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High Impact Communications In A Major Crisis: UNDP Mongolia 1997-1999 | 18 February 2016

I was head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia from 1997 to 1999. The mission had to primarily tackle three major crises: the country’s turbulent transition from Communism to free markets and democracy, the social and economic crash this caused, and the Asian Financial Crisis (Pomfret 2000) (Quah 2003)*.

Richard Pomfret said in 1994 “In 1991 Mongolia suffered one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).”

From Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah: “The combined effect of these three shocks was devastating as ‘Mongolia suffered the most serious peacetime economic collapse any nation has faced during this century’. Indeed, Mongolia’s economic collapse ‘was possibly the greatest of all the (peaceful) formerly'” Communist countries. 

“The years 1998 and 1999 have been volatile ones for Mongolia, with revolving door governments, the assassination of a minister, emerging corruption, a banking scandal, in-fighting within the ruling Democratic Coalition, frequent paralysis within the Parliament, and disputes over the Constitution. Economically, the period was unstable and rife with controversies.” Mongolia in 1998 and 1999: Past, Present, and Future at the New Millennium by Sheldon R. Severinghaus, Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 1, A Survey of Asia in 1999 (Jan. – Feb., 2000), pp. 130-139 (Publisher: University of California)

Writing in 2018, author John West  found, in a chapter titled Mongolia’s Corruption Curse (Transparency International and the World Bank had found corruption worsened in Mongolia after 2001), “In many ways, Mongolia has everything going for it. After being a satellite state of the former Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, Mongolia regained its independence with the end of the Cold War. A relatively peaceful political revolution in the early 1990s ushered in a multi-party democracy and open society which have remained in place. … And it is blessed with vast reserves of copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, fluorspar, uranium, tin and tungsten deposits. True, Mongolia experienced great upheavals as the breakup of the Soviet Union saw its trade decline by 80%. But Mongolia was also perfectly placed to benefit from the commodity super cycle driven by China, which is now the destination for the vast majority of its exports.

“However, despite much hype about the Mongolian “wolf economy”, this country of so much promise is being dragged down by massive corruption. …

“Mongolia’s corruption is greatly weakening its attractiveness as an investment destination, is fracturing society and weakening its fragile political institutions. Its culture of corruption has also fed its love-hate relationship with foreign investors, which has destabilized the economy.” Asian Century … on a Knife-edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development by John West, Springer, 24 January 2018.  

In this role, I pioneered innovative use of the Internet and digital resources to communicate the UN’s work and Mongolia’s unfolding crises. The UN called this work a “role model” for the wider UN and country offices. A survey of United Nations country office websites in 2000 ranked the UN Mongolia website I launched in 1997 and oversaw for two years (1997-1999), third best in the world, saying: “A UN System site. A very nice, complete, professional site. Lots of information, easily accessible and well laid out. The information is comprehensive and up-to-date. This is a model of what a UNDP CO web site should be.” (https://www.scribd.com/document/35249986/United-Nations-2000-Survey-of-Country-Office-Websites)

As part of a strategic plan to raise awareness of Mongolia’s development challenges and to spur action on meeting them, a Communications Office was established for the UN mission in 1997. Acting as a strategic hub, the Communications Office and its dynamic and talented team, were able to leverage the existing budget to spur action on many fronts, including: 

Media

Working with journalists and media both within Mongolia and outside, the Communications Office was able to significantly raise awareness of Mongolia and its development challenges. This was reflected in a substantial increase in media coverage of the country and in the numerous books and other publications that emerged post-1997. The book In Their Own Words: Selected Writings by Journalists on Mongolia, 1997-1999 (ISBN 99929-5-043-9) archived the stories by theme.  

Top journalists covering Asia in the late 1990s contributed to the book.


Ger Magazine

Ger Magazine (the Mongolian word for home and traditional tent dwelling) was published as the country’s first e-magazine in 1998. There were four issues in total from 1998 to 2000. The launch issue was on the theme of youth in the transition. Mongolia was transitioning from Communism to free markets and democracy and this had been both an exhilarating time and a wrenching time for young people. The magazine drew on talented journalists from Mongolia and the handful of international journalists based there to create a mix of content, from stories about life adapting to free markets to stories on various aspects of Mongolian culture and life. 

The second issue of the magazine proved particularly effective, with its modern life theme and cover story on a thriving Mongolian fashion scene.

Archived issues of the magazine can be found at the Wayback Machine here: https://archive.org/. Just type in the UN Mongolia website address for the years 1997 to 1999: http://www.un-mongolia.mn.


Blue Sky Bulletin

The Blue Sky Bulletin newsletter was launched in 1997 initially as a simple, photocopied handout. It quickly founds its purpose and its audience, becoming a key way to communicate what was happening in the country and a crucial resource for the global development community, scholars, the media and anyone trying to figure out what was happening in a crazy and chaotic time. Blue Sky Bulletin was distributed via email and by post and proved to be a popular and oft-cited resource on the country. The quality of its production also paralleled Mongolia’s growing capacity to publish to international standards, as desktop publishing software became available and printers switched to modern print technologies. Blue Sky Bulletin evolved from a rough, newsprint black and white publication to becoming a glossy, full-colour, bilingual newsletter distributed around Mongolia and the world.

