Mongolian life and society has traditionally revolved around dealing with animals and Mongolia’s often harsh environment. Mongolian society has traditionally been organized around secular and religious social classes. In modern times status has become determined more by occupation and position in the market economy. In the old days, family histories and genealogies were recorded on silk cloth. Traditional clan structure was undermined in the Soviet era by the law banning surnames and other measures.

In pastoral areas, beef, mutton and dairy products are the staple food, while in the farming areas, people like to eat grain. Tea is indispensable. Dried cow dung is a common cooking fuel. Mongolian herdsmen used to live primarily in felt yurts. After the mid-20th century, as more and more herdsmen ended their nomadic life and settled down, they began to build yurt-like houses of mud and wood and one-storied houses, each with two or three rooms like those in other parts of the country. Today, most Mongols live in modern apartment blocks in urban development centers.

Before the arrival of Communism, most Mongolians were nomadic serfs in a hierarchal feudal society. When the Communists came this hierarchal system was adapted easily into the hierarchal state farm system. What changed was mobility. The nomads were no longer able to roam freely over a large area, they were relegated to provinces drawn up the Soviets.

Land has traditionally not belonged to individuals but to landowners, lamas, tribes and clans of herders. Each tribe or clan had its regular grazing grounds and families were allotted space within this scheme. A typical remote village of nomads is home to about 70 families. The villagers have traditionally been organized into units called “khot ail”, consisting of two or three families related by blood. Several of these groups are joined together in a “nokhorlol”, whose members help support each other.


Traditionally Mongolians have lived in settlements called ails, based on kinship, which formed basic administrative units called “somon” or “arban”. A typical ail is made up of five to eight gers, with the gers arranged according to each household’s relation to the ail’s leader.

In the old days, an ail was a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together and formed discrete social units. ail functions included helping one another in times of trouble, participating in kinship rituals such as weddings, funerals and hair cutting rites and economic exchanges. Household in the ail cooperate for labor intensive activities such as tending livestock and sheering sheep.

The ail’s leader is usually a senior member called an “aksakala” (“white beard”). Often he is no more than that the eldest male in a household or extended family. When he dies his eldest son becomes the ail leader.

Increased urbanization, the collectivization of herds and the enlargement of settlements has undermined the traditional ail system. Traditional administrative units have been replaced with administrative districts based on territory.

Evolution of Mongol Society

According to e Human Relations Area Files: “The historical record shows Mongolian society to have been dominated by hierarchical political structures rather than egalitarian kinship systems. By 1206, Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) founded a new polity that merged rival clans into one system, with the Borjigid (Chinggis' kin) clan forming a new aristocracy. In the 16th century, the Manchu introduced their model of clanship to the Mongols as an administrative unit and governing principle. [Source: William Jankowiak, Ian Skoggard, and John Beierle,e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]

Prior to socialist reforms, Mongolian kinship was organized around age and generation. By the 1980's, herding family life was characterized by an informality in daily interaction. Kinship is traced bilaterally and networks are usually based on patrilateral, matrilateral, and affinal kin. Post-marital residence is almost always with the husband’s family.

The kinship system (i.e., relations governed by rules of marriage, filiation, and descent) was strongly patrilineal in the past, but its larger units, the clans and lineages, lost many of their functions to the Manchu administrative institutions. The Mongol lacked a segmentary lineage structure. Among herders the ail, a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together, formed a discrete social unit. The functions of the ail, included mutual help in times of trouble, common kinship rituals (weddings, hair-cutting rites, funerals, etc.), and economic exchange (payment of marriage expenses). The responsibility system which resulted in the allocation of the pastures to individual families increased the importance of kinship as a principle for the organization of residence, work, and property ownership (Sneath 1999:165). Within urban settings, situational use of kinship ties is preferred over other corporate forms of kinship.

Transformation of Mongolian Society in the Soviet Era

After Communism came in the 1920s, Mongolia transformed from a traditional feudal society of pastoral nomads into a modern society of motorcycle-mounted shepherds and urban factory workers. The reshaping of Mongolian society reflected both strong guidance and a high level of economic assistance from the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolia in 1921 was an exceptionally economically undeveloped society in which nomadic herders, illiterate and marginally involved in a market economy, constituted most of the population. They supported some petty nobles and a large number of Buddhist monks. The society's dominant institution was the Buddhist monastic system, which enrolled much of the adult male population as monks. Such limited commerce as existed was controlled by Chinese merchants, to whom the native nobility was heavily in debt. The only avenue of mobility and escape from broad and ill-defined obligations to hereditary overlords was provided by entrance to the Buddhist clergy, whose monks devoted themselves primarily to otherworldly and economically unproductive pursuits. The population appears to have been declining, because of high death rates from disease and poor nutrition, the large proportion of celibate monks, and high levels of infertility caused by venereal disease. *

