Just back from an intensive, nine-day leadership training workshop in Singapore and the Philippines, which kicked off The Asia Foundation’s Development Fellows program, In Asia editor Alma Freeman interviewed one of the 10 inaugural Fellows from Mongolia, Badruun Gardi, executive director of the Zorig Foundation in Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and the resource boom has brought about rapid change. What do you think have been the most impactful changes in the last few years?
Unfortunately, I feel that the rapid transformation over the past few years has been more negative than positive as a whole. While the country’s economy has grown tremendously, wealth management has not been a strong point for Mongolia. As a result, there’s more concentration of wealth in the hands of few while levels of poverty and unemployment remain high. Many of the poorest households have not benefited much from the economic growth. Instead, many have gotten even poorer due to the constant double-digit rate of inflation over the past few years. It is important for Mongolia to learn from the experiences of other resource-rich countries so that we may avoid the resource curse. Mongolia certainly has potential to become a highly developed country but we need to take bold steps that may be unpopular for now but may lay the foundation for a bright future in the long run.
Founded in 1998 in memory of the late Zorig Sanjaasuren, a leader of Mongolia’s democratic revolution, the Zorig Foundation has played an important role in promoting good governance and engaging youth in decision-making. As its executive director, what are the most critical areas that the Zorig Foundation is focusing on today?
Our Foundation focuses its activities broadly in three main areas: good governance, community development, and youth and education. We are proud of the fact that we stay flexible and are able to adapt to the changing times as we are always re-evaluating our activities and how they align with gaps currently present in our society. Over the past three years, we have placed heavy emphasis on expanding our youth and education programs as well as developing a new policy research institute. We believe that the most important determinant for a highly developed Mongolia will be its level of informed, analytical citizens. Through our various projects for youth ranging from high schoolers to recent college graduates, we hope to develop critical thinking skills while presenting various perspectives on the most pressing issues facing our country. We are also in the process of developing a policy research institute. In such a complex political, economic, and social environment, it is crucial for policy decisions to be guided by high-quality research. There is currently a lot of space for improvement in this arena and we are working hard to establish an institute that will produce high-quality research in previously overlooked yet important areas.
Given Mongolia’s history under Soviet rule, legislation that supports citizens’ participation in policy-making and access to justice is still considered relatively nascent. What have been some of the advances in this area, and what challenges remain?
Mongolia has taken some strides in citizen participation and justice sector reform has been a key topic of the president and the government for the past few years. One great example for improving and ensuring citizen participation was the establishment of the Citizens’ Hall under the President of Mongolia. The number of Citizens’ Halls has increased since then with presence in some rural areas as well. The Citizens’ Hall provides a venue for citizen input through public hearings on proposed legislation. Since 2012, the Ministry of Justice has paid special attention to improving access to justice. Witness protection has been a concern in the past and a Marshals Service was established last year. This shows that our justice system is showing a trend of maturation as more specialized services are established to deal with the increasing intricacies of issues related to the access to justice. However, while Mongolia is good at having up-to-date, international standard laws and regulations, the problems usually stem from a lack of institutional capacity and clarity in implementation. There needs to be more focus placed on implementation if the legal changes are to truly bring about positive changes.
You said in an interview on the occasion of The Asia Foundation’s 20th anniversary in Mongolia that, “if you believe in democracy, you should be rooting for Mongolia.” Why is this the case, and can you talk about what this means for the region and the world?
Mongolia is a very unlikely democracy in many ways. When we became a democracy in 1990, we did not possess many of the prerequisites many scholars believed were necessary for democracy to exist. We did not have democratic neighbors or a history of democracy, and we were one of the poorest countries in the world. Yet after 24 years, although flawed, we stand as a beacon of democracy for the entire region. As Mongolia goes through tremendous changes, I believe we are at an important crossroads in our development. For Mongolia to maintain its democratic momentum, we must ensure our commitment to good governance practices. While internal actors must take charge, we need support and guidance from other democracies globally as we work to improve governance. Therefore, I would like to urge all those who believe in democracy to not only root for Mongolia as a spectator, but to also take an active role in working to support strengthening democracy through collaboration with on-the-ground actors. A vibrant democracy in Mongolia can bring stability and become a counterbalance in a region that is becoming increasingly powerful yet unstable.
Twenty years after the revolution, Mongolia now has a generation of youth that grew up in a changing democracy. What are your thoughts on today’s youth? Are they engaged in issues such as good governance, environment, and human rights?
Mongolia is a very young country – 70 percent of the population is under 35. A high number of leaders within the civil society, private, and government sectors are quite young. Mongolia also enjoys a 98 percent literacy rate and a very technologically savvy population. All of these factors point to the ability, or at least the potential, of the youth to influence Mongolia’s development path. The youth of today seem to understand the unique opportunities provided to them by the rapid economic growth and are actively engaged and integrated with the economic system. However, I see a general sense of apathy when it comes to governance, environment, and human rights issues. It is crucial for youth to be actively engaged and feel empowered to affect change in these areas. The Zorig Foundation devotes a lot of energy to increase youth engagement with these issues. We believe that the best way to empower youth to take action is to support the creation of strong social ties amongst youth and to facilitate open, safe, and thoughtful discussion on these important topics. This creates actively engaged and empowered youth willing to work together to have a positive impact on the development of Mongolia.