Archived issues can be found online here:

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 1

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 2

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 3

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 4

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 5

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 6 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 7 

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 8

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 9

Blue Sky Bulletin Issue 10


Publishing

MHDR 1997

The Mongolian Human Development Report 1997 (MHDR), the country’s first, placed the story of the Mongolian people during the transition years (post-1989) at its heart, using photographs, stories and case studies to detail the bigger narrative at play.

This groundbreaking Mongolian Human Development Report went beyond just chronicling Mongolia’s state of development in statistics and graphs. Designed, laid out and published in Mongolia, the report broke with the practices of many other international organisations, who would publish outside of Mongolia – denying local companies much-needed work and the opportunity to develop their skills. The report’s costs helped to kick-start a publishing boom in the country and significantly raised standards in design and layout in the country. The foundations laid down by the project producing the report ushered in a new age in publishing for Mongolia.

The report’s launch was innovative, not only being distributed for free across the country, but also part of a multimedia campaign including television programming, public posters, town hall meetings and a ‘roadshow’ featuring the report’s researchers and writers.

The initial print run of 10,000 copies was doubled as demand for the report increased. To the surprise of many, once hearing about the free report, herders would travel to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to pick up their copy. The report proved people cared passionately about the development of their country and that development concepts are not to be the secret domain of ‘development practitioners’. The report also became an English language learning tool as readers compared the Mongolian and English-language versions. 

You can read the report’s pdf here: http://www.mn.undp.org/content/mongolia/en/home/library/National-Human-Development-Reports/Mongolia-Human-Development-Report-1997.html

Mongolian AIDS Bulletin

Assembled by a team of health experts after the Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, the Mongolian AIDS Bulletin was published in 1997 in the middle of an HIV/AIDS crisis. It provided timely information and health resources in the Mongolian language and was distributed across the country.
 
“Mongolia’s first AIDS Bulletin marked the beginning of the UNDP Response to HIV/AIDS/STDs Project back in the autumn of 1997. Over 5,000 copies of the magazine were distributed across the country, offering accurate information on the HIV/AIDS situation. The project has been pivotal in the formulation of a national information, education and communication (IEC) strategy, bringing together NGOs, donors, UN agencies and the government.”
 
Source: YouandAids: The HIV/AIDS Portal for Asia Pacific 

Green Book

In the Mongolian language, the Mongolian Green Book details effective ways to live in harmony with the environment while achieving development goals. Based on three years’ work in Mongolia – a Northeast Asian nation coping with desertification, mining, and climate change – the book presents tested strategies.  

EPAP Handbook

The Environmental Public Awareness Handbook was published in 1999 and features the case studies and lessons learned by UNDP’s Mongolian Environmental Public Awareness Programme (EPAP). The handbook draws on the close to 100 small environmental projects the Programme oversaw during a two-year period. These projects stretched across Mongolia, and operated in a time of great upheaval and social, economic and environmental distress. The handbook is intended for training purposes and the practice of public participation in environmental protection.

In its 2007 Needs Assessment, the Government of Mongolia found the EPAP projects “had a wide impact on limiting many environmental problems. Successful projects such as the Dutch/UNDP funded Environmental Awareness Project (EPAP), which was actually a multitude of small pilot projects (most costing less than $5,000 each) which taught local populations easily and efficiently different ways of living and working that are low-impact on the environment.”

Mongolia Updates 1997, 1998, 1999

Mongolia Update 1998 detailed how the country was coping with its hyperinflation and the Asian economic crisis.

The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_Financial_Crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history (http://www.jstor.org/pss/153756).  

Mongolia Update 1998 – Political Changes

1998 proved a tumultuous year for Mongolia. The country’s existing economic crisis caused by the transition from Communism to free markets was made worse by the wider Asian Crisis. The government was destabilised, leading to an often-confusing revolving door of political figures. In order to help readers better understand the political changes in the country, a special edition of Mongolia Update was published that year.  

UNDP Mongolia: The Guide

The Guide, first published in 1997, provided a rolling update on UNDP’s programmes and projects in Mongolia during a turbulent time (1997-1999). The mission simultaneously had to deal with the 1997 Asian Crisis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_financial_crisis) and the worst peacetime economic collapse in post-WWII history.

Each edition came with short project and context summaries, key staff contacts, and facts and figures on how the country was changing. For the first time, any member of the public could grasp what the UN was up to in the country and be able to contact the project staff. An unusual level of transparency at the time for a UN mission.

Memoranda of Understanding

Three Memoranda of Understanding were negotiated with the Mongolian Government to help focus efforts and aid the attainment of internationally-agreed resolutions. This was affirmed by a series of youth conferences, One World, held in 1998 and 1999.

Strategy and Leadership in a Crisis

The scale and gravity of the crisis that struck Mongolia in the early 1990s was only slowly shaken off by the late 1990s. The economic and social crisis brought on by the collapse of Communism and the ending of subsidies and supports from the Soviet Union, led to a sharp rise in job losses, poverty, hunger, and family and community breakdowns. 

