Professor Julian Dierkes on Mongolian Development

The following is an interview with Julian Dierkes, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, who has been studying Mongolian politics for more than a decade. He mainly examines social developments and policies by situating them in their underlying cultural norms, assumptions and behavioral patterns to uncover the causal structure of decision-making at the population level. He visited Mongolia this summer to work on his project with the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute and to analyze the elections.



What are the biggest challenges or barriers that our foreign associates face when interacting with Mongolian corporations, be it in mining or any other sector?

One the biggest challenges working with Mongolia is that there has never been a comprehensive effort at educating the population about the mining sector. So there are a lot of misunderstandings or surface level misinterpretations in decision-making on the government’s part. Their decisions tend to be not very robust, and rather flaky – often changed or cancelled. This is in part because the public and the policy makers have not put enough time and effort in educating themselves about the mining sector. There is generally a lack of specialization in Mongolia.

And that is usually attributed to Mongolia’s low population. This reminds me of something you wrote on your blog, which goes, “I do believe that Mongolia would benefit from more substantive political debates and from the introduction of more evidence-based policy proposals.” How do you suggest Mongolia go about doing this?

That is one of the biggest challenges in development of a political culture. I do not know if there is a specific route towards that. Each country takes a different route depending on its context. But any sector of Mongolia that we could name, ideally would be working towards that. So take education; whether secondary, primary or higher education, if there was a greater focus on critical questioning and analyzing, whether its thought academically or through a more applied method, then that would prepare students and ultimately create citizens that could play probing roles in democracy.

I mean voting is important, but every citizen need to interrogate and get answers from politicians so they can make concrete and informed decisions. So education is a huge part of working towards a society that has more substantive debates. In politics itself, I find that there is not enough why and how questions. If you look at the presidential platforms right now, they list a lot challenges that Mongolia faces but they do not really list a lot of solutions. That is what the press could be doing more of, what the minority parties could be doing more of, and citizens could be doing more of. We must propel the political parties to be more substantive in the platforms that they set up.

Theoretically, the Mongolian People’s Party is social democratic, and the Democratic Party leans towards liberal conservatism.

Are they? (Laughs) That would be nice!

Theoretically they have different ideologies, but less so in practice. It seems they have become homogenous and it has got me questioning whether or not having a multi-party system is effective in Mongolia. Do you think it is necessary for parties to ideologically distinguish themselves?

Yes! Big yes! There really is not any ideological competition between the two parties. Even if it is MPRP (Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) or other little parties that have existed, they have not really started substantive debates on policy and political ideologies. It is also mostly due to what we were talking about; there is a lack of evidence based substantive debates in the political sphere, as well as within other corporate sectors.

You come to Mongolia often. Other than analyzing politics and collecting information, are you involved in any projects in Mongolia?

Yes, I lead a project with CIRDI (Canadian International Resources and Development Institute). We have worked in Mongolia for the past three years. CIRDI is a government-funded institute that works with mining companies. We had a series of workshops where we collaborated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Corporation Fund to talk about the state involvement with the mining sector.

You said you have been visiting since 2005. What are the most interesting sociological observations you have made?

There is just so much rapid change. Even on the surface level, every time I come back and walk around there is something new. It is also about how people’s behavior changes. So for me, one of the examples that illustrate this is traffic and driving. If you remember a few years ago, or maybe even eight years ago, traffic in UB was total anarchy. People would drive in all sorts of directions, over traffic lanes, sometimes even on sidewalks. That is not the case anymore, right? I mean traffic is crowded but its pretty orderly now. People stop at crossroads to wait for the green light now. In a way, that was unthinkable eight years ago. The first obvious sign was the bus lanes- initially when it was introduced, everyone said, “That would never work people! People would drive through them!” But it actually it does work. We could talk about big social theories about the nationalization of the personal sphere, like Michel Foucault’s analyses of how nationalization affects people. What we are seeing in action in Mongolian people is that they are being reshaped towards what is seen to be or described as some kind of a rational self for self-interest. People are starting to realize, like drivers and pedestrians, that there is a significant benefit for everyone when the bus lanes work.

