Poverty still stalks resource-rich Mongolia

A woman who toils on a rubbish dump in Ulan Bator carries objects to sell for recycling. Mongolia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is in the sights of foreign investors looking to cash in on the landlocked country's bounty of natural resources, including vast untapped mineral deposits.… Read more »
(AFP/File/Teh Eng Koon)
by Kitty Hamilton
ULAN BATOR (AFP) – Munkherdene should be in high school. Instead the 15-year-old Mongolian sifts through mountains of garbage each day at a rubbish tip in Ulan Bator, collecting scraps of steel, copper and plastic.

Munkherdene, his widower father and elder sister -- who moved into a traditional ger closer to the dump after his mother died -- sell their wares at the markets.

For his toil, the teen makes about 3,000 tugrik, or 2.70 dollars, a day.

"I couldn't enrol at a new school so it's easier for me to work at the tip," Munkherdene told AFP, explaining that when the family moved they lost their legal urban registration -- and with it the right to education and healthcare.

Mongolia, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is in the sights of foreign investors looking to cash in on the landlocked country's bounty of natural resources, including vast untapped mineral deposits.

Luxury brands including Louis Vuitton and Burberry have opened boutiques on Ulan Bator's Sukhbaatar Square, which is also home to the country's parliament. Hummers and European sports cars are commonly seen on the pot-holed streets.

But for most of Mongolia's 2.7 million citizens, poverty is still the reality. And 20 years after embracing democracy and capitalism, the government is struggling to meet the increasingly urban population's social needs.

More than 40 percent of the country's total population lives in Ulan Bator.

Thousands of herders have abandoned a traditional nomadic life in search of economic opportunity, or were driven to Mongolia's cities after a devastating winter that killed off much of their livestock.

"Ulan Bator's population grew from 600,000 in 1989 to 1,000,000 in 2007 and it's expected to be 1.3 million in 2025," UNICEF Deputy Representative Gilles Fagninou said, adding overcrowding is a major obstacle to poverty alleviation.

Outside the city centre, almost half of the capital's population live in the sprawling ger districts, with no access to running water, poor sanitation and limited social services.

In parliamentary elections in 2008, economic issues took centre stage, with candidates from across the political spectrum pledging to improve national strategic asset management so as to guarantee a better distribution of wealth.

Both main parties promised cash payments of about 1,150 dollars to each citizen but those handouts never came, leading to public protests this year in Ulan Bator and the country's west. About 5,000 marched on the capital in April.

"We unfortunately don't have a professional government. It consists of a bunch of politicians who were not properly trained," said Jargalsaikhan, a leading Mongolian economist and political analyst.

Beyond the problem of the long-promised one-off handouts, the country's welfare scheme is woefully flawed.

A UN Development Programme report points to a failure in the system -- not only were 89.1 percent of poor households receiving cash welfare payments, but 72.2 percent of non-poor households were also getting benefits.

"Cash payments solve short-term problems. But what really needs to be looked at is who is targeted," said UNICEF's Fagninou.

As mining companies sign massive deals such as the five-billion-dollar agreement inked last year for the development of Mongolia's massive Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit, the population has come to see resources as a quick fix.

But experts say those mining revenues will not necessarily trickle down to those who need them the most.

"I think the expectations are different to the realities," said Arshad Sayad, who completed his term as the World Bank's country manager for Mongolia in July.

"Several things need to be done to generate employment. One of them is realising mining will not generate jobs. We need to look at other industries where you can add more value, like meat and cashmere," he said.

For the foreseeable future, the more than one-third of Mongolia's people living below the poverty line have no way out, but have not forsaken their dreams of a better life.

Ariunzaya, nine, cares for her six-year-old sister and three-year-old brother while her parents work at the rubbish tip. The children eat only twice a day, as they are not old enough to use the stove unsupervised.

"I want to be a professional dancer when I get older," Ariunzaya says, seemingly unfazed by her plight. She shows off a few moves learned from other children -- but her home has no electricity, so there is no music.

Munkherdene meanwhile says he wants to be a truck driver when he comes of age.

"I'll work here until I'm old enough to get my licence," he says
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