The challenge was to find inspiring ways out of the crisis, while building confidence and hope. The sort of challenges confronted by the UNDP Mongolia Communications Office included: 

1) A food crisis: agricultural production was down sharply, and the traditional nomadic herding economy, while at peak herd, was failing to get the meat to markets and to a high enough standard to restore export levels to where they once were. As a result, a cross-border trading frenzy became the solution to falling domestic food production and availability.

2) HIV/AIDS/STDs crisis

3) A major banking crisis

4) Both the Asian Financial Crisis and the Russia Crisis.

5) An ongoing political crisis and an inability to form stable governments.

“Mongolia is not an easy country to live in and David [South] showed a keen ability to adapt in difficult circumstances. He was sensitive to the local habits and cultures and was highly respected by his Mongolian colleagues. … David’s journalism background served him well in his position as Director of the Communications Unit. … A major accomplishment … was the establishment of the UNDP web site. He had the artistic flare, solid writing talent and organizational skills that made this a success. … we greatly appreciated the talents and contributions of David South to the work of UNDP in Mongolia.” Douglas Gardner, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative Mongolia

Citations

The response by the Communications Office has been cited in numerous articles, stories, publications and books. It has also contributed to the development of the human development concept and understanding of human resilience in a crisis and innovation in a crisis. Book citations include: 

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

A more detailed list of citations can be found here: http://www.davidsouthconsulting.com/about/

For research purposes, key documents were compiled together and published online here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=K76jBgAAQBAJ&dq=undp+mongolia+key+documents&source=gbs_navlinks_s

In 2001, the UN won the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world” and its communications innovations, with work such as that in Mongolia being cited as a contributing factor to the awarding of the Prize

In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in a 15-year bid to use a focused approach to development centred around eight goals to accelerate improvements to human development. From 2000 to 2005, work was undertaken in various UN missions (Mongolia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Ukraine) to communicate the goals and to reshape communications activities around the goals.

*Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah, Eastern Universities Press, 2003 

Transition and Democracy in Mongolia by Richard Pomfret, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 149-160, published by Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/153756?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)

UNDP Mongolia team photo in 1997. I am sitting front row centre left of the UN Resident Coordinator Douglas Gardner.

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Austerity And History | 27 November 2015

Two historical works I am cited in as a resource both share a connection to austerity crises. The first, Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists by Morris Rossabi (University of California Press), draws on my work for UNDP Mongolia (1997-1999) to show the impact of austerity policies on the country as it peacefully transitioned from Communism to free markets and democracy in the 1990s.

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists.
Modern Mongolia on Google Books.

The second, Recollections of a Neighbourhood: Huron-Sussex from UTS to Stop Spadina by Nancy Williams and Marie Scott-Baron (editors) (Words Indeed Publishing), details the evolution of a remarkable – and bohemian – Toronto, Canada neighbourhood in which I lived in the 1980s and 1990s. It uses an image from Watch Magazine, a youth culture biweekly I edited in 1994 and 1996. The magazine was launched during the depths of Canada’s austerity crisis. Despite the economic gloom, the magazine fizzed with youthful vitality and edge and contributed to Toronto’s resurgence. The particular piece cited is a feature on Rochdale College, a late 1960s experimental college associated with the University of Toronto that lit up the neighbourhood with hippie and alternative cultures, until it went into meltdown as drug gangs took control. It was a bold experiment and a reflection of the counter culture vibe of the time.

Recollections of a Neighbourhood: Huron-Sussex from UTS to Stop Spadina.
“Peace, Order and Good Pot” by Bill White.
List of Illustrations: Sandwiched between Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and urbanist Jane Jacobs.

The Globe and Mail

Tiny downtown Toronto enclave has a big story to tell

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Citing Wild East: The New Mongolia

Books and papers citing Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia (ECW Press):

The Adrenaline Junkie’s Bucket List: 100 Extreme Outdoor Adventures to Do Before You Die by Christopher Van Tilburg, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2013

Beyond Backpacker Tourism: Mobilities and Experiences, Channel View Publications, 2010

Curbing Corruption in Asia: A Comparative Study of Six Countries by Jon S. T. Quah, Eastern Universities Press, 2003

Going Places: A Reader’s Guide to Travel Narratives by Robert Burgin, Libraries Unlimited, 2013

Historical Dictionary of Mongolia by Alan J. K. Sanders, Scarecrow Press, 2010

A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Volume II: Inner Eurasia from the Mongol Empire to Today, 1260 – 2000 by David Christian, Wiley, 2018

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists by Morris Rossabi, University of California Press, 2005

Mongolia: the Bradt travel guide by Jane Blunden, Bradt Travel Guides, 2008

Mongolia: Empire of the Steppes by Claire Sermier, Odyssey, 2002

Moron to Moron: Two Men, Two Bikes, One Mongolian Misadventure by Tom Doig, Allen & Unwin, 2013

Reviewed Work: Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless, Review by: Alicia J. Campi, Mongolian Studies Vol. 25 (2002), pp. 112-114 (3 pages), Published By: Mongolia Society

Alicia J. Campi in Mongolian Studies.

Transiberiana by Simon Richmond, EDT, 2009

Truth, History and Politics in Mongolia: Memory of Heroes by Christopher Kaplonski, Taylor & Francis, 2004

Ulaanbaatar Beyond Water and Grass: A Guide to the Capital of Mongolia by M. A. Aldrich, Hong Kong University Press, 2017

One Steppe Beyond: two years witnessing the birth of a new Asian democracy.