Against such a historical foundation, claims that contemporary Mongolia represents a completely new society are quite plausible. In many ways, the society has been transformed, and in the 1980s rapid social change continued. The ruling party saw the nation as having leaped directly from feudalism to socialism, bypassing the capitalist stage of development. Many of the forms of socialist organization, particularly in the rapidly growing urban and industrial sectors, appeared to be direct copies of Soviet models, with some modification to fit the Mongolian context. The population has nearly tripled since 1920, as the government pursued a pro-natal policy rare among developing nations. Mongolia's herds of livestock, which outnumbered the human population by at least ten-to-one, had been collectivized, and herders in the 1980s worked as members of pastoral collectives that drew up monthly and annual plans for milk and wool production. *

By 1985 a slim majority of Mongolia's population was urban, working in factories and mines, and increasingly housed in Soviet-model, prefabricated highrises. Public health and education had been the objects of intense development, which by the 1980s had produced vital rates approaching those of developed nations and nearly universal literacy among the younger generation. Much of Mongolia's industrial development and urban growth has taken place since the mid-1970s and has been so recent that the country was only beginning to recognize the problems attending rapid industrialization, urbanization, and occupational differentiation. *

The drive for modernization along Soviet lines has been accompanied by an equally strong, but much less explicitly articulated, determination to maintain a distinctive Mongolian culture and to keep control of Mongolia's development in Mongolian hands. Although the topic was politically sensitive, Mongolia's leaders were nationalists as well as communists, and they aspired to much more independence than was permitted to the "national minorities" of the Soviet Union and China with whom the Mongolians otherwise had so much in common. *

Social Stratification in the Soviet Era

Mongolia's economic development in the 1970s and the 1980s produced a population increasingly divided along occupational, educational, and regional lines. There were growing distinctions between workers and white-collar administrators; between urban and rural residents; between factory workers and pastoralists; between professionals, such as teachers and engineers, and the politically elite generalist managers; between those with only a primary school education and the graduates of post-secondary institutions in Mongolia or the Soviet Union; and, perhaps, between residents of the economic core in north-central Mongolia and those of the larger, but more sparsely populated, peripheral regions. All these distinctions entailed differences in income, life chances, prestige, and power, and they indicated potential strains in the social and political system. The strains took the form both of increased competition for the more desirable occupations and of concern within the government and the party over the way policies and practices favored some segments of the population over others, such as industrial workers at the expense of pastoralists, or urban universities at the expense of rural primary schools.[Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The elite consisted of bureaucrats and ranking members of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. Such people were usually male graduates of universities or military academies; they possessed a good command of Russian, had experience studying or working in the Soviet Union, and tended to live in Ulaanbaatar. They held positions in the nomenklatura, the Russian term denoting, narrowly, the elite administrative positions the ruling party filled by appointment and, more broadly, the elite "New Class" that dominated Soviet society. They had urban apartments, scarce consumer goods, opportunities for foreign travel, the use of official vehicles, and access to first-rate medical care; they probably sent their children to universities and into professional occupations. *

Under the managerial elite were technical specialists, such as engineers, doctors, professors, and financial and planning experts, who also were university-trained, fluent in Russian, and predominately urban. Below them were the comparatively large categories of industrial workers, employees of state farms, and administrative and clerical personnel. Such people had an occupational title or certification, and they received a regular wage from the state payroll.

At the bottom, or the edges, of the system were the nomadic herders, the arads. They had no vocational certification or formal job titles, and their incomes and livelihood still depended to a large extent on the vagaries of the weather. Although they were honored publicly as the prototypical Mongolian working class and the repository of traditional values, they were a shrinking segment of the population and one that few urbanites aspired to join. In spite of government efforts to raise their living standards, their dispersed and nomadic mode of livelihood limited access to such public services as health care and education. Their children could rise through the school system to the professional or administrative elite, but at the cost of long separation from their families in boarding schools. Unlike those of workers in the state sector of the economy, herders' incomes depended on the performance of the cooperatives, and that in turn rested on the weather and the health of the herds.

