Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mongolia Profile on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera did a recent profile piece on Mongolia. It is fairly interesting given the depth of the report, and the new president got some hard questions from the interviewer. Both parts are below.

The freeze frame has two of Mongolia's "Top 50 Most Important People" according to a fun book in the ACMS library. Sumati in the top screen is the director of the Sant Maral Foundation whose survey data I have referred to in other posts. And, President Elbegdorj needs no introduction in the bottom screen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Simple Propositions about Complex Circumstances

In President Elbegdorj's inaugural address in the great hall of the parliament building he emphasized the historic importance of this year's presidential election, laying out in stark terms the challenges facing the nation. Poverty, corruption, indolent and incompetent leadership, monumental choices regarding Mongolia's untapped wealth, and other issues to make the most idealistic wither at the thought of trying to solve them. Echoing a bit of President Obama, he called on all citizens to work together in the common cause to overcome these challenges, as his presidency will need their support to achieve a new future for Mongolia.

The idea of a new future for Mongolia has gotten me thinking about the fact that the public discourse surrounding politics in the country has a tendency to devolve into simple propositions about complex circumstances. Predicting Mongolia's future is a game that everyone participates in, yet the level of play never seems to rise above the amateurish. Things are often painted in stark, polarizing ways that lack the full nuance of the situations, with the ultimate unfolding of reality diverging almost routinely from the commentary and analysis provided by the social and political elite. Both Mongolians and foreign observers are guilty of doing this, taking a complex web of political and social interests and distilling it down to one or two simplistic notions nearly devoid of context or predicated on flimsy historical facts. A happened because of corruption. B is occurring because of the inertial effects of the "Communist mentality." C is the manifestation of neo-Putinism. D is just Mongolia for you. These sorts of ideas are thrown around so often without critical analysis, I think we all get sucked into believing, probably out of habit and expediency, that analyzing complex political issues in this way is not only acceptable for Mongolia but most effective.

It, of course, is not effective, because the vast majority of us remain unable to predict with any sort of accuracy how political situations will ultimately be resolved. Complex issues like the mining agreements, for example, remain mysteries, and I perceive this to be the case for everyone, from the streets to the Prime Minister's office, with the degree of the mystery only varying marginally with the level of one's own access to primary sources of information. The discourse and analysis does not match the complexity of the situation, and it inevitably fails the test of time.

I came across a passage written by Owen Lattimore in "Nationalism and Revolution in Mongolia" that is not exactly a perfect fit to what I am describing but nonetheless it draws a sufficient analogy to the kind of discourse that predominates when analyzing Mongolia's present and future:

Revolutionaries tend to make history too simple. They burn with a fire in which they try to sear away the infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation, so that they can confront the absolutely bad with the absolutely good. But revolution is not in fact a melodrama of the "good" against the "bad." It is the most tragic form of history, in which good men often make bad decisions not for evil reasons but for reasons of human weakness that may range from ignorance, or partial knowledge (which is often more treacherous than ignorance) [emphasis added] to such things as a mere hesitancy in making up their minds which, in less urgent times, would not matter much either to them or to their fellows. By the same token, revolution is also a phase of history in which the irony is often supplied by the "good" decisions made by "bad" men. (pg. 32-33)

In the passage he is speaking to the multifaceted circumstances that befell Mongolia roughly 1900-1940s where Mongolia faced historic and monumental decisions regarding its social and economic system and, of course, of utmost importance even today, about its sovereignty. But, it is also a good working analogy for the conventional framework used to produce propositions about Mongolia and the direction it is heading. The problems are more complex than dichotomies of good vs. bad, socialism vs. capitalism, democracy vs. autocracy, and yet the vast majority of commentary wholeheartedly embraces this framework.

There is nothing wrong with a political leader such as President Elbegdorj using simple propositions to make more profound statements, but I sometimes wonder if we are all not doing ourselves a disservice by not demanding more of the leaders of Mongolia and ourselves in terms of examining the circumstances more critically for, as Lattimore writes, the "infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation." As Mongolia's exposure to complex geo-political circumstances, especially in the mining sector, continues to grow, a great deal of the success or failure of the decisions made will rest on whether they were made out of ignorance, partial information, or genuine and effective analysis. At this point, however, the current state of affairs indicate to me that the road ahead to a new future for Mongolia is still one cloaked in fog.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mongolia Has New President

Elbegdorj was sworn in as president this afternoon. After taking the oath of office, which was administered in the parliament building, he gave a speech to those in attendance. After that he changed out of his del (traditional Mongolian robe) and into a business suit to give a speech on Sukhbaatar Square and review a military parade. Here are a few of photos of the Sukhbaatar Square events.