© David South Consulting 2022 © Jill Lawless 2022

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US-Mongol Construct 2000 Business Prospectus: Building A New Democracy | 2000

Researcher and Writer: David South

Consultancy: David South Consulting

Publisher and Client: USAID

Published: 2000

Background: This excerpted text is from a business prospectus prepared in 1999 for USAID to promote construction opportunities in Mongolia to the US construction industry. At the time, Mongolia was in the grip of a severe crisis, called one of “the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever”. By 2012, Mongolia was called the “fastest growing economy in the world”. It is proof the foundations for Mongolia’s recovery from crisis were laid in the late 1990s.

“No other Asian country enjoys more political freedom today than Mongolia. And no other Asian country has shown greater commitment to open markets. But Mongolia has received little reward for its efforts.” Fortune Magazine, December 1998

Discover a New Democracy

Mongolians are some of the highest per capita donor recipients in the world: On average US $50 per person. The vast majority of this aid is targeted at infrastructure projects. Mongolia in 2000 is an opportunity waiting for American business. Democratic, with a free market economy, the country offers regulatory freedom, a belief in the private sector setting standards and a pro-Western attitude friendly to American companies. 

Mongolia’s history is marked by the rise and fall of cities, the ebb and flow of political and economic systems. The country has experienced being the largest empire for its time in the 13th century, to being occupied by foreign powers. Economically and socially the country has lived through feudalism, communism and now, capitalism. The one thing that has remained stable throughout this rich history has been the nomadic way of life. Livestock remains to this day a major pillar of the economy and contributes to one of the country’s major foreign currency earners, cashmere wool. 

After over 70 years of communist rule, Mongolians finally turned their backs on communism and robustly embraced free markets and democracy in 1996 with the election of the Democratic Coalition. A gradual opening up of the country had begun under the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union and under pressure from peaceful public demonstrations.  

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the country suffered what many economists have called the largest peacetime economic collapse in the 20th century. 

While it is a fact that Mongolia’s economy is severely underdeveloped, both in terms of infrastructure and diversity, it is also true the country is the freest in Asia. As Fortune Magazine noted in a December, 1998 issue, “No other Asian country enjoys more political freedom today than Mongolia. And no other Asian country has shown greater commitment to open markets. But Mongolia has received little reward for its efforts.” Mongolia, for American business, offers a win-win situation, an opportunity to join in the building of a strong democracy in Asia while tapping the rich resources, both natural and in human capital. American businesses can enjoy a regulatory environment that is more flexible than in the United States, and a government that lets businesses do what they do best: serve the needs of customers and make money. 

Youthful

A Bright Young Future

Demographically, Mongolia is a very young country. A by-product of high birth rate policies during the communist period, 60 per cent of Mongolia’s population are aged between 1 and 24, with 37.6 per cent between the locally accepted definition of youth of 15 to 34. In 1998 the New York Times Magazine called Mongolia “The youngest place on earth”. Even a cursory glance at the streets of the capital, Ulaanbaatar (population 600,000), will reveal a young population taking their fashion and cultural cues from the West, and who hold correspondingly Western aspirations to own homes and start businesses. Mongolia enjoys exceptionally high rates of literacy ( 96 per cent), post-secondary enrolment (65,089 students in 1998) and the urban population quickly embraced Western consumer products as they became available. 

Growing

The Construction and Environmental Services Industry in Mongolia

Today, Mongolia officially has 100 architectural and engineering design companies and over 500 construction companies. Of these, 40 are considered large operations with their own in-house design and engineering outfits, or who have a close relationship with one or more companies that either manufacture or import construction materials. The country is a rich resource for raw materials for the construction industry, but this vast wealth remains under-utilised. According to geological surveys spanning the decades from 1930 to the 1990s, over 200 deposits were discovered that could be tapped for construction materials. 

At the beginning of the 20th Century, there were few permanent standing structures in Mongolia, apart from Buddhist monasteries and royal palaces. At the beginning of the 20th Century most Mongolians lived in the round ger felt tent. It wasn’t until the communist revolution that construction of sedentary dwellings and buildings in the country picked up pace. In 1924, three years after the 1921 revolution, the State Committee for Construction was established (by 1926 it became the Construction Department of the Ministry of Industry), and undertook the large-scale construction of buildings based on European designs. 

From the 1960s the construction industry in Mongolia emerged as the country industrialised. Mongolia received aid from both China and Russia up to the Sino-Soviet dispute, and both countries were the main funders for construction projects. Many buildings in the downtown of the capital were built by the Chinese government.

Up until the election of the Democratic Coalition in 1996, all construction activities were conducted under the direction of the state. Building booms took place in the 1970s and 1980s as the communist government tried to meet the demand for apartments and other facilities. At its peak in 1989, the construction sector made up 10 per cent of the gross national product. With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, many building projects in Mongolia ground to a halt as Soviet subsidies were withdrawn.  Across the country it is possible to see the empty shells of apartment buildings, holiday resorts and half-built sports stadiums.

The Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, under popular pressure for a change, began to gradually make the shift to free markets and democracy. The first state privatization programme began in 1993 under the direction of international experts. It wasn’t until the election of the Democratic Coalition in 1996 that significant reforms were taken to fully introduce a free market economy. And it wasn’t until 1997 and 1998 that the fruits of these measures started to appear.

The construction industry was fully privatised in 1998, with companies becoming limited or wholly owned entities. There now exists a mix of private and public companies in this sector. All of the companies are in the early stages of learning how to work and prosper in the free market.

The legacy of working under a command economy has left many companies ill-equipped and under-funded, many not operating at full capacity or not at all.

The private sector has shown itself to be capable of initiating real estate development projects, most commonly the building of private apartments, shopping complexes and small hotels.

Weaknesses in management and financing do lead to long delays, poor quality and in some cases, the abandonment of a construction project mid-way.  According to the State Statistical Office, the construction sector shrank from 1991 to 1994. In 1994, activity increased 26 per cent from 1993. Since then the gross national product has averaged growth of 3.3 per cent, but still has not caught up with the rate at the end of the 1980s. 

The environmental services sector has received a significant boost from international donors working in Mongolia. Various donor funded projects are building and renovating facilities using energy-efficient technology. These donors have also conducted training workshops and education campaigns for local construction companies. Being a very cold country, awareness is high over the financial and environmental benefits of energy-efficient techniques. Construction techniques, however, are weak and Mongolia has a long way to go in utilizing these technologies efficiently.  

It is a misnomer to think most Mongolians are wandering nomads. In fact the majority of the population of 2.4 million now live a sedentary lifestyle in small towns or in the big cities of Ulaanbaatar, Erdenet and Darkhan. Under communism these urban centres were economically dependent on state enterprises, many of  which now have either gone bankrupt, idle or have been privatized. There is currently a significant migration to the capital from these economically devastated communities. Officially the government was able to track 6,518 people, mostly between the ages of 18 and 39, moving to the capital in the first half of 1998 – a 60 per cent increase on 1997. Unofficial migration to the capital is believed to be far higher. 

At present a majority of the population still live in ger tents or sub-standard makeshift wooden housing. The construction industry cannot meet the high demand for modern housing, with amenities like running water, toilets and electricity.

“The business atmosphere in Mongolia is inviting and [our] partnership has faced very few obstacles while entering the market. Based on our positive experience here, we plan to continue and expand our presence in the Mongolian marketplace.” Mrs. Bolormaa Reiner, Representative Johnson and Johnson-Mongolia

Foreign Aid

Economic Prospects for the Country

Large donor community

Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mongolia also lost significant economic subsidies, which contributed to the severe crisis of the early 1990s. The World Bank has estimated these subsidies reached a third of Mongolia’s GDP in the late 1980s. Since then international donors have played a key role in helping to restructure the Mongolian economy to adapt to the demands of a market economy.  

Infrastructure has always been a weak point for Mongolia, and it was considered the most isolated and underdeveloped of the former Soviet bloc countries. International donors have placed infrastructure development at the top of their agendas. Since 1997 foreign aid in the form of grants and loans has hovered around US $250 million, with the vast majority of this aid going towards infrastructure development. Priority areas are highways and transportation, power stations and communications. By sector the aid breaks down as follows: 30 per cent to mining, 27 per cent to energy, 19 per cent to transport, eight per cent to communications, five per cent to social security and three per cent to other areas. The donor community and the Mongolian government want to dig the country out of decades of underdevelopment, which currently hampers the budding private sector from becoming more sophisticated. 

These large-scale infrastructure projects offer enormous opportunities for US firms experienced in working in cold-weather conditions. There are also opportunities to develop world class office space for these international donors, something that is currently lacking in Ulaanbaatar.  

Foreign investment to date

Actual large-scale foreign investment to the country has been slow coming and still doesn’t represent a major economic opportunity. The major players in direct foreign investment outside of development aid have been Mongolia’s old neighbours, Russia (20 per cent) and China (33 per cent). This decade the country has attracted US $200 million in foreign investment and registered 840 jointly owned or wholly owned ventures.

New-found affluence

It is estimated that around five per cent of the capital’s population fit into a middle or upper income category. The late 1990s have seen the emergence of a new breed of affluent Mongolians. Many of these affluent Mongolians struck it rich trading in once-unobtainable consumer products or servicing the expanding foreign community. This class of traders have developed a sophisticated taste for all things Western – Mercedes Benz cars, four-by-four jeeps and western fashions. Vehicle registrations have steadily risen since the introduction of a market economy. In 1996 the number of vehicles was 65,020; by 1997 it was 70,088. 

New home owners

In 1998 50,000 families became homeowners as a result of privatization of apartments. All the apartments are of Soviet era and do not meet the aspirations of the growing middle class. Many of these new homeowners immediately set about renovating these apartments, installing modern appliances and furniture. A significant minority is renovating apartments with the intention of selling them on to wealthier Mongolians or foreigners. The high number of renovations and additions to buildings in the capital is also indicative of other things: the economy has changed and existing buildings do not meet the new demands, and that people have money to pay for the renovations. 

