By Julian Dierkes
In 2016 I came back from a trip to Mongolia slightly puzzled and concerned. It seemed to me during meetings on that trip that there was a real concern with some interlocutors that I was some kind of spy. My interest in Mongolia as well as the independence of my analysis were questioned and it seemed like it was insinuated that I was somehow interested on behalf of someone else, most likely a government (agency). That’s what prompted me to draft a page explaining my curiosity about Mongolia as well as another making the case for why readers might be interested in my (and fellow bloggers’) analyses. Both of these pages are available in Mongolian (Яагаад |хараат бус байдал) as well as readers might ask very legitimate questions about these topics.
One aspect I found puzzling in 2016 was that similar questions were being raised by several different people from different angles.
The same thing has happened again.
Bias in 2019
Unlike in 2016 when the suspicion seemed to be that I was spying, now there seems to be a sense that I am somewhat “biased”. I wish I had been as smart as several people I discussed this with upon my return and had asked those accusing me of bias what exactly that bias was. I did not, unfortunately. This leaves me trying to understand this question and to provide a response in the abstract.
The accusations of bias all seemed to come from a blog post I wrote with Boldsaikhan Sambuu discussing the late-March legislation to give power to dismiss judges to the National Security Council. In a follow-up post, I included some more narratives of why this legislation was not a threat to democracy.
I have been surprised that no readers have ever engaged me on the transparency page in the past as I had intended this to be a starting point for discussions about my/our position not a definitive/final statement. If you have questions about my independence, read that page, and let me know which parts you do not understand, believe, or accept. But instead of making the positive case for my independence, let me here consider some possible sources of bias.
There’s Always Bias
Well, obviously! I am limited in the information I can gather, in my ability to process that information, and social and political analysis is not the kind of activity that produces a definite “yes” or “no” answer in the end. So yes, duh, I am biased. But there are different sources of bias and these have a differential impact on analyses.
“Someone” Is Directing Me
There seems to have been some sense that I wrote the March 27 post on behalf of “someone” else. My co-author, Bold, has also been subject to this suspicion. The “someone” in question seems to be former president, Ts Elbegdorj. The legislative changes introduced in late March were directed (or so the claim went) at un-doing some of the harm to the rule of law done by the former president. In a subsequent post, I have noted that this is a rationale that has been presented for the legislation.
But me? Writing on behalf of Elbegdorj? Unlike many other Mongolian politicians, I have never met Elbegdorj, nor have I had any direct interactions with him. I am curious as to how he is approaching his current quasi-retirement from politics and would be delighted to have a chance to discuss that with him, but that chance has not presented itself to me.
Why would I let a politician direct me to do anything? What could I gain by following that direction?
The one time I felt like I was being asked to speak on a politician’s behalf was when former president N Enkhbayar was arrested in 2012 and a PR firm subsequently sent out a package of “information” detailing his abuse. Needless to say, I did not write about that information. I actually contacted a number of newspapers that did write about Enkhbayar’s arrest in similar terms to caution them that information came from a particular angle. In fact, if anyone asked me to write on their behalf, I would be more likely than not to write the exact opposite, simply to demonstrate my independence. That would also hold for any other current or former president, prime minister or other politician.
As a researcher, I am always concerned about access to decision-makers. My days during visits to Ulaanbaatar are filled with meetings to give me a chance to get a more in-depth view of the current political mood than I can from Vancouver. To arrange these meetings, I have to rely on contacts and their willingness to speak with me. So yes, access is of some concern. Obviously there are politicians and other voices who have refused to meet with me in the past when I have requested meetings and that is totally fine. It is typically me asking for a meeting with the intention of asking questions to which I do not have answers, so I am dependent on the goodwill of contacts to give me some of their time to speak to me. In busy schedules, that time might not exist.
So yes, access is a currency that I understand and appreciate. But in my many years of visits to Mongolia, my access has never been curtailed in a way that suggested that a contact saw me as biased and therefore did not want to speak to me. In fact, if you thought I got an aspect of current developments wrong and you care about that, I hope you would want to specifically meet with me to explain to me what I have got wrong, as several contacts did during my recent and previous trips.
I have a Party/Person-Preference
I do not know how to put this any other way than simply, no!
As a researcher, I believe that evidence-informed policy-making is better than decisions that are not informed by available information.
Just as I prefer policies that are presented with reference to data, so I would prefer politicians who champion policies that are backed by analysis.
I also have some broader personal commitments/values that do lead me to prefer policies that produce outcomes that are more just and minimize the burden we place on the planet and its ecosystems. And I am certain that democracy is the most likely route to such outcomes. I also strongly believe that Mongolians have fought for and deserve opportunities to make genuine choices about the future trajectory of their country.
Do any of these commitments lead me to prefer one party over another or one politician over another in Mongolia? No, sadly. That is the case because policy-making (for a variety of reasons) is generally not evidence-informed and political parties have not articulated any themes that would lead me to understand that one party is more committed to values like (social) justice and sustainability than another. So, as a researcher, with a focus on substance, I do not see any basis to prefer one political actor over another.
I was trained as a sociologist and that does make me prone to certain methods, questions, and answers. But that would not point me toward any particular political actors, I think.
Someone Is Paying Me
Well, this is a funny thing, but no one has ever attempted to bribe me or pay me for adding any particular political slant to our blog posts. Most likely this is in recognition of our limited impact, but it might also be because anyone contemplating such a payment has probably had the impression of me and my fellow bloggers that such offers would not be welcome. Yes, of course, we are sometimes compensated for work that is based on our research as it also appears on the blog (through political risk or development consulting, for example), but that is not payment for a specific blog post or a specific direction to give to a post. Even the posts based on my recent visit to Oyu Tolgoi (which I have been marking with a disclosure that I visited at the invitation of the company) focus on topics that I have been interested in and are based on my observations.
If not financial renumeration, is there some other payment that is forthcoming? Not that I am aware. I have applied for research funding from the Mongolian government, but have never been successful with my applications. With the demise of the fund to support Mongolian Studies earlier this year, and its presumed resurrection as the Institute for Chinggis Khaan Studies (really?), I am fairly unlikely to be awarded any research funding in the near future.
I have long waged a tongue-in-cheek campaign to be appointed as Foreign Minister under the name of Dumbledorj or as (Foreign) Minister of Education as Dambadorj, but unfortunately, no one seems to be interested in my offer in this regard.
My extended application to be appointed Foreign Minister of Education, Culture, Science & Sports in Khurelsukh cabinet.
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) November 30, 2018
Do Get in Touch
So, if you do think I am biased in any way that I have not acknowledged here, please do let me know what source of bias I have not discussed here or which part of my discussion you do not find credible!