What young professionals can learn at capacity-building workshops

12th of 9, 2017

By Mendee, Jargalsaikhan /PhD candidate, UBC/ and
Marie-Luise Ermisch / PhD, Program Manager, Canadian International Resources Development Institute

Young professionals perform the bulk of the work in many organizations and institutions in Mongolia, including in the mining sector. In the government bureaucracy, young professionals are often the first to draft policy documents, thereby contributing to the process of policy discussions and changes. Given that the median age in Mongolia is 28 years, this should not be surprising. Yet, despite their number and contribution to the economy, young professionals are often referred to as inexperienced and less knowledgeable, and are offered only limited access to professional development opportunities.

To address this, the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute (CIRDI) teamed up with its Mongolian partners – the Natural Resources Governance Institute, and the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry – and others in other countries to devote a five-day resource governance workshop to young professionals working within government, the mining industry and civil society on natural resource policy issues. Mongolia was chosen as the venue for this international workshop, as the Mongolian context provides a rich store of resource governance case studies.

Mining became Mongolia’s key industrial sector through three main developmental stages: 1) Soviet assistance and a centralized economy (1924-1990); 2) the political and economic transition of the 1990s to a free market economy; 3) a full commodity boom and bust cycle in the early 2000s. These shifts are also reflected in the changing educational opportunities of policy makers and professionals within the mining sector. For example, many of the older generation received their education in communist bloc countries in the 1970s and 1980s, whereas those of the younger generation now attend universities in OECD countries, as well as in Russia and China, thus getting exposed to diverse educational and training approaches.

Mongolia’s young professionals can be divided into three groups, according to their educational background.  The first  includes those who obtain their undergraduate and graduate education abroad. While their education provides them with excellent technical knowledge and familiarity with international best practices, they  often lack an in-depth understanding of the Mongolian context.

The second group consists of those who attended domestic universities and colleges. This may limit their exposure to global or regional standards and practices, but they do develop a sound understanding of the local context, with many acquiring hands-on experience in the mining sector.  The last group includes those who have studied  both in Mongolia and abroad. They generally have a more comprehensive perspective of the Mongolian mining sector than the two other groups.

Given this range of educational experience and knowledge, young professionals would benefit from interaction with their peers, allowing them to learn from one another, test the applicability of their knowledge and, most importantly, critically analyze past policies together. Senior policymakers and resource governance experts could use such events to pass on their experience to future leaders and policy makers. This kind of dialogue, exchange and networking builds capacity and facilitates improved decision-making. Unfortunately such forums and training opportunities for young professionals are not very common in Mongolia. This directly impacts the institutional capacity of the resource sector because these young people are the ‘gatekeepers’ of the quality, continuity, and stability of mining policies, and are the future of the sector. 

For the CIRDI workshop, a young professional was someone under 35 years of age, with at least one year of experience working in a mining-related job in the government, industry or civil society. The participants included 15 Mongolians (five each from the government, industry, and civil society), four from the Kyrgyz Republic, and one from Afghanistan. The workshop was designed to be hands-on and participatory, with a focus on experiential learning. This decision to depart from the academically oriented discussions followed in CIRDI’s two previous workshops in this series was based on participant feedback.

This workshop was the  final  in the series and focused on natural resource governance and peer-to-peer learning among newly democratized countries with resource-based economies. The previous workshops were held in Mongolia (May 2016) and the Kyrgyz Republic (November 2016), and included mine site visits for selected participants to Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia,and Kumtor in the Kyrgyz Republic. These first workshops were organized in collaboration with the International Cooperation Fund of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, which had spearheaded this initiative.

The abandoned mine of Nalaikh – looking back to the future

The workshop started with a first-hand examination of what happens in the absence of a formal mine closure policy. Established in 1922, Nalaikh was Mongolia’s first-ever large-scale coal mine. By mid-century, the mining  had contributed to good infrastructure, including railroads, roads, and electricity grids in the surrounding area, as well as bustling urban settlements.  During the mining boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Nalaikh was known for its mining experts, products of both work experience and an adjacent vocational school.

The mine was abandoned in 1995  after a deadly explosion, which had killed over 20 people in 1990 and, more importantly, the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies following the collapse of the USSR. No mine closure plan was ever implemented. Since then illegal small-scale mining activity has transformed Nalaikh into one of the world’s deadliest underground coal mine sites, with 20 to 25 deaths recorded annually.  This illegal mining has also had a devastating impact on the surrounding environment, creating socio-economic risks for Nalaikh’s communities. Many blame the lack of a closure policy for the region’s fate.

Workshop participants learnt this history, as well as how the local government is now addressing the socio-economic and environmental challenges associated with the mine, through a panel facilitated by the Nalaikh District’s Governor’s Office. Ultimately the local government is seeking to formalize the illegal mining activity in order to improve health and safety standards for the miners, as well as to increase tax revenues for the government. One of the main challenges here is coordinating this effort with the national government, which is responsible for the relevant legislation. In the meantime, the local authorities are also considering alternative income generating activities for the miners. One such idea is to set up  a  museum dedicated  to showcasing Nalaikh’s role in transforming Mongolia into an industrialized, mining-dependent country.

We were taken on a guided tour of the abandoned mine by Mongolia’s Mining Rescue Unit, which is based in Nalaikh, and saw the decaying structures of the once successful mine, now surrounded by artisanal mining pits and holes. With two-thirds of  its deposits  still unexploited, Nalaikh continues to offer attractive income generation opportunities. According to the Nalaikh District’s Governor’s Office, 1,086 people worked illegally in the mine in 2016, particularly in the winter months when demand for coal  increases.  With the consequences of not doing so all too evident, we clearly realised the importance of preparing and implementing a comprehensive mine closure plan.  

Tavan Tolgoi - two ownership models

The next visits were to two operating coalmines – the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi (ETT), and the privately owned Energy Resources, both  in Tavan Tolgoi, one of the world’s largest coking coal deposits.  We had earlier watched  a presentation focused on the history, governance structure, and challenges and opportunities of ETT. The back-to-back visits  allowed participants to see how two different ownership models had been realized at the same deposit. State-run ETT contracts operating companies to extract and export the coal, and even with limited resources, is dedicated to corporate social responsibility, contributing to the local economy, and building infrastructure.  In contrast, the privately owned Energy Resources runs a more integrated mining operation, including a thermal power plant, roads, a housing complex, a water treatment facility, and a coking-coal processing facility.

The tours not only conveyed to the participants a sense of the scale of mining activities, but also allowed them  to engage with people working at the mines. Through the escorts made available to us, we learnt about the key challenges faced by such large-scale mining operations, including environmental and social ones, whose impact they need to manage. One such challenge, for example, is the transportation of coal to the border with China. Thousands of high-speed overhaul trucks from three different mines regularly carry the coal for the 250 kilometers to the  border. There they stand in a queue  over 50  kilometers long, and throughout the day and the night unload the coal at the Chinese receiving station. This has had a major environmental impact, posing health hazards for those living in the Tsogt-Tsetsii soum centre, particularly from the dust raised and emission of exhaust fumes.