Summer Ritual

It has taken so long to happen that I foolishly thought this year we might all escape a summer ritual in Ulaanbaatar. It turns out that it is a summer ritual that affects millions of people across the Eurasian continent who are unlucky enough to live in flats supported by a Soviet designed infrastructure. I learned this fact last summer when a reporter from the BBC did a report on the very same ritual happening in Kiev, Ukraine in his apartment block. What ritual, you may ask? The ritual of losing hot water service for 2-3 weeks each summer for "cleaning and maintenance" on the pipes. Hot showers are a distant memory at my apartment block until July 6th when service starts again.

This summer ritual is a curious aspect of the heating and water systems constructed under the Soviet-style centralized economic model. Until seeing the BBC report last year, I had always thought it was a phenomenon special to Ulaanbaatar. However, it seems we are not alone in being deprived the luxury of hot water for the sake of the system.

Someone in the diplomatic corps once told me about a similar situation in China. The Chinese government notified his embassy that hot water service would be discontinued for several weeks for "maintenance" at the diplomatic housing complex. The foreign service officer then replied to the Chinese government by telling them if that was the case, then the embassy would expect a reduction in the price of rent paid on the diplomatic housing. The government balked at this. But the embassy persisted on the claim that reduced service meant reduced payment. The response on the Chinese side was to complete the maintenance in 3 days rather than the normal 3 weeks, which saved the government from losing much sought after rent money but caused another problem altogether. It demonstrated to everyone else that it was possible for the work to be done quickly if the right incentives were in place.

Sometimes I wonder if the summer ritual in Mongolia might also lack the proper incentives to make it shorter overall. That is the reason I call it a ritual. I am not entirely convinced the long wait is anything more than bureaucratic sloth manifest as a yearly occurrence. It's of course silly to complain too much about not having hot water in a city where a significant portion of the population does not even have access to running water hot or cold, but it is indicative of larger problems of efficiency and administration that affect everyone. At any rate, for the next couple of weeks I join millions of other people in the world experiencing this summer ritual.

Monday, June 8, 2009

ACMS Research Fellowship Seminar

Alternative Concepts: Conducting Research from a Mongolia-Centered Perspective

9am-3pm - June 25th, 2009, Open Society Forum Conference Room

The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS), with funding support from the Henry Luce Foundation, will organize a seminar with the theme “Alternative Concepts: Conducting Research in the Mongolian Context” as part of the first year of the ACMS Research Fellowship Program. The ACMS Research Fellowship program brings a cohort of 3 US scholars to Mongolia each year to conduct dissertation or post-doctoral research. The seminar will be free and open to the public. The working language of the seminar will be English.

More information about seminar is available here: ACMS Research Fellowship Seminar.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Campaign Survey

Several of the English news outlets in Mongolia are reporting that the Open Society Forum recently conducted an analysis of campaign publicity and a survey of where people received their information during the presidential campaign. An example story, which appears to be the same story being recycled by all the news outlets is here: http://www.mongolia-web.com/. There are two interesting things about the analysis and survey.

1. The amount of negative stories and information from both campaigns and the media in general was essentially the same. Assuming they selected stories randomly and there was a uniform, if not overly objective, analysis of the content, then the 3 percent difference might just be noise. At any rate, there is evidence that both campaigns had an equal share of sinners and misguided supporters.

2. The number of people who tended to believe negative stories about the incumbent president was higher than the number of people who believed negative stories about the president by a wide margin. This is really interesting.

Number 2 raises several questions about the survey methodology; e.g., were respondents randomly selected, was there a control for party affiliation, what was the exact wording of the questions, and so on. Assuming the numbers are accurate from a methodological and therefore statistical standpoint, the next set of questions is: What is the reason for the large margin? Were negative stories about Elbegdorj more patently false? Was the Democratic Party more astute at framing issues and attacking Enkhbayar's character? Were people more predisposed to believe negative stories about the incumbent and to disregard negative stories about the opposition? Are responses a true reflection of people's beliefs, or do the numbers show a reverse bump for Elbegdorj post-victory? That is, are people remembering the situation differently because he won the election?

A related observation from this data is that a majority of those surveyed tended not believe the negative stories about either side. What that actually means in terms of votes is impossible to say without more information, but it does say something about the respondents themselves. Either they really were not swayed by the stories or they are aware enough of the political process and the lack of credibility of media outlets to want to openly state that they are not naive, even if in fact they may be. Does this indicate that the average voter is far more sophisticated about his/her media consumption and personal analysis than popular sentiments might concede?