Social Mobility in Mongolia in the Soviet Era

The expansion of the economy and the rapid growth of the urban, industrial, and service sectors made high rates of social mobility possible in the 1970s and the 1980s. Population growth, which accelerated in the late 1950s and peaked around 1970, was barely able to keep up with the expansion of positions in new factories, schools, and local government bodies. In the 1980s, most Mongolians worked in occupations different from those of their parents, who were almost universally herders. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

There was a single, well-defined track for social mobility, which led through the school system and the youth organizations of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. The keys to upward mobility were good academic performance, including command of Russian, and political reliability, as evidenced either by membership in the Mongolian Revolutionary Youth League or by recommendations of administrators and party members. The party controlled job assignments and promotions at all but the most basic levels, and its favor was necessary for significant upward mobility. *

Advanced study in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe was both a reward for good performance and a qualification for further career advancement. Military service, which until 1988 was three years for almost all young men, did not in itself confer any particular advantage on veterans, although it was possible for soldiers with secondary educations who had performed exceptionally well to be commissioned as officers. It was possible for children of herders in the most remote regions to progress, through examinations and recommendations, to the Mongolian State University and on to further training in the Soviet Union or the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). A 1981 account of an eight-year school in a herding cooperative revealed that half of the sixteen-year-olds completing the course left school to become herders, while the other half went on to two more years of secondary school in the aymag seat, from which they could go to white-collar jobs or to further vocational or general education. *

In the late 1980s, the government was discussing a range of economic reforms, including increased use of the contract system as well as relaxed controls on privately owned livestock, on the development of cooperatives, and on individual labor. To the extent that such reforms were implemented, they would open an additional channel for social mobility for those who had not been favored by the monolithic system that had controlled occupational movement and advancement. *

Traditions Hang on in Modern Mongolia

Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post, “Amid all the newness and chaos, Mongolia is clinging hard to its past. Genghis Khan is resurgent here, and universally beloved. There is a new 131-foot-tall statue of him just outside UB, and the memory of his “Nine White Banners” flag, consisting of nine white horsetail plumes, is newly keen. Nine is a lucky number in Mongolia now. [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 ^^^]

“Even the most avant-garde Mongolians are embracing old traditions. My interpreter, a heavy metal singer named Uugii, was letting his tiny son’s black locks grow long, in anticipation of a lavish hair-cutting ceremony on the boy’s third birthday. And everywhere a question looms: What does Mongolia need now, as it endeavors to step into the global fray, without losing its integrity and its soul? ^^^

Urban Life in Mongolia

Nearly 40 percent of Mongolia’s citizens reside in Ulaanbaatar. Urbanization: urban population: 72 percent of total population (2015); rate of urbanization: 2.78 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.); Major urban areas - population: Ulaanbaatar (capital) 1.334 million (2014). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Michael Kohn and William Mellor wrote in the Washington Post: “Many of Ulaanbaatar’s 1.3 million inhabitants live in crumbling concrete apartment buildings from the Soviet era. Others live just outside the city’s center in yurts — known locally as gers — without sewers, running water or, in most cases, electricity. Smoke from their coal fires has turned the capital into one of the world’s most polluted cities, according to a World Bank report. [Source: Michael Kohn and William Mellor, Washington Post, May 4, 2013]

The city system is dominated by Ulaanbaatar — a classic primate city far larger than the second-ranking or third-ranking cities — in which all important political, economic, and cultural functions are centralized. In 1986 Ulaanbaatar had 500,200 people, or nearly 25 percent of the nation's population. Its dominant position was demonstrated by the transportation system, which radiated out from Ulaanbaatar (see Transportation). The industrial center of Darhan, on the main railroad line north of Ulaanbaatar, had 74,000 people in 1986; Erdenet, founded in 1976 and built around a major copper and molybdenum mining complex, had 45,400. Fourth place went to Choybalsan, the industrial metropolis of eastern Mongolia in Dornod Aymag, which had 28,600 people in 1979. Fifth through tenth places were occupied by a set of aymag seats with populations in the 16,000-to-18,000 range in 1979. The lowest rung of the urban hierarchy was occupied by the headquarters of state farms or herding cooperatives, which usually featured administrative offices, primary schools with boarding facilities, clinics, assembly halls, fodder storage facilities, and the cooperative's motor pool and truck maintenance centers. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The urban population has been hit hardest by the economic hardships. Despite this the government wants to urbanize 90 percent of the population.

