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Change has come quickly to Mongolia. The last three decades of democracy have restructured the country, but have been marred by increasing inequality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ger suburbs surrounding Ulaanbaatar - Mongolia’s main city, where almost half of the population lives.
Citizen groups play a crucial role in supporting residents of these suburbs, but they don’t have a seat at policy tables – and the government is missing out.
What are citizen groups?
Citizen groups (CGs) are semi-formal civil society organizations. They’re informal self-help groups of individuals or associations found in ger areas that receive small grants from the local administration (horoo) or raise funds via members’ donations, and have been actively participating in local community development initiatives in Ulaanbaatar for the last 20 years.
Almost 80 percent of CG members in Ulaanbaatar are women. They’re involved in a wide variety of small-scale business, environmental and infrastructure improvement projects, and have been successful in managing community resources and capacities - particularly through various income-generation activities and savings groups.
Some micro-infrastructure works that CGs are capable of completing. (Credit: Bayartsetseg)
Mongolian Government action plans have long been acknowledging the importance of the partnership between the state and civil society in fostering a democratic culture and expanding citizen participation.
However, a noticeable gap exists between these action plans and practice on the ground.
This is particularly true when it comes to ger districts on the periphery of the city. Few civil society bodies are found in ger areas, including non-governmental organizations.
In fact, some international NGOs in Ulaanbaatar are sceptical about the effectiveness of the Mongolian government’s community engagement efforts. Yet they believe that with a better partnership between government, civil society organizations and citizens, Mongolia could be an exemplary community development country with unique stories from urban settlements.
What’s getting in the way?
First, there’s a high turnover of government staff due to political instability. This matters, because citizen groups aren’t covered under Mongolia’s NGO laws. Instead they rely on support from the horoo administrators, who change frequently – which is why CG members pray for support from new administrators, regardless of their political affiliation.
Second, local governments actually have limited power to make decisions over local matters, despite Mongolia’s decentralized political model.
Due to CG’s unclear legal status, it isn’t possible for CGs to compete for local tenders, apply for small grants or execute micro infrastructure works approved via Local Development Funds. Some are willing to register as an NGO, but they’re usually reluctant to go through the official procedures of registration, paperwork and financial reporting.
For example, let’s say a company wants to build a kids’ playground. A non-competitive tender often ends in an expensive, low-quality playground. But a CG knows the area; if they could compete for local tenders, they believe they could build one with better quality.
A playground completed by a company (left) versus one built by the CG at half the price (right). Photo by H. Ganhuyag.
However, when CGs approach state bureaus to get involved, they are usually asked what a CG even is, because the law does not include explicit provisions for CGs.
Many of our meetings with CGs indicate that their members want the government to recognize the value of community-driven initiatives.
Many CGs were proud of their achievements in undertaking projects, and often in challenging circumstances. They’re keen to co-operate with different levels of government to improve the lives of people living in the ger districts.
Put simply, they want a seat at the policy table.
So what’s in it for the government?
Well, CGs are in tune with the needs of their own residents. For instance, some CGs surveyed their residents about the government’s effort to replace ger areas with apartment blocks. Perhaps surprisingly, 80 percent of ger residents actually preferred living in the ger district and call apartments ‘four-walled blocks’ that are just built for profit.
Instead, they want improved infrastructure such as roads, footpaths, affordable power and access to water.
This is an example of how CGs can make eye-opening contributions to development policy before any decisions are made. In the long run, this saves money and allows the government to have a better impact.
CGs are clearly an untapped policy-making resource that could dramatically improve the lives of Mongolia’s people. All they need is some recognition, trust and some modest financial assistance to sustain themselves.
Bayartsetseg Terbish is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the National University of Mongolia. She does research on community development practices among ger district residents in Ulaanbaatar and is a doctoral candidate at Ghent University.
This article is based on “The State and Civil Society: the case of Citizens’ Groups in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia”, by Bayartsetseg Terbish and Dr. Margot Rawsthorne, Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sydney University.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. We neither endorse nor are responsible for them.
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