Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Natural Resource Curse, Housing, Waitress!

Tuesday 20th March 2007
A thoughtful article in last week’s UB Post by Arshad Sayed (Country Manager and Resident Representative of the World Bank) entitled “Mongolia’s Natural Resources: A Blessing or a Curse?” Mongolia is rich in certain minerals, particularly gold, copper and uranium, and whether owing to remoteness or a culture which venerated the sacredness of earth and sky, these resources are only really becoming tapped at the present time. March 28, according to an advert in the same Post, “The Mongolia Investment Forum” will be held at The Metropolitan Club, New York, lead sponsors including the major Mongolian banks, the ING bank and Merrill Lynch.

Arshad’s piece talks in the main about the ‘Natural Resources Curse” - a phenomena observed that some of the most resource-rich nations in the world are also the most troubled: ie, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Surinam, Sierra Leone and indeed Russia. The article explores the reasons for this.

The final section is entitled “Can Mongolia avoid the natural resource curse?” What does the author have to say? Er, that the great Chinggis Khaan conquered much of the world, and that his empire was very efficiently run. So, he concludes, surely a “people that managed all these things almost eight hundred years ago [can] manage to overcome the natural resource curse[.]”

Well, hopefully they can, although if so it seems highly unlikely that Mongolians will avoid the curse of spuriously connecting everything back to Chinggis bloody (literally) Khaan.

In my classes I recently brought up the subject of ‘voluntary work’ with my students. After a little prodding they were soon able to come up with names of some of the many international organisations that operate in Mongolia. Why do all these organisations work in Mongolia, I asked? Because Mongolia has a lot of problems and needs help, they replied. Why do so many young European and American volunteers come here? Because they want to help us.

I put it to the classes that the actual motive for most volunteers to come was that they wanted to come to Mongolia itself, regardless of the degree of the problems here: most volunteers are drawn by the nomadic culture, the open steppe and the deep blue skies.

Why should a vast country with abundant natural resources (of a few limited kinds, it’s true, but all rather saleable), with a population of a mere two million and a history of independence and self sufficiency, need any assistance from the outside world at all?

The pressing concern in UB (although, as previously noted, not so pressing that the government can be bothered to fully measure it) is air pollution. Latest statistics put levels of nitrous dioxide, one of the pollutants that is actually measured, at 25 times the safe level in parts of the city. Now that spring has brought the odd breeze, the past few weeks the air has been quite clear: I can see the Zaysan Tolgoy at the foot of Bogdkhan mountain. Still, opening my window last night, which is possible now that the weather is getting warmer, filled the room with a burnt, dusty smell. I assume that what everybody here says is true, and that most of the air pollution comes from the stoves of the thousands of ger that surround the city.

The government has a scheme to build, I think 25,000 new apartments over the next 5 years[Edit: Actually, what I'm referring to here is the "40,000 Homes" project]. The budget for the housing department project is somewhere around $25 million. I am making up the figure off the top of my head, but, assuming that the government has underestimated the demand for apartments (and bearing in mind that the existing buildings aren’t in too great shape: I thought my block was from the late Stalin era maybe - it was built in the 1980s) I think that Mongolia probably needs at least 100,000 new apartments - that 100,000 (say) would solve the current housing problem. These apartments don’t all need to be built in UB either - maybe some of the international mining companies scrambling for contracts here could give some thought to creating housing and employment opportunities in the towns near the mines.

It would be nice, of course, to see Mongolians continue living in ger and herding livestock. I would hope that many would choose to do so. I haven’t met any Mongolians who aren’t fiercely proud of their heritage - yet those who do live in apartments don’t usually hesitate to give good reasons why they prefer their lifestyle for themselves: usually starting, as any westerner would, with the obvious preference for flushing toilets. The ever-growing ger districts of Ulaanbaatar aren’t a charming relic of the past - they’re the homes of desperately poor people surviving as best they can, as close as they can to the tantalising source of Land Cruisers, hi-definition tvs and ipods.

A permanent and immediate solution to Mongolia’s housing and pollution problems would come as a welcome relief for a nation which is going through a particularly troubling time at present as regards the closest current candidate for Chinggisdom - Asashoryu. Unfortunately, he has not done so great in recent sumo matches, leading to some very unkind things being insinuated (here, in the LA Times, for example) in regard to the recent opponent-bribery allegations.

The Japanese themselves have made their own Chinggis Khaan, in Borte Chono Chinggis Khaan(the English title, according to IMDb will be Blue Wolf: to the Ends of the Earth and Sea), a movie filmed in Mongolia last year and just released. One of my night school students had a modest part in the film (actually, for a Mongolian in this very Japanese production, it was quite a substantial part) and showed me some photos of the battle scenes which were absolutely incredible, and next time I see him I will try to remember to beg him to let me post some here. I don’t know if the film has any other merits, but it’s clear from the pictures of thousands of crazed horsemen charging at each other that the action should be pretty spectacular. Critics here have been lukewarm: in the UB Post N Suvdaa said the movie was at least “an improvement on the John Wayne film, The Conqueror”. I haven’t actually seen The Conqueror but I did find some stills and posters online which I actually think look pretty good. A teacher I asked agreed that big John looked pretty damn Mongolian too.

All the big parts in Borte Chono Chinggis Khaan are played by famous Japanese actors, speaking Japanese, of course. According to the Post this led to some sniggers amongst movie-goers here in Ulaanbaatar as Chinggis’ men always refer to him in the film as ‘Leader’. “The phonetic pronunciation of ‘leader’ in Japanese sounds like ’zuugch uu’, which means ‘waiter/waitress’ in the Mongolian language.” (UB Post 8/3/07)

What was that I was saying earlier about everything in this country being spuriously connected back to Genghis?