Jonathan Brasnett, MAAPPS // May 9, 2015
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. A city of 1.3 million, the home to more than one third of Mongolia’s population, and among one of the most polluted cities in the world. It is also considered to be a bastion of democracy in a continent that is predominantly governed by authoritarian leaders and corrupt bureaucracies. In spite of this democratic system, the country lacks a certain efficiency that would enable it to dig its way out of financial difficulties and stimulate the development that is so sorely needed. Upon landing in this capital city, the beauty of both the country and its culture were instantly obvious to me. So too, unfortunately, was its lack of development, equality and most importantly, government accountability.
Our team of researchers spent the semester (from January to April) studying the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the ways in which it has been implemented throughout the world. My own assignment involved researching the implementation of resource-revenue reporting (particularly sub-national reporting) in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in western Africa. It became instantly clear that this country’s government is characterized by greed and corruption which make implementation of transparency and accountability initiatives very difficult. As a result, it ranked very low in its implementation of sub-national reporting for the purpose of our project. By contrast, however, Mongolia ranked very high as its EITI secretariat has been able to create offices and reporting structure in the Aimag (provincial) and Sum (district) levels which would report their own resource-revenue transfers between companies and local governments, as well as transfers from the national government to sub-national levels. Among the countries we studied for our project, Mongolia ranked relatively high in terms of democracy, rule of law and civil society participation, and comparatively low in terms of corruption. This inevitably led our naive team to conclude that Mongolia was advanced in sub-national reporting and EITI implementation, and that there was much room for hope that resource extraction could lead to accountable revenue sharing and subsequent high levels of development. Right? Wrong.
The reality on the ground was very different and this became clear through the various meetings we attended with the EITI Secretariat, Ministry of Mining officials, local journalists and Western researchers/observers. Despite the high levels of bureaucratic involvement among the national and sub-national levels of government, Mongolia lacks government accountability and any checks on their power. While the reporting of resource-revenues continues to progress and improve, we had arrived with high hopes of influencing the government to implement accessible means for rural civil society organizations to understand the EITI reports and demand government accountability. This is clear paradox, as we quickly learned that the government has no interest in making such information more accessible to its citizens. While the government officials and foreign ambassadors live in extravagant, luxurious houses which are closed off from the rest of Ulaanbaatar, the majority of Mongolians continue to live in poor conditions and the rural nomadic herders continue to see low levels of infrastructural development in the countryside. It seems to an outside observer like myself that the wealth from resource extraction goes into the pockets of those with power, while those whose lives are most affected by the extraction see no improvements to their quality of life. All the while, the Mongolian journalists who would like to make a difference seem unable to challenge these norms and are instead tasked with solving the problem of information accessibility themselves.
In my first two days on the ground in Mongolia, I have learned more about the difficult realities of public policy than I had in my previous eight months of studying in a policy program at the University of British Columbia. The reality of democracy, especially in newly developed democracies like Mongolia, is that bureaucratic inefficiencies and corrupt government censorship and control result in the inability of ambitious policy-makers like ourselves and many of the people we have met to make the changes that are desperately needed. This is not to say that the government has done nothing to improve Mongolians lives; there are high levels of literacy and education, an increasing prominence of English and other languages (Mandarin, Russian, etc.), healthcare seems to receive some investment and there seem to be many development projects in the works, at least in the capital. But these are things that need to be seen across the country, and not just in the capital which is home to the largest part of the population. Despite all the negative governance issues we uncovered since arriving in Mongolia, however, I still have hope that this beautiful country with such an amazingly rich culture can make changes to its governing apparatus that would create an accountable system which seeks to improve the lives of all Mongolians. If anything, the flaws we uncovered simply motivated me and my colleagues to work more tirelessly to bring changes to places that need our guidance.