As we continue the “IMAGinE Mongolia” work on drafting a curriculum for providing basic and more advanced knowledge of the extractive sector, there are a number of challenges we’re running into in discussions with colleagues from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology as well as among ourselves.
No Recipes Available Here
Our basic aim with CIRDI activities is poverty alleviation. For the IMAGinE Mongolia initiatives and especially in our collaboration with GIZ’ IMRI project, we hope to enable Mongolians to make better decisions on resource projects and governance by offering them more and better information about the extractive sector. That’s it. We’re providing information for Mongolians to make decisions. Information is not the same as how-to recipes. We shy away from labeling “best practices” that should be adopted and instead offer examples of bad practice (current and past, in Canada and elsewhere) and of good practice (again, current and past, Canada and elsewhere). We also select those examples to be appropriate to a Mongolian context. But, ultimately, it is Mongolians that have to make choices and rely on democratic participation to move their government toward implementing those choices.
Our stance in this regard is in some contrast to the expectations of some Mongolians we interact with who ask for recipes and specific instructions, at least a methodology. In recognizing expertise, they want to benefit from this knowledge and assume that it has definite and concrete implications. That is not the case with complex policy, however, whether it is the tax or social welfare system of a modern state, or mining governance.
An element in our unwillingness to offer instructions and recipes is recognition of the quasi-colonial nature of some development activities. This is especially true in the resource sector, perhaps, where international (generally code for OECD-based) companies dominate when it comes to the implementation of large projects.
It is for Mongolians (and citizens of other emerging resource-rich nations) to decide whether and how they want to develop mineral deposits, not for us to instruct them to follow a path that Canada or Australia might have followed which has led companies from these jurisdictions to dominate the world market (to some extent).
The fact that CIRDI funding ultimately comes from the Canadian government (via CIDA, now Global Affairs Canada) also means that there are particular orientations that are included in the project.
For example, ambitions to empower women are manifest throughout Canadian development programs and thus form an integral part of IMAGinE Mongolia activities as well. Obviously, these ambitions need to be appropriate to a specific context, however. So we have to recognize that an emphasis on the role of women in the context of the extractive sector may meet with quizzical looks among some Mongolians who might argue that such a focus is either not appropriate to the development stage that the mining sector finds itself in, or not of great significance to meeting the most pressing challenges. One can disagree with these views (and sometimes we have to), but it is important to acknowledge that such views will have an impact on the efficacy of interventions and – possibly even more significantly – on the long-term sustainability of activities and their impact.
Overall Ambition for our Impact
How do we then expect to contribute to CIRDI’s ultimate objective, namely the alleviation of poverty? Put simply, our IMAGinE Mongolia activities are aimed at providing more and better information to Mongolians to enable them to make better decisions about resource projects. These decisions will then lead to greater benefits (financial and otherwise) accruing to Mongolians which will be distributed more equitably.
This vision of an impact of our activities is predicated on two factors: democracy, and the devolution of (public) decision-making in the resource sector. Whatever faults Mongolians and observers might find with the particular version of democracy practiced in Mongolia, citizens have the opportunity to contribute to decision-making through the ballot box, but also through a number and an increasing number of participatory mechanisms (Local Development Fund, citizens’ halls, etc.). Decision-making is thus an area where individual Mongolians can make their voices heard.
At the same time, the Mongolian national government (possibly on some foreign advice, but out of a stated desire to move towards more participatory democracy as well) is devolving (participation in) decision about the resource sector to the provincial (aimag) and local (soum) level. 30% of revenue is now returned from the national purse to provincial coffers. Exploration licenses offer (at least in principle) a local veto. Impact benefit agreements involving local communities are now mandatory.
With these factors in place (and presumably firmly in place, i.e. across electoral cycles, etc.), we can imagine an impact of our aims to bring more and better information to Mongolians on poverty. On the one hand, we’re addressing decision-makers themselves to give them more and better information. On the other hand, we’re also addressing individual Mongolians (in four aimags for now) to enable them to understand the resource sector better and pose more specific questions to policy-makers.
Thus we are developing a curriculum to be delivered to the general population and – likely in more technical detail – to provincial and local decision-makers that will inform them about the extractive sector. This will not be an endorsement of any specific project or the sector as a whole, nor will it be a condemnation. Instead, we will build this curriculum around an understanding of the mine life cycle, technical and managerial aspects of mining operations, potential impacts (benefits and harms) that may accrue, as well as a number of specific topics of relevance to Mongolians like water and mining, and ninja mining.
To rephrase an English proverb,
we’re not giving Mongolians a fish, nor teaching them how to fish, but instead offering them information about how to manage fish populations and make decisions that will have an impact on the fish and on livelihoods derived from fishing.
This management is of particular importance when the relevant fish (minerals), unlike real fish, will not regrow.