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Building Ethics into Mongolia’s Business Ethos

March 14, 2018

By Bayanmunkh Ariunbold

Last week, The Asia Foundation and the Sant Maral Foundation released the eighth biannual survey of private sector perceptions of corruption, revealing a pivotal time in Mongolia’s business environment.

During Mongolia’s transition in the 1990s from a centrally planned to a free market economy, the country underwent the privatization of its government property such as factories, apartments, and even livestock. These changes led people to enthusiastically jump on opportunities to build their own businesses within the new framework of a competitive and open market. These new business opportunities ranged from thousands of people re-selling goods from China to Mongolia and Russia while traveling on trains for weeks, to buying and operating old socialist-era factories and plants.

After nearly two decades, the country’s economy has expanded considerably, and today, Mongolia’s leading businesses have passed through the initial hurdles of learning how to operate in a free market economy. This latest round of the survey shows that businesses are now feeling the tangible effects that corruption is having on their bottom line: 80 percent of the businesses reported “a lot” of corruption in the government, and at least 20 percent of them said that they observe corrupt acts on a monthly or quarterly basis. This growing recognition of corruption and its negative impact on the economy is both a marker of the maturation of the private sector as businesses start to call for improvements in the business environment, as well as an indication that corruption remains one of the major constraints on economic growth in Mongolia.

Mongolia business

The Asia Foundation’s latest survey on business perceptions of corruption shows that businesses are now feeling the tangible effects that corruption is having on their bottom line: 80 percent of the businesses reported “a lot” of corruption in the government, and at least 20 percent of them said that they observe corrupt acts on a monthly or quarterly basis. Photo/Jon Jamieson

Although the blame for corruption is mostly placed on the government, respondents in fact acknowledged their own culpability in corruption by not taking proactive measures to combat it. The survey reveals that only 14 percent of the businesses that responded have rules to prevent corruption and only six percent of them had reported corruption, a surprisingly low number given how many reported observing lot of incidents of corruption.

On March 2, The Asia Foundation and the Economic Club of Ulaanbaatar brought together 30 members of the business community to discuss the survey findings, as well as the importance of fairness and ethics in business and how it should help the businesses succeed in the long run and better serve society.

One well-known local business woman who leads an association of construction companies recalled that while many business people in Mongolia operate large successful companies today, they still run them under behaviors learned during the early transition years when the idea of business ethics was largely a foreign concept. This may be why only nine percent of the businesses think that doing business in an ethical way is a part of their corporate social responsibility, according to a study on corporate social responsibility by the Corporate Governance Development Center in Ulaanbaatar.

A CEO of local company “Nuudelchin” or “Nomads” in Mongolian, told the group that he witnesses acts of corruption in his daily life as a business leader. “We encounter cases where a seller cheats a customer not telling that them that a product was made in China and poor quality. This demonstrates that the nature of our businesses, regardless of their size that has short run motivation to make profit,” he said.

Another local businessman attending said that “many of our large companies are split into two groups that support two political parties. Some even serve both major parties at the same time. There are those ‘middle men’ whose businesses exist only on paper yet consistently win government tenders, whereas real business people with skills and equipment are getting hurt and going bankrupt.”

Despite these bleak observations, there is hope. Over the last few years, many business leaders in the country are starting to take the lead in combatting corruption, and the concept of a “business ethic” is starting to emerge. For example, The Business Council of Mongolia (BCM), a local business association established a Business Ethics Working group two years ago and created an anti-bribery e-learning course tool last year (supported by The Asia Foundation’s Strengthening Democratic Participation and Transparency in the Public Sector in Mongolia Project). The tool enables anyone in the business community to log on and complete tests aimed at improving their knowledge about corruption and relevant legislation. Recently, XAC Bank made this online course mandatory for their new employees during their induction sessions. Another BCM member who owns a local electronics retail company responded extremely positively to the anti-corruption training, requiring that his 30-plus managers take part in the training.

As the business community begins to realize the need for change, and public pressure grows, the government is also taking positive steps. On July 1, 2017, Mongolia’s Parliament passed a revision of the Criminal code, introducing legislation that for the first time, makes a legal entity responsible for an act of corruption and abuse of power; any embezzlement from the executives and managers of private companies is now a criminal act.

There is no doubt that corruption presents a big challenge in Mongolia. Yet there is a growing confidence in and hope that ongoing collective efforts such as improving corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, and improving ethics will take Mongolian businesses to the next stage of development.

The survey launch event was an initiative of The Asia Foundation under its Strengthening Democratic Participation and Transparency in the Public Sector in Mongolia Project funded by Global Affairs Canada. The “Study of Private Sector Perceptions of Corruption” is conducted under The Foundation’s Global Affairs Canada funded Strengthening Democratic Participation and Transparency in the Public Sector in Mongolia Project (STEPS).

Bayanmunkh Ariunbold is a project manager for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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