The following is an interview with United Nations Assistant Secretary-General & United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Haoliang Xu about development-related issues in Mongolia. Haoliang Xu visited Mongolia last month and met with Prime Minister J.Erdenebat and other government officials.
Haoliang Xu visited Mongolia last month and met with Prime Minister J.Erdenebat and other government officials to discuss Mongolia’s development path.
Tell us about yourself – how did you come to work in development and what were your previous postings?
I worked in computer engineering for seven years in China, but I always wanted to do something bigger. I went to the United States to study International Affairs and Management Science. I did six internships and eventually landed my first job with the UNDP in 1995.
I worked at UNDP in a variety of places, including New York headquarters, Iran, Timor-Leste, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. I became Deputy Regional Director for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS regions) – in 2010, before my current position.
How have you found your trip to Mongolia?
I came to see how UNDP can support Mongolia’s development. I had very good meetings with senior officials including the prime minister, foreign minister and Khentii Province governor.
I also got a sense of how much Mongolia has achieved in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Poverty almost halved from about 38 percent to about 21 percent between the years 2000 – 2015. Since my last visit two years ago, Mongolia entered the “high” category on the Human Development Index (HDI), ranking 90th out of 187 nations in 2015, alongside China. To rank in this category shows great social and economic progress.
I also learnt more about what lies ahead in terms of challenges, in meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted globally in 2015. The economy is quite vulnerable to global volatility, such as commodity price cycles, as mining still accounts for more than 80 percent of exports. Now unemployment is at about 10 percent nationally, while one in five Mongolians remain in poverty. So creating jobs and lifting all of these people out of poverty by 2030 remain key challenges, especially during the current economic crisis.
As one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, I also got to see how UNDP is working with herding communities to address environmental risks too. Visiting Khentii Province gave me first-hand information about what we have achieved together and what more we must do. For example, we saw herders who had organized themselves into groups to help each other, to have early warning systems for extreme weather events, so they can work together to prepare enough hay. However, I also visited another herder that was left behind, not part of any group, so more outreach is still needed.
We know that the UN has been supporting Mongolia’s development for more than 55 years. In what ways has Mongolia contributed to the UN?
Mongolia contributes to the UN in many ways. For example in our partnership, Mongolia contributes in terms of costs – our office building, UN House, was provided by the government.
Internationally, it has also made huge contributions to global peace and stability. Since joining the UN in 1961, Mongolia has sent 8,500 troops to UN peacekeeping missions. Today more than 900 are active in conflict zones around the world, which is significant for a population of just 3.1 million people. Mongolia was also elected to the UN Human Rights Council, a testament to its international reputation, and is very active in voicing the needs of landlocked nations.
What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and what do they seek to achieve?
The SDGs are the new global development agenda, applying to all countries, not only developing nations. They are much more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They seek to end poverty completely, reduce inequality and protect the planet by 2030, so it is capable of supporting future generations.
Mongolia needs to reduce its economic and climate risks, as well as ensure its development includes every citizen. Priorities for the SDGs in Mongolia will therefore be helping the country to diversify its mining-based economy, creating jobs and stopping degradation of grasslands, in order to protect nomadic livelihoods.
What is UNDP doing to help Mongolia to meet the SDGs?
UNDP helped guide the SDGs into Mongolia’s own Sustainable Development Vision 2030, supporting consultations among technical experts, decision-makers and the public.
Going forward, UNDP will act as a development partner, rather than a donor, offering policy support and technical advice to national and local governments, so Mongolian institutions develop the capacities needed to make the SDGs a reality. This will include working with government on the financing for the SDGs and the Sustainable Development Vision, advising on the mix and sequence of policies needed to achieve the goals and putting in place monitoring and data systems so we can track progress.
Complementing efforts at the planning and policy level, we will work together on strengthening environmental governance and mitigating and adapting to climate change. We will help develop solutions to issues such as rapid urbanization, air pollution and green city development. As part of this, we will continue helping the government access Global Climate Finance to reduce environmental vulnerability. We will also support the creation of economic opportunities so everyone can benefit from development in addition to boosting youth participation in decision-making.
How is Mongolia carrying out these goals, and what is needed to ensure they can still be met despite budget cuts?
We know that Mongolia has to make 1.5 billion USD in bond repayments due over the next two years, and budget cuts are putting greater pressure on the government to decide where to spend.
However, our view is that even in tough economic times, countries must safeguard social investments, areas such as health, education and social security. Mongolia has made great development achievements over the last two decades in these areas, which must be protected. All of our evidence globally shows that social welfare spending on the country’s poorest citizens produces greater outcomes in human development, and indeed economic growth, over the long-term.
