idea in my discussion of the active role played by Mongolian individuals in developing the extractive industry as a pillar of the market economy following Mongolia’s democratic transition.  I. Byambabaatar further elaborated this theme by illuminating the diverse non-capitalist economies that proliferated in Mongolia following the mainstreaming of national neoliberal economic politics in the 1990s.  He detailed how activities he termed ‘survival assemblages’, such as trading animals skins and scrap metal, or mining for gold, continually flourish in the midst of capitalism, perhaps enabling its very existence.



A Capitalist Continuum?

For some Mongolians, the fact that the economy is a mix of economic forms with varying degrees of market, state, and individual influence seems to present some ideological and practical challenges.  G. Munkherdene introduced us to the rise of pro-capitalist intellectuals in Mongolia who seek to both conceptualize and create ‘genuine’ capitalism as opposed to the ‘wild’ or ‘primitive’ (zerleg) capitalism that is often said to characterize the country’s volatile economy.  Through the publication of western books about liberal economic theory, and the high level of interest among groups of young people to read and discuss these books, he argued that there is the sense that Mongolians could, and should, model a ‘genuine’ capitalism that exists elsewhere (though namely in America).

Tea break 4

This view of the Mongolian economy as being on a linear path stretching upwards towards an economic ideal seems to be prevalent not only among these intellectuals, but also among Mongolians more generally.  For instance, following the talk I gave based on research with S. Tuya about pre-election gifting strategies among political candidates, a number of attendees variously asked whether the giving of gifts like noodles or cash before an election is a corrupt symptom of a kind of ‘embryonic’ experience of democracy and capitalism.  One person questioned whether these practices will persist as Mongolia becomes “more developed” and “less like America 50 years ago”.

The Generative Nature of Capitalism

While tracing economic trajectories and comparing economic forms in Mongolia to elsewhere has value analytically and in terms of policy-making, many of the presenters at the workshop challenged an evolutionary approach to the economy that presumes the existence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ stages of development.  Instead, there was an interest in capturing and understanding the generative quality of capitalism to bring about new social, economic, biophysical, and political worlds (an orientation common in current scholarship in economic anthropology).

Bayartsetseg and Rebekah Plueckhahn’s collaborative presentation illuminated the capitalist landscapes that are coming into being in the ever-changing ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. They showed how the strategies people employ to obtain land possession rights and access to infrastructure– such as constructing wood fences or occupying land through the tactical placement of one’s home or business – is transforming the material, legal, and commercial dimensions of land around the city. According to them, everyday strategies are not simply responses to capitalism, but means of creating landscapes that are productive of new forms of economic activity and ways of living.

Bayartsetseg Bek

Also highlighting the strategies employed to generate economic activity was C. Narantuya and Rebecca Empson’s interdisciplinary examination of the popularity of business groups in Mongolia.  Given the current climate of economic crisis, where the private sector is struggling to access cash and repay mounting debts with little support from the government, they discussed how informal groups formed between small and medium enterprises across diverse sectors like mining, catering, and construction create potentials for sustaining business through the trading of resources like tenders, contracts, contacts, and materials.  This, in turn, shapes the structure of business in Mongolia, whereby group alliances can be more a matter of ensuring survival than profit accumulation per se.



Capitalisms’ Risks and Crises

While capitalism can present new possibilities, the workshop also highlighted the risks and crises that are inherent in capitalism as a restless and often ruthless form of economy.  For Mongolia, the nature of risk and crisis seems to be growing as a result of Mongolia’s recent embrace of foreign debt.  This was the topic of H. Batsuuri’s talk, which analyzed Mongolia’s high levels of public and private debt.  He argued that debt accumulation in Mongolia, particularly by private enterprises, has become dangerous because debts are dominated in foreign currencies rather than the depreciating tugrik.  He suggested that a looming debt repayment crisis may be far worse than what is portrayed by the government and the media, with few long-term solutions in sight.


Increasing financialization has thrust Mongolia into global circuits of debt and accumulation.  It has also changed the scalar orientation of people’s lives.  D. Byambajav demonstrated this in his talk about herders living in the vicinity of the Oyu Tolgoi mega-mine in the Gobi.  He discussed how herders have lodged complaints about mining-induced environmental impacts with the IFC, which has financed the project operated by Rio Tinto.  While large-scale mine developments have contributed to experiences of livelihood and resource dispossession in the Gobi, he shows that it has also ushered in new opportunities and challenges to address these experiences at transnational scales.

