A Personal Wishlist for the Saikhanbileg Government

As we’re anticipating a cabinet to be formed under PM Saikhabileg and it now seems likely that a grand coalition (DP + MPP) or a super coalition (DP + MPP + Justice Coalition + CWGP) or some other configuration is likely, some focus areas for government policy over the next year (until six months before the next election) have been coming to my mind.

OT & the Economy First

Note that these are focus areas that are and should be of secondary importance in terms of immediate action which is required in various economic files. I continue to harp on my mantra that OT should be back on track before anything else happens as it is at once a medium-term fiscal fix (Phase II would generate economic activity, even in the short run, but would lead to medium-term revenue streams and be an opportunity to build capacity around that project). That should be the first and most urgent priority for the new government and the fact that a grand or super coalition will shield individual players from political blame will hopefully enable action on this file.

Other Policy Arenas that Should Receive Attention

Beyond the need for immediate economic policy action, I believe that a super coalition would make it possible to have wider political discussions, and possibly reach a consensus on some policy issues that will be essential to the long-term development of Mongolia. I present these as a list that is not ordered in terms of priorities and is very subjective in that it reflects some of my personal preferences and areas that I come into more contact with in Mongolia. Also, it’s Christmas time, so I take the right to present my personal wishlist.

Anti-Corruption

Anti-corruption activities have taken on a very partisan nature under the DP government with some suggestions that these activities have even become elements in personal agendas, and that the Anti-Corruption Agency is becoming too powerful and too arbitrary with its investigative activities.

Anti-corruption activities have to be non-partisan and they have to start at the very top. I can only implore politicians and decision-makers to acknowledge how important it is for them to act on behalf of Mongolians not out of personal or corporate interest. But, beyond such moral appeals, it is important to have debates about structures that would guarantee more independent and effective anti-corruption activities in the future. Whether that would be a directly-elected anti-corruption commissioner of some kind for a limited duration with a mixed education and enforcement budget and a very ambitious transparency mandate, or a re-configuration of reporting structures to make the Anti-Corruption Agency accountable to the Ikh Khural, as well as cabinet and the President, that is not for me to decide, but I do believe very much that such a discussion would be of great potential benefit to the country’s development.

Such discussion might also head off any temptation within the MPP to take revenge on the DP for its activities of the past two years and to steer anti-corruption activities in a more productive, impactful and credible direction in the future.

Public Service

Very much linked to a discussion of anti-corruption are civil service reforms. An independent, credible, properly resourced, and reliable public service would seem to be essential to social and economic development. The current advocacy for a technocratic cabinet made of non-MPs with some subject-area expertise in their portfolios would seem to be an opening for a wider discussion of the role and importance of a competent civil service around some of the issues recently discussed by Mendee.

Unfortunately, this has been one of the areas where the DP government has fallen well short of expectations following the 2012 election in that this government has engaged in partisan appointments even more than previous governments and we have thus seen a wholesale rotation of personnel in almost all areas of the public service, down to a level of decision-making that really should not be subject to patronage appointments. Yes, vice-ministers should carry a popular mandate through elections, but department heads in ministries should be competent on their subject matter and be allowed to speak truth to political power in offering advice and direction for policy-making while also implementing political decisions faithfully.

Higher Education

The need for some independence from political appointments and decision-making is especially glaring in higher education. I first came to Mongolia some ten years ago in the hopes of establishing links between my university, UBC, and Mongolian universities around student and faculty exchanges. I endeavored to build some links for some years, but have given up on institutional linkages entirely since then, in part because I would be introduce to a new “Vice-President for International Affairs” every six months or so and start all discussions anew. This has been the experience in the ministries as well. For the universities this has meant that they have been unable to engage in the substantial institutional reforms that are necessary to transform the universities from teaching institutions under state-socialism to comprehensive institutions of higher education that engage in research as well as teaching, especially as the Academy of Sciences seems to be fading away.

Higher education will be crucial to Mongolia’s long-term development and this sector thus deserves a broader discussion and strategic decision-making.

Various models for uniting (some of the) public universities, moving them to a joint campus, etc. have been discussed, but my sense is that these discussions have contributed to uncertainty in this sector rather than spurring reforms. This sector is in urgent need of some strategic planning and follow-through on that planning.

Long-term Risky Research for Diversification

Higher education is a policy arena that certainly should see public intervention and strategic planning. Some research activities would also fall in this category.

If economic development is brought back on track in coming years, this will begin to produce resources that will allow Mongolia to consider long-term diversification. Note that I said “Mongolia” here not “the Mongolian government” or “Mongolian businesses”. This is an area for a broader social discussion as well.

However, for the greatest opportunities in terms of diversification, high risk research may be necessary. While some believe that there are low-hanging diversification fruit (ie, areas that are obvious for relatively short-term action), I have not been persuaded at all by the efforts around the Saishand industrial complex, nor by promoting UB as a financial or logistics hub.

What I have in mind here is some dedication of public resources to applied and basic research that might capitalize on some of the unique combinations of factors that Mongolia possesses. Some of these factors would include vast territory, ample sunshine, cold, etc. Even if we don’t think of sparsely-populated landscape as a competitive advantage at the moment, there may well be future applications of technology that rely exactly on that, space. What if there were some cold- and sunshine-loving bacteria or chemical processes that could play a role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions or climate change? Not an area that I specialize in at all, and investments might be entirely lost in such an area, but if there were breakthroughs in any of these areas, Mongolia would emerge as a superpower in some new area of economic activity.