Business Opportunities

USAID has identified the following opportunities in the Mongolian construction sector:

– Donor-funded projects: Large-scale infrastructure projects that are funded by loans or grants from international donors, are a safe bet. These projects require management and technical expertise that is often difficult to find locally. This includes projects that require an international tender.  

– Fully funded foreign projects: Any project requiring a building that meets international standards. International companies have little choice when it comes to finding adequate office or retail space.

– Low-cost labor: The Mongolian workforce is highly literate and often speak a second language, usually Russian amongst older workers, and English amongst the young. Unemployment levels are high in Mongolia and workers are keen to get a job. Generally salaries are as follows:

– Manager: US $250

– Accountant: US $200

– Engineer: US $150

– Secretary: US 100

– Driver: US $100

– Qualified worker: US $100

Source: FIFTA

– Donors: Many large-scale projects are directly funded by donor grants or loans and therefore are a low-risk, reliable source of income. At the June, 1999 donors meeting in Ulaanbaatar, US $320 million was pledged, the largest amount in eight years of donor funding. Most of these pledges are targeted at “hard” infrastructure and private sector development. 

– Imports rule: Imported construction materials dominate the marketplace and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Many of the materials are poor quality and from China. American companies can attract customers with their obvious advantages in both quality and innovation.

– Large resource base: Mongolia’s large wealth of mineral resources is inefficiently utilized, with many mines and factories working under capacity or not at all. These resources could be tapped to produce construction materials locally for the domestic market, or more lucratively, for the booming Chinese market hungry for resources. 

– Very cold country: Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the coldest capital in the world. Mongolia’s winters dip below minus 40 Celsius, and for those who live in apartment buildings, this can be a difficult time. Many apartments are inadequately insulated, and dip below zero when the central heating system is disrupted due to poor maintenance. There is an urgent need for high-quality aluminium and plastic windows and doors. Budgets are tight in Mongolia yet many organizations spend vast sums to heat buildings. It has been proven that during the course of the winter heating costs can be reduced from Tg 4,200 (US $4.20) per square metre, to Tg 280 (US $0.28) in an energy efficient dwelling. 

–  Windows are expensive: Mongolia must import all windows and glass products. When the cost of freight is added, windows become an unnecessarily expensive portion of any construction bill. This is a business opportunity for any company who can domestically produce glass products and windows at a cheaper price than imports. A National Code for Insulation of Buildings is being revised and none of the existing windows and doors meet this requirement.

– No chemical industry: While Mongolia exports oil to China for refining, the country does not have a domestic chemical industry, and consequently plastic and rubber is imported for construction purposes. Stone tiles like marble are currently also imported from outside, despite this resource being available in Mongolia.  

– Central heating and water unreliable:  For those who live in apartment buildings, the regular disruptions to both the water and heating supply are not only inconvenient, but also bad for business.  Technology that can by-pass relying on the central system (common to many Soviet-era cities, this system is wasteful and subject to regular breakdowns), is urgently needed. Alternative energy sources like solar power and wind can bring electricity to those who are not on the grid.  

 Free trade zones: The towns of Sukhbaatar (Russian border) and Zamyn-Uud (Chinese border), both served by rail, are the focus of Mongolian government attempts at increasing cross-border trade. At Zamyn-Uud Japan has upgraded the customs house facilities and trans-shipment facility. On the Chinese side, a major trading market has been constructed and a boom is taking place based on trade with Mongolia.  

“Arthur Andersen has had representation in Mongolia since 1993. We have been very active in the development of the accounting and auditing profession in Mongolia. January 1999, Arthur Andersen opened Arthur Andersen Mongolia Audit LLC.” Mr. C. L. Ruddell, Representative Arthur Andersen-Mongolia

What Do Mongolians Say They Need?

In interviews conducted by USAID, Mongolian government officials and construction companies detailed what they felt were the most urgent priorities: 

– Education and training: The vast majority of engineers and managers in the Mongolian construction industry received their training under communism. They were trained to work under a centrally planned economy, and will need to learn how to thrive in a free market situation where there are no guarantees. The Construction Training Institute currently only offers courses to managers and engineers. Its curricula is out-of-date and awareness of modern construction techniques and standards is weak. Exposure to computer-assisted construction methods is urgently required as well as training in foreign languages. 

– Awareness of International Standards: No Mongolian companies can offer state-of-the-art consulting on construction projects. 

– Licensure, apprenticeships and guilds: Standards are very weak in the construction sector and there is not a highly developed mechanism to ensure construction managers, engineers and workers meet a minimum qualification.     

– Being Earthquake-proof: While the National Design Codes and Regulations do stipulate that buildings must meet minimum requirements against earthquakes (Mongolia is located in a seismically active region, and severe earthquakes have happened), most buildings post-1989 fail to meet these requirements. 

– Weak infrastructure: Developing the transportation infrastructure of Mongolia will be key to future improvements in the economy. The rapidly developing Chinese economy offers many opportunities to Mongolia if roads and highways can be upgraded.  

– Better coordination and promotion: Working with FIFTA or the Foreign Investment and Foreign Trade Agency, Mongolian companies seeking foreign investment for projects need to improve their networking and presentation skills.  