Byamba Mining 3

Hedwig Waters’ talk revealed in ethnographic depth what it feels like to live the contradictions of capitalism on Mongolia’s geographic and economic edge.  Documenting her recent fieldwork in Khalkh Gol along eastern Mongolia’s Chinese border, she shed light on the growing discontent among rural people as they negotiate the surge of ‘outsiders’ from Ulaanbaatar, China, and elsewhere seeking to turn a profit from their land through export agriculture, oil development, and illegal border trade.  Hedwig illuminated how residents of Khalkh Gol are questioning the current political and economic status quo using language that bears striking resemblance to the grassroots populist protesters who supported Donald Trump in the US election because of his purported commitment to protectionism and promise to bring about something new.



Other Possibilities

The topic of what economic possibilities exist for Mongolia (and elsewhere) featured at the end of the conference.  We were honored to have former parliament member and Minister of Environment and Green Development, S. Oyun, wrap up the workshop with a discussion of the need to move beyond economic activities that privilege growth and profit at the expense of human and environmental well-being.  Drawing on the new climate economy concept, Oyun made the argument that Mongolia has the potential to move away from a market- and export-oriented economic structure and lead the development of other industries, like those that harness intangible and intellectual assets.

Yet, as many speakers and participants noted, one of the challenges that seems to persist for Mongolia is the failure of legal and political systems to uphold and put into practice progressive measures that would foster diverse and more viable livelihoods, environments, and economies.


What’s Next?

Following the workshop, a few media outlets in Mongolia covered the workshop.  The UB Post wrote a story in their print version, Büro 24/7 interviewed Bumochir, and TV9 featured an interview with H. Batsuuri for their Daily News Program.  In the coming months, presenters will transform their talks into articles that we plan to publish in a special issue of an academic journalWe also anticipate that the collaborations that have begun between scholars at UCL and NUM through the Emerging Subjects project will be just the beginning of long-term research partnerships.

For more information about the workshop, feel free to contact the organizers, Bumochir Dulam (b.dulam@ucl.ac.uk) and Rebekah Plueckhahn  (r.plueckhahn@ucl.ac.uk), or download the Workshop Program.







Many people contributed their time and effort to make the workshop a success.  Special thanks goes to the National University of Mongolia’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.  In particular, we extend sincere appreciation to: Ts. Tsetsegjargal, the chair of the department; members of departmental staff, D. Dolgorsuren, M. Oyundelger, M. Erdene, and Sh. Uranchimeg; and students, B. Erdenezaya and B. Doljinsuren.  G. Munkherdene also provided invaluable last minute assistance.  Finally, we are grateful to the National University of Mongolia, the Japan and Mongolia Culture Center, and the Puma Restaurant.    

All photos © B. Doljinsuren.


Social Exclusion in the Ger Districts of Ulaanbaatar

By uczipm0, on 24 June 2015

This post was written by Terbish Bayartsetseg, a lecturer of Social Work at the School of Arts and Sciences at the National University of Mongolia.  Bayartsetseg has been involved in a range of projects relating to community development practices.  She is an affiliate researcher on the Emerging Subjects project and is a paired researcher to Rebekah Plueckhahn.


Urbanization and expansion of ger districts in Ulaanbaatar

Sedentary culture as we now know it in Mongolia began quite recently. Scholars who have studied urbanization in Mongolia agree that this began in the second half of the 20th century.[1] Other scholars refer to the 1700s or the times of the Ikh Khuree when discussing people shifting from nomadism to settlement living in Mongolia.[2] By 1960, it was reported that construction developments in Ulaanbaatar city attracted rural populations like “a magnet”[3] because of Ulaanbaatar’s employment, business, and commercial opportunities. Urbanization processes were exacerbated by the 1990 democratic movement and transition from socialism to a market economy in Mongolia. Furthermore, the first democratic Constitution of Mongolia of 1992 entitled its citizens to freely move, settle in and change the residential destination within its territory. By 2015, the population of Ulaanbaatar rose to 1.37 million, where approximately 64.2% of Mongolia’s total population[4] now resides in the capital.[5] More disaggregated data by tenancy shows that, by 2014, nearly 60% of the urban population reside in ger districts due to the increasing costs of apartment options.[6] Today, ger districts exist in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar with particular growth over the hills and hollow valleys in Sukhbaatar, Chingeltei, Songinokhairkhan and Bayanzurkh districts.

