Sunday, September 7, 2014

Out of steppe

It is boom time in Mongolia. As the country throws off the shackles of its Soviet communist past, construction is proceeding at an astonishing rate and the list of millionaires is growing.

But hidden in the shadows of the new skyscrapers towering over the capital Ulaanbaatar, a tale of two countries is emerging. While many citizens are thriving, one-third of the population still lives in poverty.

Tserenjigmed Dagvadorj and his brother, Ganbaatar, are two of Mongolia's richest businessmen. With a portfolio of businesses ranging from hotels to supermarkets and construction companies, the brothers symbolise the former Soviet republic's fervent embrace of capitalism.

But in the new Mongolia, capitalism has not been as kind to everyone. A single mother living in a traditional yurt on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, says she struggles to provide the daily necessities for her children. After leaving the steppe to pursue work in the city, she has been shocked by the high cost of living. She and her children often rely on hand-outs from charities.

She is not alone. As Mongolia's economy takes off, fuelled by an influx of foreign investment and a mining boom, many people are being left behind, excluded from the riches flowing freely in elite circles.

As the country moves further away from its communist past, a vast transformation is taking place that is threatening Mongolia's centuries-old nomadic culture. In less than 30 years, Mongolia has moved from an agrarian socialism to a market economy. Private markets, once outlawed, are now thriving, and globalisation has brought massive change.

"There used to only be bread and salt on our stalls. The transition has been very quick," explains Dagvadorj, one of Mongolia's richest businessmen.
A new consumerist way of life has emerged in the cities, prompting a rural exodus from the country's vast grasslands. Of three million Mongolians, half now live in the capital. Many are abandoning nomadic lifestyles in search of better wages in the city. But the gap between the rich and poor is extreme.

Some 60 percent of Ulaanbaatar's population lives in slums with no access to running water or electricity, in a city where winter temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees.

Each year, more than 50,000 people leave the steppe to settle in neighbourhoods surrounding the capital. But once there, they say that their jobs are unstable and wages low in relation to the cost of city living.

Many rely on charities like the one run by Tuul Saruula, a fashion designer who embodies the new Mongolia. She custom-makes expensive outfits for Ulaanbaatar's socialites, but set up a charity after seeing the effects of the growing wealth disparity on the city's outskirts. Here, she says, "poverty and alcoholism are rife."

Growing inequality has prompted criticism of the mining boom that is responsible for much of the country's economic growth. Some allege that Mongolia's vast mineral wealth is being exploited by foreign companies, and that locals see few of the riches from the country's copper, gold, coal and uranium mines.

This sentiment is fostering a new brand of nationalism, best symbolised by Amra, one of the country's most popular rock stars. His lyrics, which lambast foreigners who profit from Mongolia’s natural resources, appear to have touched a nerve with the Mongolian public, with his concerts drawing record crowds.

Even some of the country's elite are sounding a warning note that Mongolia's rich traditions are at risk of being lost in the rush to modernise. The Dagvadorj brothers, the powerful businessmen, are desperately trying to hold onto the traditions of their forebears, investing in a herd of 500 race horses in the countryside. They visit their horse breeders as often as their hectic business schedules allow, holding traditional ceremonies and customs that have been passed down through generations.

On this edition 101 East asks: Can everyone find a place in the new Mongolia, or will economic development come at the cost of the country's most vulnerable?

#Mongolia's booming economy is growing millionaires. But what happens to those who miss out or are left behind? #poverty

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