Insights and Analysis

Economic Struggles and Expectations for Education in a Changing Mongolia

September 6, 2016

By Kyle Barker

Mongolia is currently a land in economic flux. Fallen revenues from the mining sector and potential bracing measures from the newly elected government point to economic uncertainty ahead. While investment in various sectors may inevitably be delayed, one area that should continue to be a priority is education.

The nearly two-thirds of Ulaanbaatar’s residents that live in ger districts on the outskirts of the city are especially vulnerable to instability. Living conditions in the ger areas are harsh, especially during winters. Provisions of basic services such as paved roads, water and sewage systems, and central heating remain challenging. To find out more about the challenges they face and how education has impacted these areas, I recently visited with a family living in one of the ger districts.

Away from the bustling business districts of the city center, as far east as the #31 city bus ventures, is a small roundabout that serves as the congregating point for the people of Khoroo #23 in the Bayanzurkh ger district.

A block from this roundabout, Ariuna lives in a one-room apartment with her three daughters. Ariuna is employed as a cleaner for the public shower in her building, a source of steady and much-needed income for her and her family.

Bayanzurkh ger district of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Ariuna and her middle of three daughters in their one-bedroom apartment in the Bayanzurkh ger district of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo by Kyle Barker

Ariuna moved to Ulaanbaatar as a young woman in the mid-1990s from Khentii Province with her parents. She attended a military university and then worked at a military camp in the communications field but lost her job after becoming pregnant with her first daughter.  Since then, Ariuna has struggled to regain her economic footing, trying to balance finding adequate paying work with the care of her daughters. Many people in this district are unemployed and Ariuna counts herself as fortunate to have found steady work.

For a short time, Ariuna operated her own business buying and selling stationary supplies. She speaks proudly of paying a driver to travel to the border town of Erlian to import Chinese-made stationary supplies. “During the boom, everyone felt their lives were going up,” says Ariuna of Mongolia’s economic boom in 2010 to 2013. However, with a slumping exchange rate against the Chinese Yuan, Ariuna no longer has the capital to continue the business.

Even though Ariuna has a seemingly eternal optimism that she will eventually succeed, she’s wary that any recent political or economic changes will improve her family’s immediate economic prospects. However, when the subject turned from the economy to education, Ariuna spoke passionately about the importance she places on her daughters obtaining a good education and the direct impact it has on their future.

A brighter future

Just around the corner from Ariuna’s apartment, down a dusty drive wedged between construction sites, is School #87. Even though the sun shines brightly outside, the school’s dark hallways feel cold. On this Saturday, as one would expect, the school is mostly empty but a light shines from the library at the far end of the hall.

For Amaraa*, Ariuna’s second daughter, the school library and these hallways are her backyard. This is where she comes to spend her free time; before school, after school, and on the weekends. Amaraa is one of the lucky students, she lives within walking distance of a school where the librarian, Ms. Dolgormaa, and a few of the teachers come on the weekends to provide extracurricular activities. While many kids might view going to school on the weekends as a punishment, for Amaraa, this is where she finds comfort, where she’s able to read, explore, learn, and escape.

The outside of the single-story apartment building where Ariuna’s family lives. The building also houses the public shower where Ariuna works. Photo by Kyle Barker

The outside of the single-story apartment building where Ariuna’s family lives. The building also houses the public shower where Ariuna works. Photo by Kyle Barker

Despite challenges, the librarian and teachers at School #87 have found a way to incorporate arts, music, and resources like Let’s Read! Mongolia, a digital library project fostered by The Asia Foundation, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and Library For All that provides schools in the ger district with high-quality children’s e-books in Mongolian and English. These supplemental activities are integral to building a culture of learning and critical thinking skills and have had a tremendously positive impact on the success of students such as Amaraa.

Even though Ariuna is constantly busy and isn’t able to afford many luxuries, the education of her daughters is a priority. “Whatever the children need for their education, to study, we’ll support … My main goal is that my three children are successful at school and graduate and then become skillful people,” she says.

Ariuna’s daughter, Amaraa, walks the short distance from their apartment to School #87.

Ariuna’s daughter, Amaraa, walks the short distance from their apartment to School #87. Photo by Kyle Barker

This is evident in Ariuna’s eldest daughter, Chimgee*, who recently finished secondary school and passed the entrance examination for medical school. She will start her studies this coming academic year. While this is a major accomplishment for anyone, it’s particularly gratifying for Ariuna. Even though her own education has not led to the life that she once hoped for, she’s confident that it will for Chimgee.

Ariuna said that she believes this is the general attitude of the country. “For most people [in Mongolia], a better future for their children is the main concern,” she says. “The best way for this is through education.”

Challenges ahead

For schools such as #87 in the economically challenged Bayanzurkh 23 ger district, simply getting kids in the classroom and conveying basic knowledge can be a major accomplishment. Yet, as the librarian Ms. Dolgormaa has shown and is evident with Amaraa, this doesn’t have to be where expectations and accomplishments end.

Amaraa in the hallway of their apartment building.

Amaraa in the hallway of their apartment building. Photo by Kyle Barker

Regardless of the current economic situation, a continued investment should be made in quality education and a culture of critical thinking and learning that is the basis of innovative, and arguably, highly productive economies. If this can be accomplished, Amaraa, and many more Mongolian students like her, will realize their parents dreams for a brighter and more resilient future.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

Kyle Barker is assistant director of The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Books for Asia, Technology & Development
Related topics: Let's Read, Literacy

1 Comment

  1. This is good news. However, I do hope that the project will not be limited to schools in Ulaanbaatar. Those schools in the countryside with which I work also have up to 1000 students and yet have much less reading material available. Connecting Asia Foundation with the directors of those schools, for instance in Ulgii, can be done in an instant!

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