Ger Suburbs and the Pollution They Cause

Many residents of Ulaanbaatar live in gers, drafty felt tents that Mongolian nomads have used for centuries. Tens of thousands of nomads have moved to Ulaanbaatar in recent years in search of work. [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

In the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar people live in gers as they would on the steppes but commute to jobs in the city. A typical Mongolian man living in the ger suburbs of Ulaanbaatar works 50 to 60 hours a week as a truck driver and free-lance construction worker and his wife works 64 hours (including 24 hours of housework and 40 hours dispensing medicine at a hospital). Until fairy recently it was common to see herdsmen guiding their flocks through downtown Ulaanbaatar.

Describing one resident of a ger suburb, Terrence Edwards wrote in Los Angeles Times: Tsoggerel saves money by living in a ger. She bought the structure for $1,500 and pays $25 a month to lease the spot it sits on; a typical one-bedroom apartment rents for about $350 a month. Ulaanbaatar leaders want to dismantle the gers and wooden houses. They have long envisioned building affordable apartment complexes, with access to the city's heat and water services. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2015 ]

The ger suburbs are blamed for high crime rates and exacerbating Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution problem. Michael Kohn reported for Reuters: “Tens of thousands of nomads have moved to Ulaanbaatar in recent years in search of work, bringing coal-fired cast iron stoves to keep warm in temperatures that fall to minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) in winter. The resulting soot that envelopes the city — particularly during the winter. [Source: Michael Kohn, Reuters, October 17, 2011 ==]

“Most of the PM10s [air pollution particles] are produced in sprawling slum-like "ger districts", where in winter most of the 150,000 families living in these areas burn two or three small bags of raw coal a day. Burning raw coal emits mercury, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter (PM), as well as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. "The poorest of poor burn other things, like garbage and tyres, which creates a toxic brew of its own," said Engelke.” ==

“Ulaanbaatar leaders want to dismantle the gers and wooden houses. They have long envisioned building affordable apartment complexes, with access to the city's heat and water services. That's still years away, however, and doesn't look like an option for Tsoggerel. She imagines she'll eventually flee to a rural town, as her grandmother did eight years ago. "I thought I would always just live in the city," she said, "but I don't know how I can keep living here." ==

Migration to the Cities in Mongolia

Bill Donahue wrote in the Washington Post, “Rural Mongolians, enticed by the promise of a richer Ulaanbaatar, are now moving to the capital city, population 1.2 million, at the rate of 50,000 per year, and planting their round herders’ gers willy-nilly on the city’s fringes. The number of cars in UB, as it’s known in Mongolia, has tripled in the past decade. And still a nomad vibe prevails: The city does not have street addresses. Locals navigate somewhat as herders do in the desert, studying the slant of the sun as they search for tall buildings. There aren’t even any crosswalks — residents are obliged to dodge the oncoming cars, even if they just forked out 2.8 million tugriks, about $1,700, for a handbag at Louis Vuitton. [Source: Bill Donahue, Washington Post, September 20, 2013 |::|]

The communist government encouraged people to move to the cities to supply more manpower for industrialization but the migration created a labor shortage in agricultural areas. The economic collapse in the 1990s resulted in some people leaving the cities to take up herding and some nomads moving to the cities because they couldn’t maintain their animals.

During the 1980s, the pace of urban residential construction was rapid, and an increasing proportion of the urban populace was housed in Soviet-designed, prefabricated four-story or high-rise apartment complexes. Such housing complexes — equipped with heat from central plants and served by planned complexes of shops, schools, and playgrounds as well as by bus routes — represented the zenith of modernism and progress. Many people in cities continued to live in the traditional Mongolian round felt tents called ger. Mongolians do not regard ger as backward or shameful, even in Ulaanbaatar, but urban planners considered that the much higher population densities afforded by high-rise housing would permit optimum use of often-scarce flat ground and would afford the most efficient utilization of public transportion and public utilities such as water and sewer lines. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

The 51 percent urban population reported in the 1979 census reflected rapid migration to the cities in the 1970s. The influx of rural people created housing problems, among them long waits for assignment to an apartment, expansion of ger districts on the edges of built-up areas, and pressure to invest in more housing, roads, and other urban infrastructure. The 1979 census showed Mongolia's class structure to consist approximately 40 percent of workers, 39 percent of herders in cooperatives, and 21 percent of intelligentsia. The last term was not defined but presumably referred to those with at least secondary schooling and non-manual occupations. *

Inequality in Mongolia

Distribution of family income - Gini index: 36.5 (2008); 32.8 (2002), country comparison to the world: 83. Household income or consumption by percentage share: lowest 10 percent: 3 percent; highest 10 percent: 28.4 percent (2008). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