To ensure this, SDGs should be at the center of national planning. The National Development Agency (NDA) was set up last year to oversee long-term planning for the Sustainable Development Vision. We welcome this and hope to see strong coordination between the NDA and Ministry of Finance, so state budgets reflect this. The government can also raise its revenues to support human development. A progressive tax regime, as we have seen in the recently agreed in the IMF deal, can help to ensure more equitable, inclusive development. The same goes for raising excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, which is something that the UN system under the leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been promoting for some time, since Mongolia’s alcohol and tobacco taxes currently rank among the lowest in the region.
In addition, the private sector has a major role to play in creating jobs, boosting government revenues through taxation, pioneering innovations, as well as in corporate social responsibility. We estimate that 90 percent of jobs created in Asia come from the private sector. So we must make sure that conditions are favorable for investment, and work with investors to pay attention to the social and environmental impacts of their investments.
For example, Mongolia has great potential in renewable energies, such as wind and solar, which can help diversify its economy and also protect its environment.
Another example of how the private sector can help is to offer young people more practical internships and training, as I was given in America. This means they can gain the skills and experience they need to land jobs later, reducing youth unemployment. It also benefits employers, as they have more qualified talent to choose from in future and a more stable condition to operate within.
So we can see that economic, environmental and social goals are not mutually exclusive. If we all work together – public sector, private sector, civil society and local communities – I believe Mongolia can meet the SDGs.
The mining sector accounts for 20 percent of Mongolia’s GDP. How can this be balanced with achieving sustainable development?
Given its huge economic contribution, mining is likely to remain a central part of Mongolia’s future growth. However, mining companies can reduce the environmental damage done by rehabilitating landscapes and protecting nature reserves, as well as using less water when possible.
Mongolia’s mining sector should learn from the development challenges of other countries, such as my own, China, not to pollute first and clean up later, as that is extremely costly. It is also important that citizens are able to see the mining sector producing development outcomes that directly benefit them. For example, by having companies provide clean water and infrastructure to the communities around them. Investing into the environment and social development should be seen as a core part of business, not just an after-thought, because our shared future depends on it.
Mongolia is a nomadic nation traditionally, but rural livelihoods are now threatened by climate change. What are the implications of this?
Mongolia is one of the most sensitive countries to climate change on earth. Official data suggests about a quarter of Mongolia’s land has turned to desert. With increasing droughts in summer, animals are not fattening up before winter. This is causing more livestock losses during dzuds, threatening nomadic livelihoods.
It has also forced many to migrate to Ulaanbaatar, contributing to greater air, water and soil pollution as ger districts have expanded without sanitation, running water or central heating. As a result, many ger district residents are forced to burn coal, contributing to air pollution up to thirty times the WHO safe limit in some areas, with severe consequences for citizens’ health.
Recently the government provided free electricity to ger districts at night, but more support is needed from all stakeholders, including companies, to move Ulaanbaatar’s poorest families to clean energy, such as clean coal, clean stoves and solar.
Reducing energy consumption by increasing energy efficiency is also needed. UNDP is working with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) on improving building designs, to reduce heat loss in winter.
In rural areas, together with GEF, we are working with communities on ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA), so land and water resources they depend on can be sustained and the effect of climate change can be reduced.
In addition, UNDP is cooperating with urban and rural communities, local governments and NEMA to include climate-related Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into national and local development plans. This winter, the UN also contributed 1.1 million USD to provide 3,500 vulnerable herding families facing dzud conditions with fodder for their livestock and cash grants so they can buy daily necessities such as food, fuel or medicine.
Almost a third of Mongolians are under age 30. Having met some of them, what were your impressions of them?
I had the great privilege of meeting many bright, young people during a lecture I gave at the University of Humanities of Mongolia. I could see they have strong knowledge and skills, as well as a high level of English. At their age, I could not speak a word of English, so I was very impressed by them. Mongolia’s young people are a tremendous national resource.
Despite this, young Mongolians have a higher rate of unemployment. About 17 percent for those aged 20 to 24 years old are looking for jobs, so there is a level of uncertainty and worry about their future. University programs should be more tailored to industry needs and as I mentioned, more internship opportunities are also needed, so that Mongolia’s young people can realize their potential.
What can each of us do to help achieve an end to poverty, reduced inequality and a planet for future generations?
The SDGs are about how each person, company and nation lives, consumes and produces. For example, reducing air pollution is also an individual’s obligation, not only the government’s. Everyone can contribute by taking the bus rather than a car, or burning less coal. Similarly, improving governance and accountability is an individual’s choice as much as the government’s, by choosing to exercise their right to vote. While the impact of each individual choice might seem small, on a global scale, they make a great difference.