When Mongolia transitioned from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy in the early 1990s, many of the country’s poorest were left without access to essential services, but the state is making a renewed effort to alleviate that disparity. As the state adapted to its new economic structure, the discovery of extensive mineral resources facilitated privatization and growth, and though much of the population benefited, many did not. Estimates place the value of Mongolia’s untapped resources as high as one trillion dollars, and the per capita gross domestic product tripled from 2004 to 2010, but concern remains over whether these resources will benefit the poor, who make up roughly 35% of the overall population. Furthermore, watchdog groups like Freedom House have brought attention to corruption and lack of transparency in the awarding of lucrative mineral-extraction contracts to foreign enterprises, which often limits the domestic impact of national resource wealth. To allay these fears, Mongolia’s parliament passed laws in 2008 aimed at wealth distribution. These laws, the National Development Strategy and the Human Development Fund (HDF), purported to make citizens eligible for access to the nation’s vast mineral wealth. The planned scope of HDF was immense; it was hoped that the fund would provide financial resources to pay for social services including pensions, health care, housing, and education, as well as provide cash payouts to citizens. Though data to quantify the early impact of the HDF is not yet readily available, distribution of funds recently became entangled in Mongolia’s electoral politicking.
Despite concerns over the implementation of the HDF, the program has potential to have tremendous impact on Mongolia’s efforts to comply with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Mongolia is a State Party. The program would align the state’s goals with objectives of the ICESCR insofar as the HDF would expand citizens’ access to national wealth and facilitate the protection of several ICESCR enumerated rights. The ICESCR obliges States Parties to recognize rights to work (Article 6), social security (Article 9), adequate standards of living and freedom from hunger (Article 11), and the highest attainable standards of health and accessible healthcare (Article 12).
Mongolia’s efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reflect the national need to address issues of national poverty and poor health and education standards. The MDGs specifically focus on eradication of poverty and hunger, universalization of primary education, gender equality and participation, and several health-care-based initiatives. The report on implementation of the MDGs in Mongolia indicates a need to focus social services on the poorest and the historically marginalized. This imperative is echoed by Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who asserted: “Mongolia has established a robust legal framework, recognizing that everyone must enjoy the rights to education, health, housing, food, etc. However, the laws do not necessarily translate into the everyday reality for many Mongolians.”
The government has plans to go beyond the HDF: draft versions of The Package Law on Social Welfare and The Mongolian Law on Employment Promotion were recently submitted to the country’s parliament. Each of the laws targets the most vulnerable groups and the poorest in an effort to extend the availability of social security programs and increase job creation. General Comment No. 18 to ICESCR, issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Political Rights explains, that the right to work under Article 6 encompasses state programs supporting the availability of employment, the accessibility of the labor market to all, and the acceptability and quality of that employment.
It is unclear whether Mongolia’s efforts will be effective to meet national goals that align with the ICESCR and the MDGs. The government’s comprehensive attack on poverty is still young, but the apparent intent to distribute wealth and ensure the provision of social programming could go far in aiding Mongolia’s poor. Haruhiko Kuroda, the President of the Asian Development Bank pointed to the proper management of the country’s mineral resources as integral to the country’s successful development, hinging this success on good governance and a policy of economic inclusion that trickles down to the poorest and sees benefits broadly distributed. Though Mongolia’s poverty rate continues to be high, commenters seem optimistic that, properly managed, Mongolia’s mineral wealth has the ability to elevate the country’s most need-stricken.