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From One-Way to Two-Way Exchanges: Gearing Up to Use Communication in Support of Decentralization in Mongolia

Sunjidmaa Jamba's picture

Since Mongolia shifted to a multi-party political system and market economy in the early 1990s, it has become a young and vibrant democracy. Debates among politicians, policymakers, civil society organizations, political and social commentators, and other stakeholders are now an integral part of Mongolian society. These happen through local newspapers and on the TV channels, at citizens’ hall meetings, as well as during cultural events, particularly in rural areas as nomadic herders gather for such event and authorities take that opportunity to communicate with them.

However, these debates may not always be particularly effective in getting to a consensus. Indeed, the heritage of the socialist system can still often be felt: public authorities, particularly at the local level, see communication as a way to disseminate and diffuse information through a traditional media approach. There is much to do to transform communication from a one-way dissemination tool to an instrument for two-way engagement.  

An opportunity to change the culture around communication is presenting itself as Mongolia is planning to decentralize. Parliament is deliberating an Integrated Budget Law (IBL) that would delegate decision-making authority over the budget process to local assemblies and governments. Local governments would be required to involve their communities in the entire process – from planning to supervision. This would be a great novelty compared to today’s practice of approving the budget centrally without any public consultation.

For decentralization to be successful, more meaningful engagement among actors at all levels – Parliament and local assemblies, national and local government, CSOs, communities and herders – needs to take place. Establishing relationships based on trust will be essential. A key aspect of building trust will be for participants to break from the past and use communication to engage in a consultative dialogue.

So, in addition to providing support to the Ministry of Finance on how to approach the fiscal aspects of decentralization, the World Bank is providing communication support to help pave the way for more trusted coalition building among stakeholders. The support is being provided by the Bank’s Mongolia country team, the World Bank Institute, the Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Governance Hub, and CommGAP.

The project started with a stakeholder analysis conducted by a small team that visited two aimags (provinces) and several soums (districts) where they interviewed 78 people and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar where they talked with another 35 people from the central government and municipal authorities . Their objectives were to hear from them what they think needs to happen for decentralization to be successful, and what they see as barriers to overcome.

The survey showed that all actors agree that fiscal decentralization is timely. They also emphasize that the reform needs to be done in a step-by-step approach and be carefully managed to avoid any serious failure on the ground. In several provinces, local CSOs have built coalitions, developed a partnership mechanism with their local government, and created a platform for consultation.  Some provinces and districts carried out budget transparency and participatory initiatives.  An ongoing project funded by the World Bank and several other development partners – the Sustainable Livelihood Project – is seen by stakeholders as an effective participatory approach at the community level. So, all these initiatives and approaches could form the basis for community participation under the IBL. 

But fulfilling the opportunities provided by the IBL would require more actions from the actors such as Ministry of Finance and line ministries, local assemblies and local government, local budget organizations, NGOs and local communities etc.  Beyond granting local authorities power over the local budget, the government will have to establish practical procedures to ensure that a participatory approach is being followed. The procedures will also need to ensure that all participants understand not only their rights, but also their responsibilities.  Indeed, experiences in other countries have shown that decentralization can also create greater opportunities for corruption at the local level if the reform is not pursued properly. 

A key finding of the analysis was that key actors and stakeholders need to be trained in participation, communication, and engagement in terms of concepts, standards, approaches, mechanisms and tools. In addition, the IBL – in all its dimensions – will have to be carefully explained to the public and promoted through a well-prepared nationwide campaign over an extensive period.

The Bank also organized a three -day seminar on “Communication as a Tool for Participatory Local Governance” with more than 40 participants from provinces and cities such as local assembly, local government office, treasury office, auditing office, media, CSOs, and staff from central ministries and the Ministry of Finance. The seminar was led by an expert team from Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in EAP who shared their experience from the Philippines, and by members of the CommGAP team.

Participants enthusiastically discussed three key issues:  the role of government communication in good governance, good (local) governance and social accountability, and participatory budgeting. Participants were expressed their keen desire to apply what they learned in the seminar as they embark on the long road of implementation of decentralization reform.
 

Picture Credit: World Bank Country Office in Mongolia

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