By Julian Dierkes

I have been encountering “unemployment” as a political challenge in Mongolia for many years. Most recently, in a set of six workshops on policy-making and political parties organized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Mongolia for the Mongolian People’s Party youth organization (НАМЗХ) and the Trade Union Federation (МYЭХ).

[This is the first of a number of blog posts that benefited very much from conversations with Niels Hegewisch of the FES office in Mongolia, and with Mendee and Gerelt-Od.]

When we asked participants in the workshops to list the most pressing policy problems that Mongolia is facing, unemployment is inevitably named among the top 10 problems.

Unemployment is also a challenge that has been top-of-mind for voters in recent elections as I learned repeatedly in talking to campaign works for various parties, but as confirmed by surveys (presidential election 2017) as well.

But, What is Employment in a Mongolian Context?

When countryside residents or even inhabitants of the provincial capitals list unemployment as a challenge, what does that mean? Or, asked differently, what would employment be?

The frequency with which unemployment is mentioned as a challenge suggests that Mongolians have very high expectations of their government for providing employment. After all, even the most neoliberal perspective will be challenged by countryside residents living in a 2,000-person county that is battered by an extreme continental climate and the virtual absence of most kinds of infrastructure. Any kind of manufacturing or and most element of a service industry other than small-scale retail seems almost unimaginable in these contexts.

But, of course, there are many forms of recognizable employment. Even the smallest accumulation of houses will have a kiosk and some kind of basic fast food on offer. Gas stations have also become common at least in soum centres. The small retail businesses in particular are small private businesses with a lot of family involvement. They are supplied by occasional deliveries, but surely also by local herding/agricultural activities.

There are various other services such as repairs of cars, motorcycles and machinery.

Xaan Bank has branches in many small towns, sometimes at least a cash machine. More varied retail (clothing, electronics, etc.) is typically only available in aimag centres.

As the road network has been expanding, construction is clearly also a business that is very present with gravel pits along highways, construction sites, etc.

If there is manufacturing, it is well-hidden to me, but there must be small workshops for some basic countryside needs that I simply do not see. I do not think that herders have any retail needs to be herders, as they do not buy feed, fencing, or any equipment to handle animals.

That, basically, leaves the public sector, i.e. administration, schools, health.

Given the patronage nature of Mongolian politics, it is these jobs that are up for grabs and to be distributed after elections.

However, the frequent mention of employment suggests that Mongolians are either expecting different kind of jobs, or more of the kind that does exist.

Herding as Employment

In the discussions of (un)employment it is unclear to me whether herding is seen as employment. There are anecdotal reports that larger herds are increasingly managed by herders-for-hire suggesting that employment in this sector is becoming more common.

Traditionally (that is, with privatization of the national herd in the early 1990s), herders are seen as self-employed. As herding is continuing to change from a subsistence to a cash-crop/meat/wool business, the nature of that self-employment is also continuing to change.

There seem to be few (political) discussions of herding that see this as an employment sector for investment, although there are various public subsidies for and recognition of herding.

Employment in Cities

Obviously, there are many more viable forms of employment in Mongolia’s cities, including manufacturing and service enterprises. Here, unemployment takes a form that may be much more similar to unemployment in an OECD economy. And, employment initiatives would focus on a more varied type of business, as well as a different scale. Clearly, Ulaanbaatar is a large enough potential market to make a variety of businesses potentially viable, but even Darkhan and Erdenet offer some such opportunities.

(Un)employment as Cleavage for Definition of Political Parties

Curiously, despite the frequency with which voters/citizens mention unemployment as a if not the central policy challenge, political parties have not defined themselves in programmatic terms around employment. Yes, there are occasional claims from the MPP that it is a social-democratic party, just as the label “liberal” is sometimes attached to the DP, but even though these two characterizations could be treated as ends of a political spectrum of employment policies, in part elections the parties have not presented programmatically different positions on (un)employment. More typically, candidates/parties claim that they will create jobs, but not how.

Is job growth meant to come from private employment? If yes, what would these businesses be? What would the look like in cities, in provincial capitals, in towns? What role would the state play in the emergence of businesses or in the creation of jobs? Should herding be a privileged kind of employment that is supported or protected by the state? Given continued population growth, where will employment growth come from in the future?

These are questions that would lend themselves well to programmatic debates between the parties given their salience to voters, but also the pronounced differences between market-led employment policies vs. arguments for state involvement or investment.

Please, a Dissertation, Someone!

But, it’s not just Mongolian political parties that should be talking about employment more and more substantively. This would be a topic that would be a great focus for a dissertation.

What does employment mean in a Mongolian context?, could be the guiding question for ethnographic research. Is herding employment? Is employment primarily a source of income, or is it akin to a Weberian “Beruf”? What varieties of employment forms exist across different contexts? Are there any jobs that appear to offer job security?

If you are considering focusing on such topics in graduate school, let’s talk about supervision possibilities!

Bottom Line: Some Heretical Thoughts

When considering employment, I sometimes have a creeping suspicion that elements of a planned economy may actually have suited Mongolian industrialization quite well. I’m not advocating a return to a fully planned economy, but when it comes to some forms of industry, particularly in the countryside, private enterprise and entrepreneurship faces overwhelming hurdles, so it seems that an active state investment aimed at job creation, diversification of the economy, and some kind of allocation of industrial capacity may serve a good part of Mongolia’s geography and population well.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
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