On a spring morning in 2016, Mrs. Dinh Thi Son of the Thai ethnic minority group brought her two month old baby to the Trung Son Hydropower Project construction site for medical services. Why go to a construction site? Because it has a health center that’s fully equipped with medical devices, well stocked with medicines, an ambulance, and doctors and nurses who provide healthcare services 24/7 for workers and local people alike.
The latest estimates of poverty in Mongolia showed both progress and reason for concern. The National Statistical Office (NSO) and the World Bank have worked together on the methodology for estimating poverty since at least 2002. The estimates showed that the poverty rate declined from 27.4 percent in 2012 to 21.6 percent in 2014, continuing the trend of 2010-2012. The estimates also showed, however, that many people are near the poverty line and remain vulnerable as the economy softens.
The rapid growth rates of the previous years, combined with the bent for decentralization, led to a natural desire to explore new possibilities for subnational finance. To this end, a pair of studies in 2014 aimed at preparing a debt management approach for Ulaanbaatar and a financial self-assessment for the city. The former stressed “the need to first build local institutional capacity for an effective and transparent debt management system before any borrowing is considered. … UB should use this time to put in place a debt management system so that it is prepared for borrowing once it is ready and the macroeconomic conditions improve.” The latter study examined what it would take for Ulaanbaatar to improve its credit quality and thereby prepare for an official rating from a credit rating agency. The recommendations centered on improving the city’s financial reporting system, strengthening its capital investment planning process, improving its capital asset registry, strengthening the oversight of municipal-owned enterprises and their debts, and identifying Ulaanbaatar’s contingent liabilities, both explicit and implicit.
With the boom well underway, a report examined how to meet the challenge of scaling up infrastructure. In a blog summarizing the study, one co-author was blunt: “Financed by the mining boom, government spending on new infrastructure in Mongolia has increased 35-fold in the past 10 years. But you would not know this from driving the pot holed streets of Ulaanbaatar or inhaling the smog filled air of the city, particularly in the ger areas. … [The study] examines why this increased spending is not resulting in equivalent benefits for the citizens of Mongolia in terms of better roads, efficient and clean heating, and improved water and sanitation services.” The study pointed to poor project planning and implementation, and suggested ways to improve.
For an outside observer like me—I was in my second year as the World Bank’s Country Manager for Mongolia at the time—it was fantastic to see democracy at work: the spirit of 1990 that I had read about and seen in pictures at the National Museum was still alive! The more experienced observers were puzzled: many Mongolians told me that for the first time since 1990, they were unable to forecast the outcome of those elections. A few did predict the outcome, of course: the Democratic Party won the largest share of seats and opted to form a coalition with the MPRP and the Civil Will-Green Party.
At the World Bank, we also had a leadership change: Mr. Jim Yong Kim, until then President of Dartmouth College and co-founder of Partners in Health, replaced Mr. Robert Zoellick at the helm of the World Bank Group in July 2012.
Continuing our series celebrating the 25 years since Mongolia became a member of the World Bank, today we look at 2009. The global financial crisis that began in the US the previous year hit Mongolia hard in late 2008 and through 2009, as commodity prices collapsed and economic growth turned negative for the first time since 1993. The World Bank switched from a quarterly to a monthly format for its economic updates to stay abreast of the rapidly deteriorating situation—the April 2009 edition illustrated how sharply the commodities markets had reversed in only one year.
Continuing with our series looking at the 25 year partnership between Mongolia and the World Bank, today we look at 2008, a year that will be remembered by many Mongolians for events both high and low. The low point was the riot that followed parliamentary elections on 1st July, 2008. Five innocent lives were lost and Ulaanbaatar city was under a state emergency for two days and three nights. While Mongolia is rightfully praised for its peaceful transition from one regime to another in 1990, this incident of 2008 will be remembered as the darkest time in the 25 years of democracy.
The high of 2008 occurred after this riot when Mr. Tuvshinbayr Naidan brought home Mongolia’s 1st ever gold medal from the Beijing summer Olympics. I will never forget the sight of people waving our national flag, gathering in the Central Square and cheering with exhilaration. The World Bank’s Country Director, David Dollar, also celebrated this historic occasion, noting that “The event was important enough to get rival political parties to shake hands and share the pride.”
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Singapore Urban Week along with other colleagues from the World Bank Beijing office, as well as delegates from China’s national government and participating cities. For all of us, this trip to Singapore was an eye-opening experience that highlighted the essential role of integrated urban planning in building sustainable cities, and provided practical solutions that can be readily adapted to help achieve each city’s own development vision. A couple of key lessons learned:
Putting people at the center of development strategies
This is only possible when planners always keep in mind people’s daily experience of urban space and invite them as part of decision-making process through citizen engagement.
For instance, in many cities, public transit has been perceived as a low-end, unattractive option of travel, causing ridership to stagnate despite severe traffic congestion. But in Singapore, public transit accounts for 2/3 of the total travel modal share in 2014. Moving around the city by metro is comfortable and efficient because transfers between different modes and lines are easy, with clear signage of directions, air-conditioned connecting corridors, and considerate spatial designs and facilities for the elderly and physically-challenged users. In addition, metro stations are co-located with major retail and commercial activities and other urban amenities, significantly reducing last-mile connectivity issues.