Published on: 25 March 2018
Across the Mongolian steppe, winds of political change are blowing. After decades of governance by generations who endured communism and its collapse, a new wave is stepping up. 27 year-old Ichinkhorol Tumur-Ochir from Gobi-Altai province helped shape her town’s youth policy in a workshop supported by UNDP and SDC. She shares what could be done to raise Mongolia’s young voices further.
“This assembly only discusses topics affecting the older generation. This is why most youth fail to attend!” A young woman’s voice rises in the midst of a bagh (the lowest administrative unit in Mongolia) general meeting in Yusenbulag soum, in the country’s far western Gobi-Altai province. It’s the first such meeting Ichinkhorol has attended. Bewildered by the lack of attention to issues faced by young people during its debates, she plucked up the courage to call on the audience to do more.
A new graduate of Korean studies of the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar, Ichinkhorol recently returned to her native province after eight years in the capital. Her engagement in local politics was triggered by insights gained while contributing to a comparative study on Mongolian and Korean youth. The study found that while 70 percent of young Mongolians are primarily preoccupied with personal and career matters, just 30 percent are concerned with addressing social issues. In Korea, she added, the numbers are reversed.
The cause, Ichinkhorol believes, is lower political participation among youth, along with a limited perception of their own capacity to bring about change. While 89 percent of young Mongolians have voted in at least one election since 1990, more than half of those surveyed in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) latest National Human Development Report believe government leaders cannot be trusted.
Young people (aged 15–34 years old) comprise Mongolia’s biggest demographic, at more than one third the population. They are also increasingly educated, with 99 percent of children enrolled in primary education in 2014-2015 and 96 percent in secondary education (tertiary enrollments leapt three-fold between 2000-2010). Despite this, young Mongolians remain a more vulnerable group economically, with about 17 percent of youth unemployed in 2013, well above the national average of 10 percent. They also face greater health risks, including rising teenage pregnancies, alcohol and tobacco abuse.
Combating these challenges calls for greater youth representation in politics. “Young people can serve as role models by contributing to addressing complaints raised by local citizens,” Ichinkhorol adds. For example, by forming cooperatives, youth can help reduce unemployment or tackle community pressures, such as garbage collection.
In August 2017, she joined the one-day workshop – “Policy decisions in our lives” – at Yusenbulag Citizens Representative Hural, under a grant program for Strengthening Representative Bodies in Mongolia (SRBM) implemented by UNDP with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). After more than 100 proposals were received from across the country, a handful of CRHs – including Yusenbulag’s – were chosen to trial their ideas to improve either oversight of the executive’s activities or citizen representation, with a focus on marginalized groups, such as youth.
The half-year grant aimed to develop a 2017-2020 policy for youth development in the town, as well as boost youth participation in politics. To this end, the grant Working Group carried out a range of activities including legal training on the Law on Development Policy and Planning and set up a regular “Meeting Hour” for youth. A survey among 581 young people and an essay-writing contest prior to the workshop – in which Ichinkhorol won second prize – also helped identify the greatest issues they faced.
In small teams, the workshop’s 100 attendees focused on specific parts of the development plan. The fact that youth gathered to exchange their challenges and brainstorm solutions together was one of the best outcomes, said Ichinkhorol. “Young participants also saw that representatives would listen if they voiced and share their ideas.” In addition, they value opportunities to get together and socialize. Sporting contests or activities – such as building a new long-jump pit organized in the afternoon – offer incentives for joining, she said. Afterwards, members of the group continued meeting, some managing to bring along new attendees to sessions that followed.
“The workshop should be replicated locally elsewhere,” said Ichinkhorol. “Although groups should be gathered beforehand, so discussions can be more effective and suggestions more realistic.”
Rural areas should also be targeted more. “Such open events – neither party nor family-based – are rare in the countryside,” she said. “Direct interactions with politicians are also important in creating effective channels for young people to raise their concerns,” she added.
Further, political information relayed to them should be made more accessible and easier to understand. This could be aided by technology such as social media, which helps young people to gain information, support movements, network and make their voices heard (62 percent of Mongolians are online as of 2014, with 80 percent connected by Facebook).
The workshop was also seen as successful due to their openness to everyone, beyond party affiliations. Events organized by political parties are often shunned by youth, remarked Ichinkhorol. A member of the grant Working Group reiterated this, adding that young people seemed more positive and constructive during these events, compared to initiatives by public authorities. Another key feature of the workshop lay in the engagement of young CRH representatives. About half of Yusenbulag soum’s representatives are young – a comparatively high percentage. Together, they showed that their CRH can be a legitimate platform for young voices in Mongolian politics.
These activities helped encourage young Mongolians to engage more in governance, and showed their representatives how to listen. While this marks a boost in cooperation between youth and decision-makers, the hope is for more of Mongolia’s youth to become decision-makers themselves in future.