The news stories about the analysis and survey don't answer any of the vital questions these data raise, and I am not sure if Open Society Forum will release the report in full (I will try to get my hands on it). The story does demonstrate further, however, that the voting public in Mongolia may be tougher to pin down than common wisdom indicates. We need more work done like this, especially by people willing to go the next step and to analyze the results.

Navigating Bureaucracy

As our busy season begins in the Ulaanbaatar office I am reminded of the need to share a bit of advice to international scholars coming to Mongolia to conduct field research for the summer. Make sure you work with people experienced and wise in the ways of navigating Mongolia's bureaucracy. In-laws, former students, a guy you met on the flight over, or anyone else who does not actually interact with the government on a regular basis is probably not going to cut it if you're planning to do something complex, which in Mongolia could be requesting just about any service provided by a government agency.

Mongolia has a complicated (and inefficient) bureaucratic system which is exacerbated by the fact that each ministry and sub-department has its own rules and interpretations of rules. There is also a tendency for bureaucrats to not volunteer pertinent information, further making things opaque, confusing, and all around frustrating. The crazy thing is, though, if you know the rules, most of the time it is really easy and quick to navigate the bureaucracy. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it really is true when it comes to academic research. I am not about to make excuses for government systems, and I am not saying this is true for all agencies, all the time. However, in my experience a significant percentage of the trouble foreign researchers encounter is due to making the following common mistakes:

1. Assuming there is no rule governing an activity because no one has ever said there was a rule.
2. Assuming the problem is a language barrier, and any person fluent in Mongolian should suffice in rectifying issues.
3. Mistaking a lack of pertinent information for an arbitrary and capricious process, and therefore a "corrupt" process.

Mistake one is the most common mistake. It probably comes from a very basic fallacy in which researchers assume their local counterparts know all the requirements governing research activities. This is often not the case, in part, because some projects are outside the experience of the local counterparts, or they themselves have been working blithely unaware that they are violating the law. They may be just as ignorant of the rules as their international colleagues. Therefore, it is always a good idea to think "Does this require special permission in my home country?" and if the answer is "Yes" or "It seems like it would" then you probably need special permission to do it in Mongolia, too. Local counterparts can generally get away with breaking the law or violating regulations because of enforcement difficulties created by a lack of resources at relevant agencies or just a plain lack of awareness among everyone involved. No such "shadow" environment exists for foreign scholars because of the very fact that most foreign scholars stand out, and therefore authorities can be selective about enforcing rules and regulations on those who more often than not are in fact violating rules and regulations, even if naively.

Mistake two is probably the most subtle and therefore insidious mistake that international researchers make. All interactions with the government in Mongolia are people-to-people. That means that the person acting on your behalf should have strong interpersonal communication skills, be able to garner respect from local authorities, and in general have enough experience to navigate new areas of the bureaucracy. An international researcher who hires a 20 year old college student to act as translator for 25,000MNT per day should not be surprised if at government agency after government agency he/she encounters obstacle after obstacle. Would one rely on an inexperienced kid to handle a complex task in one's own home country? No, of course not. The situation is no different in Mongolia, and often language is a necessary but not sufficient tool for solving problems. Experience is far more important in the end than language ability, and yet we see scholar after scholar putting all their faith in people who have only one skill: being bilingual.

Mistake three is just poor thinking. Bureaucrats the world over are notoriously unhelpful, incompetent, and arguably sadistic. No one ever says, "Boy, I am looking forward to going to the Department of Motor Vehicles today!" without a obvious tone of sarcasm. Government offices are like dentist offices, places most people go when they have no other choice. This is true in every country I have ever lived in. The best policy is to always assume that the government official is actually doing his/her job, and the obstacles one is encountering are due to mistakes one and two above, or because one is just having a bad bit of luck dealing with a stubborn civil servant. Interpersonal communication skills of the variety that Dale Carnegie made famous in his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" are more likely the solution to the problem than distilling everything into bromides about corruption, developing countries, or "Communist mentalities." This is not true of every country, but in Mongolia one is better served to think the best rather than the worst of the government officials one encounters.

The point of writing all this is to remind everyone that the American Center for Mongolian Studies staff have the experience and interpersonal communication skills to effectively deal with the Mongolian bureaucracy. Our batting average is not 1.000, but it is pretty high. We often find ourselves helping scholars resolve big messes they have created for themselves (although they rarely see it that way--sigh) because they made the three mistakes above or some other unique mistake that boggles the mind. Sometimes I wonder why this is the case, and one possibility is the fact there are few people or organizations out there reminding people there is a system that is fair, somewhat effective, and quick if one works with people who actually know the rules. When in doubt, send us an e-mail: info@mongoliacenter.org. It's what we are here for.