How to structure such research investments? The German Fraunhofer Institutes seem like a good structure that combines basic research. But higher education reforms could also be crucial in building research capacity around such topics across the public universities, for example. Options could be some kind of X Prize-like prize offer, cooperation with other cold countries (though Mongolia is unique in the combination of cold + ample sunshine), etc. None of this would require large immediate investments, though thinking about such directions could benefit from initial brainstorming discussions with international scientists. Of course, the independence of funding-decisions from partisan and personal concerns would seem to be even more essential in a high risk area of activities.

Policy-Making Capacity

This is one of the areas I’ve been talking and thinking about for years. We’re just embarking on a series of posts that aims to think more about some of the failures of Mongolian policy-making.

It seems clear, however, that none of the sectors of society that have well-developed policy-analysis and policy-making capacity in other countries are really well-developed in Mongolia.

The parties have not engaged in policy-making that would lead to competition over their platforms and their party-internal capacity remains underdeveloped.

Parliament is under-resourced in terms of the staffing that would allow MPs to actively craft policy. The NGO world remains mostly atomized with myriad of specific, small-scale NGOs that don’t add up to sector-specific movements.

Even businesses have not evolved any effective associations or industry groups that might offer policy analysis.

Finally, the media remains stuck with still-developing journalistic standards that lead to a lot of reporting of rumour and politically-linked views, but very little policy analysis.

What can government policy do to remedy this? Well, again, discussions of more professional cabinets could be used as momentum towards a more professional public service that would offer the government more policy-making capacity.

Higher education reforms could also play a role in this. It seems odd, for example, that there isn’t some kind of publicly-funded but independent think tank within the universities that focuses on mining policy.

While additional resources devoted to MPs may be politically tricky, but I certainly think that money would be much better spent on some additional staff and research capacity attached to parliament than on a second chamber as seems to be currently suggested in the context of constitutional revisions.

A Role for “Repats”

One of the areas where policy-analysis capacity could be developed is through the integration of “repats”. An increasing number of Mongolians have been educated in developed economies/democracies, and have now embarked on professional careers. My sense from the Mongolian community here in Vancouver is that a number of them are quite interested in eventually returning to Mongolia. The two greatest obstacles to such a return are air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and their doubts about Mongolian schools for their children.

However, while air pollution and education are issues to be addressed in a focused way for all Mongolians, not just for repats (i.e. repatriates, Mongolians who return to Mongolia with the skills that expatriates would have to offer), finding ways to integrate repats into policy-making is an important task that requires some planning. Some repats may face resentments in some contexts and thus be reluctant to offer their experiences and knowledge in such contexts. Are there avenues of integration that would best utilize repats’ knowledge? Can these avenues be developed without aggravating resentments against repats?

Support for Aimag Centres

Many Aimag centres are charming small towns. I am always impressed by the infrastructure that is typically grouped around a main square, including an administrative building, a library, and a culture house.

At the same time, Ulaanbaatar is bursting at the seems, and continued migration to the city leads to additional strains on infrastructure and pollution.

While strong arguments have been made for investments in Ulaanbaatar’s infrastructure and these do seem necessary, I often get the sense that communities outside of the capital are being abandoned in the process. If some of the Aimag centres were strengthened through investments in education and health infrastructure, could these not be more viable as desirable residences, even for younger Mongolians?

Nurturing Democracy

Democracy has come a long way in Mongolia. It seems it has benefitted from two circumstances: a) the purely indigenous roots of the initial democratic revolution, and b) the construction of democratic institutions before the onset of the mining boom.

While the democratic institutions of a parliamentary democracy are intact in Mongolia, as elsewhere, challenges remain and continued vigilance to support popular support for democracy should be pursued.

President Elbegdorj’s initiatives on the building of grassroots democracy through local participation in budgetary decisions (Local Development Fund) should be reinforced through further activities.

In the long run, parties should build their policy-making capacity to offer policy-based platforms rather than patronage campaigns. This process should be supported through political education, but potentially also through funding from public sources, depending as much of this wishlist does on non-partisan and thorough anti-corruption efforts.

Nurturing Democracy as Foreign Policy

Mongolia has achieved a stature in the world and in internal relations that is much beyond its size and significance. In part, this has been built on its status as the only post-state socialist Asian democracy. That is something that the country’s foreign policy should continue to build on. Whether it is through existing foreign aid programs for Myanmar and the Kirghiz Republic, or through the hosting of the Freedom Online Coalition in 2015 or the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2016, the current warm embrace and showering of gifts on Mongolia by much-less-than-democratic Russia and China should not tempt policy-makers to drop their focus on democracy and democratization as an element in foreign policy. Mongolia has an important role to play as an Asian non-OECD promoter of democratization.

Conclusion

As stated at the outset, OT should remain the first and central priority of the new government. Then, other economic initiatives such as continuing discussions around governance and economic activities at TT or continuation of privatization efforts (MIAT!) would be next. However, a super coalition should also offer the chance to discuss and set in motion some long-term strategies to put Mongolia on a positive path of social and political development. It is my wishlist in this latter category that I have drawn up here.

This entry was posted in Constitution, Corruption, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Higher Education, Oyu Tolgoi, Party Politics, Politics, Social Issues and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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