Obstacles and Market Risks

Corruption: While Mongolians will tell you corruption has reached all levels of government, it is important to keep in mind it does not come close to the levels of corruption found in other former Communist countries. Foreign businesses do not suffer from harassment or intimidation by criminal gangs. 

Inexperience with the free market: Foreign businesses and travellers to Mongolia do experience difficulties communicating Western business concepts like consumer rights and service. It has to be said that over the past three years this has changed considerably for the better, and continues to improve as Mongolian businesses learn the importance of the axiom “the customer is always right”. 

Differences between Mongolian and US standards: While Mongolia’s regulations and laws are different from those in the US, it is important to keep in mind that the regulatory environment in Mongolia can be much freer in some areas. Also, many of the new laws have been drafted based on US laws and Mongolia’s constitution was written upon the advice of US legal experts. 

Harsh climate: The long cold winters do present problems for some foreign businesses not used to working in cold-weather climates. This is also an area where American companies are at a specific advantage. 

Financial instability: Mongolia has had a number of serious banking crises since the early 1990s. Many private and public banks are insolvent due to bad loans. This can lead to long delays to construction projects and/or non-payment of salaries.   

Contract bidding: Only those contracts that are directly commissioned by the government will be subject to an open bidding. Private sector work is usually not subject to open bidding or design competitions. 

Downtime: Since Mongolia does no international corporate presence in the capital, any technical problems to equipment or software can involve downtime and delays as parts or repairs are sought in China. It is important to take this into consideration when establishing an operation in Mongolia. 

Advantages of Working in Mongolia

– Regulatory freedom

– Private-sector driven

– Market economy taking off

– Democratic

 Privatization of Land: Can I Own Land in Mongolia?

The dual legacies of communism and nomadism have made the issue of private ownership of land in Mongolia a thorny one. The government has passed the necessary legislation to make owning land in urban areas possible. However, inexperience with the concept of owning property and the laws that govern this make buying land risky. It is advisable to get a reliable local partner and to use the services of a law firm that knows the Mongolian situation. Long-term leases are available and might be a good option. 

Mongolian Government 

Financial commitment to date: 

The Ministry of Infrastructure Development has developed projects to encourage the production of construction materials locally. Due to financial constraints these projects have not been implemented. They include projects on cement, glass and paint production, rock processing, lime extraction and road development.

Government plans:

At this time the Mongolian government has not been able to develop a long-term strategy for the development of the construction sector. There are no specific policy incentives directly supporting real estate and housing development. The Ministry of Infrastructure is looking to the private sector to offer direction and guidance. 

Future Opportunities

The Tumen River Project: The eastern portion of Mongolia is included in a major trade zone development project initiated by the United Nations Development Programme. The Tumen River Area Development Programme (TRADP) is focusing foreign investment and infrastructure upgrading on eastern Mongolian, North-East China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and eastern Russia. This region has cumulatively attracted US $961 million from 1991 to 1997, with Mongolia’s second biggest trading partner, China, making significant development gains.  While the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been a thorn in the Project’s side, both Mongolia and China are keen to push ahead with improving infrastructure and trade links. It is impossible to ignore the fact that China has made significant gains and that trade links with Mongolia continue to tighten. 

A feasibility study is currently underway on a railway link from Arxan, China to Choibalsan, Mongolia, and possibly on to Ulaanbaatar. As donors begin to fund these projects it would be prudent for American businesses to start building a relationship in the region to take advantage of future contracts. 

Commercial Street 2005: The City of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and commercial centre, has drafted the blue prints for the construction of a modern commercial and business centre for the next millennium. Commercial Street 2005 will offer infrastructure and services that match global standards. The current Soviet-era infrastructure of Ulaanbaatar is an impediment to future growth and is unsuitable for Mongolia’s new market economy. 

The project covers 20 hectares of 1 km length in a historically vibrant part of the city. The city will pay for the engineering and infrastructure works for the complex and local businesses will pay for the construction of secondary buildings. Commercial Street 2005 is looking for foreign investment to participate in the building of a food supermarket, trade and service complex, a twin-towered international trade and service complex, a banking centre, a business centre and renovations to nearby apartment buildings. It is estimated the project will create 10,000 jobs and would cost an estimated US $100 million. 

Darkhan: With a population around 55,000, Darkhan is as-yet an untapped opportunity. Located north of  Ulaanbaatar and close to the border with Russia, Darkhan is linked by a good road and rail. Along with the mining town of Erdenet, Darkhan has a modern infrastructure. Having been trained to work in the former state industries that once dominated the city, the population is well-educated and skilled. Today, coal mining and agriculture are key to the economy. The city is potentially a good stable base for accessing the Russian market.

Getting started

Registering prior to undertaking construction work is relatively simple. The Government Agency for Construction issues three degrees of licenses. The first license is for small projects, the second is for small to medium-sized projects, and the third is for large-scale projects anywhere in Mongolia. As the project develops the company is obligated to notify and allow local building inspectors to enter the site. 

Residency Permits

All foreigners wishing to remain in Mongolia for more than 30 days must apply to the State Centre for Civil Registration and Information for a temporary residency permit or a short-term residency permit. 