Photo 1: Extension of ger areas of the hill. Source: www.news.mn

Photo 1: Extension of ger areas of the hill. Source: www.news.mn


As one of the oldest types of residence in the world, a ger is a traditional dwelling used by Mongolian people from early times until today.  It is constructed with a combination of poles and felt, which can be easily collapsed and built up again within an hour or two. Until 1920, gers have been primary sources of housing for nomads and are used today as an alternative to wooden houses.[7] Mongolians live in gers all through the year, by adding the number of felt covers surrounding it during the coldest months. Residents of the ger districts have mostly relocated to the city seeking employment opportunities and hoping for access to better education for themselves and their children. Due to the growing urban population, the current local educational institutions as well as health clinics are outnumbered, and resources are stretched, presenting problems for the government.


Ger District Sections and Current Planning Initiatives

The ger districts are divided into three sections: central, middle and peripheral.[8] As indicated in Figure 1, middle and peripheral areas of settlement covers vast areas in Ulaanbaatar.  These districts are located in territories where connections to heating and waste disposal engineering schemes are not available. Thus, the Government has strategically planned to implement more cottage structures in the middle ger areas and shift peripheral ger districts to private housing schemes by 2030. Central ger districts are those located closer to apartment districts and are under an initial assessment for further infrastructural re-development. Some twelve target areas were assessed for needs, and construction work to shift ger settlements into apartment options is ongoing.[9]

Figure 1: Ger district sections. Aqua blue- river basin, bright orange-central ger areas, orange-middle ger areas, yellow-peripheral ger areas, grey-the city, green-green areas/camp zone. Source: Ulaanbaatar City Development Strategy-2020 and Development Trend till 2030.

Figure 1: Ger district sections. Aqua blue- river basin, bright orange-central ger areas, orange-middle ger areas, yellow-peripheral ger areas, grey-the city, green-green areas/camp zone. Source: Ulaanbaatar City Development Strategy-2020 and Development Trend till 2030.


Exploring social exclusion in ger districts

Efforts towards increasing citizen participation at all levels has been proclaimed in Mongolia in several key strategic documents, including Direct Democracy and Public Participation.[10] However, people in peripheral urban areas have often been left out of the loop. Households in isolated ger districts are predominantly migrants from rural provinces who face social exclusion from services as well as social relationships at some level. This is the conclusion reached through a recent feasibility study myself and several research assistants conducted in April 2014 in the peripheral ger districts of Chingeltei and Songinokhairkhan in Ulaanbaatar. This survey, funded by the Central Asia Research and Training Initiative (CARTI), covered 80 households and 10 unit leaders.[11]

Searching through literature on social exclusion, social angles of social exclusion have often been given a low priority in exclusion studies. Urbanization is rapidly taking place in Mongolia, where local residents are affected by environmental and social issues. Primary studies of ger districts in Mongolia have described characteristics of growing urbanization and poor socio-economic conditions. However, these studies have lacked an in-depth perspective on the accessibility of social services and existing social relations that allow or hinder community changes. Conducting this study helped to fill this knowledge gap. The findings of this research can help to raise awareness about exclusion, and increase the role of community work in the ger districts.

Photo 2: View of the ger district area in Chingeltei district. Photo by author.

Photo 2: View of the ger district area in Chingeltei district. Photo by author.


In general, social exclusion is a multidimensional phenomenon and there are numerous definitions that explain it from differing angles. From the social point of view, an individual is socially excluded if he or she does not participate in certain key activities to a reasonable degree over time in his/her surrounding, and (a) this is for reasons beyond his/her control, even if (b) he or she would like to participate.[12]

We took ideas from what was typically used in other social exclusion studies, as well as developing several “local” questions. These focused on service accessibility issues such as access to public transportation, emergency facilities, land privatization services, as well as access to information in connection to the residential address system. Below are some results of the survey that explores social exclusion that households in target ger districts face:

1. Local residents are excluded from mainstream society due to a limited accessibility and availability of public transportation services to peripheral areas.

A lack of availability and limited accessibility to local transportation services is one of the most highly debated topics when it comes to suburban Ulaanbaatar. Thus, a question of public transportation accessibility and availability was asked as an indicator to measure exclusion from services. Comparatively few households own private cars and public transportation is used on a daily basis as a main means of transportation. However, people have to walk about 500m to 1km through fairly complicated, unpaved pedestrain roads to reach to the closest bus stops. These unpaved roads get muddy after rain, icy in winter and are hilly. Plus, they lack adequate street lights after dark. The availability of public transport is also a problem.  For example, only one bus has been serving Takhilt area of Songinokhairkhan district with a 50-60 minute interval between buses. In addition to the difficulty accessing the bus station, there is no running water in the ger districts. Almost 50% of participants complained about walking far to carry water from wells through unpaved roads which are also hilly, muddy and icy.