Could you briefly talk about your findings through your research for your book “Change in Democratic Mongolia: Social Relations, Health, Mobile Pastoralism, and Mining”?

That was almost 10 years ago, and it was an edited volume. We have many chapters that were contributed by various authors, so there is no one big summary of some sort. At the time, observing that Mongolia was exiting some sort of a post-state socialist period, there was still a lot of residue of state socialism even in 2005, whether that is in policy making or in how people relate to one another. I was trying to put together an argument that said the post-socialist label, that transformation, is not done yet, Mongolia is still in transition. But of course, it is not as determinant in social interactions as it was previously. And I think that argument held up pretty well. Even now, 25 years later, there are still traces of socialism.

Do you think there are still socialist values and beliefs imbedded in the collective consciousness?

A very positive example I think is how aimag capitals are built around culture. Typically, we have a big central square, or you have a long park with some statues, always a library that has a very prominent location, and there is usually a theater. Definitely an element left from state socialism – even though there was censorship on the arts as part of the propaganda machine; there was a notion that human society, including the layout of cities, should to some extent be built around human interaction and culture. And you can still see that in aimag capitals, and I find that to be a very positive thing. Perhaps now there is not as much shown in the theaters, or the hospitals have less funding, but they still provide a foundation. In other areas, it gets a little harder to theorize, but people talk about how in people’s interactions there is still residue of state socialist solidarity and some of the older people bemoan that the younger generation is too individualistic. But it is hard to say this little piece is due to 70 years of state socialism whereas this piece is due to something else.

You mentioned that Mongolia has enormous potential, and “if only” is an attitude that could be applied to many aspects of contemporary Mongolia. Could you please provide examples of “if only’s”?

If only someone came forth in the parliament and genuinely fought against corruption. If only one of the parties really focused on formulating a substantive platform of policies and proposals. If only the universities were run in a more professional fashion. If only air pollution was seriously addressed.

Mongolia is such a blessed nation in so many ways and it really frustrates me to see its true potential through these problems.

You made a post about Mongolia becoming an organic nation. Could you expand on that? What are the benefits of that and potential challenges?

That was just a speculative piece. That is another example of where Mongolia’s potential lies, right? Take China, there is such a demand for higher quality food there. Whether we call that organic or not, Mongolia has a huge amount of high quality food. Examples are sea buckthorn, pine nuts, honey, and the meat industry. The challenges are in certification and enforcement, of course. But Mongolia would highly benefit from becoming completely organic not only for a sustainable future, but as a country, it could really leap ahead in such areas and take on a healthy trend. And it is possible since the population is so small.

Were you surprised with the outcome of the elections? You predicted in your article in The Diplomat that there would be a run-off election.

Yeah, I think everyone was shocked that Battulga came on top and that Ganbaatar would come up like that. Given how big the victory was in the parliamentary election last year, I expected Enkhbold to win.

You wrote, “I do not actively support any Mongolian political party.” Have you received tempting offers to sway you in whichever direction?

Surprisingly not, nobody has attempted to bribe me yet. There is nothing attractive about that for me. If it happened, I would be curious as to what that would look like. But I am an academic, and a foreigner to Mongolia, so my goal is to observe and analyze what is going on but not necessarily to be actively involved.

With what has been going on during the elections, such as the allegations of corruption and so on, I’m interested in what you have to say about Mongolian corruption. Have you seen any improvement over the years?  

It is hard to say. I do not directly observe corruption. What strikes me as odd about Mongolian corruption is that it is never fully sought after. There are so many allegations and cases that come forth but the law enforcement and the media do not follow up on them thoroughly to actually come to definitive conclusions. So then there is no way of telling whether there is more money involved or how much decisions are swayed by corruption.

Do you suppose there is a lack of following through to come to definitive conclusions about these allegations because the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or law enforcers, or the media end up getting involved with politicians?

I would imagine, but we do not know for sure. But that is definitely a plausible explanation, and not unheard of. I mean, the 60 billion USD case has been talked about for a year and in my opinion it is atrocious and no candidate overshadowed by such allegations should be running for office. That also goes for Battulga’s allegations.