Temporary Residency Permit

The applicant must present to the State Centre for Civil Registration a request issued by FIFTA. FIFTA will issue such a request to any agreed foreign investor immediately. Permits are generally issued within a couple of days and are valid for a period of time from three months to one year. A temporary residency permit can be renewed an unlimited number of times. Each renewal will re-validate the permit for a period from three months up to one year, as requested by the investor. 

Short Term Residency Permit

This non-renewable permit is issued to foreigners who plan to spend no more than 90 days in Mongolia. Applicants are required to present a written request from a Mongolian or foreign organization stating the activity in which the person will be engaged and the reason the permit is needed. In case of an exploratory visit by a potential investor, a letter from the home company will suffice. 

Entry Visas

Investors may apply for single-entry and multiple-entry visas at the Foreign Ministry’s Chancellery Building in Ulaanbaatar or at Mongolian diplomatic missions in other countries. 

Single-Entry Visas

A single-entry visa is valid for three months from its date of issuance and entitles the bearer to enter and stay in Mongolia for 30 days. A letter of invitation or applicable work papers are required. This type of visa is issued at the Ulaanbaatar airport or land border-crossing point. 

Multiple-Entry Visa

A multiple-entry visa entitles the bearer to enter and exit Mongolia an unlimited number of times and is valid for a period of six months to one year. For the issuance of this type of visa, an official letter stating the reason for travel and a copy of the certificate of the organization must be submitted by the investor. 

(Source: FIFTA)

Infrastructure facts

Airports – Mongolia has 81 airports, of which 31 can be used year-round. Only eight are paved. 

Roads and highways – Mongolia has 1,531.7 km paved roads.

Railway – Mongolia has 1,750 km of rail track, mostly a north-south line reaching from Russia to China, with spur lines to the copper mining city of Erdenet and the coal mining city of Baganuur. A short line goes from the eastern city of Choibalsan to Russia. 

Registered trucks – 25,473 (1998)

Major infrastructure projects (1997-1999)

USA 

Mongolia energy sector project – US $45,500,000

World Bank

Mongolia coal project – US $35,000,000

Transport rehabilitation project – US $32,313,000 

Asian Development Bank

Telecommunications – US $24,381,000

Power station rehabilitation – US $38,277,000

Ulaanbaatar heat efficiency project – US $29,487,000

Provincial towns basic urban services project – US $7,695,000

Road development – US $22,499,000

Ulaanbaatar airport project – US $37,524,000

Japan

Road construction (1996)  – (Yen) 11,590,000

Rehabilitation of power plant IV (1995) – US $46,000,000

France 

Rehabilitation and extension of UB telephone network – (F Franc) 25,000,000

Germany

Telecommunications – (DM) 10,000,000

South Korea

Thermoelectric power plant in the Gobi desert – US $8,000,000

Upcoming major infrastructure projects

Asian Development Bank 

Improving Ulaanbaatar heat efficiency (until 2002) – US $39,785,000 

Japan

Building of rural schools – US $20,000,000

In 1998 Tg, 208 billion was invested in Mongolia, of which Tg 57.2 billion was on construction/major improvements

Source: State Statistical Bulletin

Construction trends in Mongolia show that in-country production of materials has suffered greatly. 

Building doors and window

Tg 417.8 million in 1989

Tg 2.9 million in 1998 

Bricks (million pieces)

172.8 (1989)

18.9 (1998) 

Cement (in thousand tons)

512.6 (1989)

109 (1998)

On a positive note, sales of furniture went up

Tg 34.7 million in 1989

Tg 185.2 million in 1998

US-Mongol Construct 2000: Building a New Democracy was published by USAID. It helped lay the foundations for a construction boom in the mid-2000s.

Media Coverage:

Construction Business Review: Creating Overseas Market Opportunities for U.S. Companies

“Support for incoming and outgoing trade missions are among the business outreach and support services offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Technology Network (GTN) program. USAID, in turn, draws heavily on expertise from the International executive Service Corps (IESC) in organizing and implementing these trade missions.

In January 2000, a USAID supported, IESC-assisted, incoming trade mission from Mongolia was instrumental in introducing Mongolian businesses to the American construction industry. Dubbed “U.S.-Mongolian Construct 2000,” the “reverse” trade mission brought representatives from 15 Mongolian construction firms to meet one-on-one with American companies in Dallas, Seattle and Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Mongolian trade mission began in Dallas, where the group attended the National Association of Home Builders’ Show (NAHB) – the largest event of its kind in the country. Next, they traveled to Seattle for the Evergreen Gateway Building Products program. In Alaska, the group learned how U.S. construction companies handle building on permafrost and deal with extreme cold weather conditions. According to the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia, Alphonse F. LaPorta, ‘Mongolia is at the center of a region undergoing substantial infrastructure upgrading, as the market economy takes hold.'”

Update:

A resources “boomtown” throughout the 2000s. Source: Bloomberg. When I left in 1999, Mongolia’s PPP was US $8.8 bn; today (2021) it is US $42.4 bn.
A dramatic decline in inflation paired with political and economic stabilisation allowed Mongolia to enjoy the fruits of the fast-growing economies of the 2000s. Source: Statista.
It doesn’t hurt when your neighbour (China) is experiencing an economic boom as it drives down poverty rates.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2018