It was striking to know that 84.8% of survey participants would reach the nearest point of medical emergency assistance by walking about 500m to 1km. When it comes to medical emergency situations, this distance is quite far for people who are dependent primarily on public transportation.

2. Community members’ have limited access to bank credit due to complexity in owning land.

Despite the existing legal environment, roughly half of ger residents in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar have no official ownership of their plot of land. This stops them from using their land as collateral to gain bank credit.[13] As reported by the Government of Mongolia, by 2013 about 11.8% of the total population and only 7.5% of Ulaanbaatar residents have had their land privatized for their personal as well as for family use since the approval of the first Land Law in 2002. The reason behind this slowness is two-fold, from both the supply side and the demand side. Firstly, many respondents undervalued private land and were not aware of the official procedures for ownership approval that they need to follow, or said they would follow it once forced by a government official (personal communications with ger residents, 2014). Secondly, it is also due to a lack of government policy and programmes that promote ownership of land and the incentives to own it. Owning land and having access to bank credit is particularly challenging for migrant households who have not gained city residency permits and who are not adequately knowledgeable about the paperwork processes they are required to follow.  Additionally, apartment prices have skyrocketed and are limited to only those who can afford to rent apartments or afford purchase prices.

3. Accessibility is limited by territorial disorganization and a poorly developed address system

Due to unclear community boundaries coupled with a poorly developed address system, residents in isolated ger districts miss regular information and the visits by unit leaders. It was claimed by some unit leaders that they accidently find a household registered at the first street in the third street, which complicates their weekly visit for the dissemination of information, as well as proper statistics of people’s residency. Public officers such as social workers and unit leaders blame local residents for being passive – about not raising the issue of an incomplete or duplicated address system to the local administration. They generally stereotype them for being ignorant of ways to improve their living environment, and describe them as lazy and dependent on the state.  On the contrary, local residents blame the Government for being inattentive and not improving the organization of communities. Ultimately, such a contradictory reciprocal situation creates an atmosphere where “everyone is to blame, but no one is responsible” in the process of ger district development.

4. Residents need institutions to advocate for them, so their voices are heard by decision makers and so they can participate in public events for community improvement.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are key institutions in supporting residents living in isolated areas and assisting in making sure their voices are heard by decision makers. In social exclusion studies, a lack of NGO activities in respective areas and lack of opportunity for local residents to participate in NGO initiatives are used as an indicator for social exclusion. In this study, we asked about peoples’ awareness of local NGOs and about peoples’ participation in NGO activities.  About 74.1% of survey participants responded that they did not know of a single NGO. Additionally, 72% of participants had never participated in an event organized by a NGO even though they do not see any barriers limiting their participation. In general, it is certainly a challenge to obtain information on civil society organizations functioning in Mongolia and, thus far, we have limited information of their collaborations and joint struggles due to a weak cooperation between state and civil society organizations. It is estimated that there are nearly 16,000 officially registered NGOs in Mongolia, but only a number of these NGOs work to support migrant households in Ulaanbaatar in accessing better public services such as health, education and employment.[14]


Bayartsetseg’s contact email is: bayartsetsegt@gmail.com



[1] Gantulga, 2010; Narantuya, 2010; Byambadorj, 2011.

[2] Munkhjargal, 2006.

[3] Narantuya, 2010.

[4] The total population of Mongolia is 3,022,685 as of the latest data available in 2015. Population of Ulaanbaatar city is about 1,372,042, which is a little over the half of total population. The information was retrieved and updated from www.1212.mn on November 2014.

[5] Ulaanbaatar Statistics Office, 2015.

[6] Information was retrieved from Ulaanbaatar City Statistics Office website at www.ubstats.mn.

[7] Munkhjargal, 2006.

[8] City Mayors’ Office, 2014.

[9] Personal communication with Mr. Enkhbaatar, specialist at the Ger Area Development Bureau, 2015.

[10] The Presidents’ Office (2013).  Direct Democracy and Public Participation. Second edition. Ulaanbaatar

[11] Unit leaders – reach-out officers representing government deals – have been the main connector and facilitator of community actions at most occasions. Each district is divided into sub divisions (khoroos) and sub divisions are divided into units/plots (kheseg). Each kheseg or units have a designated unit leader who is responsible for disseminating information and collecting primary data for social workers by visiting door to door throughout his/her designated unit.

[12] Burchardt, 2000.

[13] MCC, 2013.

[14] Personal communication with Ms. Erdenesuvd, NGO representative, 2014.