AFP reported: “Mongolia’s skyline of tents, towers betrays inequality. Sitting in a tent on the outskirts of Mongolia’s capital, Norihil Gendenpil lives on the physical — and economic — margins of a booming city filling up with skyscrapers. The 88-year-old grandmother still worries daily about the rising cost of food for herself and 20 children, grandchildren and other family members. “Every morning the price goes up,” she says, sitting in her yurt, a traditional felt tent used by Mongolian nomads for generations.“But I don’t want to ask anything of my daughters, since they themselves are struggling to make ends meet.” [Source: Agence France Presse, October 4, 2013 /*/]

“Just a few minutes’ drive down a dusty road, glitzy skyscrapers, malls, a five-star golf and ski resort and — perhaps the greatest luxury in her eyes — apartment blocks with central heating offer a stark contrast to Gendenpil’s way of life. The nouveau riche in Ulaanbaatar, home to half of the country’s three million people, can now go shopping for Armani outfits, Louis Vuitton bags and Vertu mobile phones encrusted with precious stones. Driving Lexus SUVs and Hummers, they clamber over poorly paved roads and idle in chaotic traffic in a city full of dilapidated infrastructure from the era when the country was a satellite of the Soviet Union. The rapid transformation — in one of the poorest countries in the world — has come from the exploitation of vast coal, copper and gold reserves. /*/

“Mongolia’s economy grew 12.3 percent in 2012 after expanding 17.5 percent the year before. But rising inequality in the cities along with environmental damage in rural areas have stirred popular discontent. The mining wealth has yet to flow to the fringes, where Gendenpil lives on a monthly pension of 180,000 tugriks ($110, 80 euros). She relies on government food-stamps — of $5.90 a month for adults and half that for children — to buy the Mongolian staples of meat and dairy. /*/

“Vegetables can be hard to come by in a country where temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit) in winter, while imports from China are expensive. Some of Gendenpil’s younger relatives have already given up on sharing in their country’s boom. Enkhnyamaa Purevsuren, 28, had been earning $310 a month in a leather-goods factory before joining her sister in Malaysia, where she worked as a nanny. But two years later, at the end of 2012, Gendenpil called her and other family members back to Mongolia, unnerved by rumors involving the Mayan calendar that the world was about to end. Dutiful relatives returned home, gathering around a shamanistic altar at the back of their yurt to await the apocalypse. Since then Purevsuren has been hoping to make her way back to Malaysia. “I haven’t managed to save any money,” she says. “I don’t have a place to live and salaries are very low.”

Nouveaux Riches’ Develop a Taste for Luxury in Mongolia

Michael Kohn of AFP wrote: “Latter-day khans are again stepping out in some of the world’s finest luxury fashions as Mongolia’s minerals-fueled economy boosts disposable income for the country’s nouveaux riches. Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, Burberry and Hugo Boss have led the charge of high-end shops opening in Ulaanbaatar, the flashy stores jarring with the city’s Soviet-era apartment blocks and shantytowns. “The domestic fashion industry is growing with the Mongolian economy and people have more money to spend,” Hugo Boss shop manager Siizhuugiin Nasantulga said. “They would rather spend it here than go on overseas shopping trips.” [Source: Michael Kohn, AFP, May 16, 2011 \^/]

“With an influx of new money and the number of millionaires growing, members of the upper-income set have sought to outdo each other with name-brand fashion and fancy cars. “Mongolians have great fashion sense and they are always looking for the highest quality products,” says Nasantulga, a strapping 28-year-old with fluent English he learned while studying business overseas. “People love to show off their cars and they take pride in dressing as well as they possibly can.” \^/

“Most of the luxury shops in Ulaanbaatar are located in the Central Tower, a new office building adjacent to Sukhbaatar Square, where the modern Mongolian state was established in 1921. In the VIP room of the Louis Vuitton store, big spenders can lounge on white leather couches as they check out US$1,100 shoes or US$800 sunglasses. “We have relatively few customers, but those that shop buy a lot,” Armani manager Batbekhiin Batkhuu said. “For now, the most important part of our business plan is establishing brand awareness. We need to educate people on fashion and which labels are the best.” \^/

“Outside, luxury cars ply potholed streets. Flashy SUVs — Toyota Land Cruisers, Hummers and Land Rovers — stand snarled in traffic jams with models from Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and BMW. Beyond the capital, a few Mongolians are taking to the roads in custom-built Mercedes-Benz Zetros trucks, packed with ultra-modern features like flatscreen TVs, bidets and even kitchens. \^/

“The sizzling real-estate market in Ulaanbaatar is helping to make these increasingly luxurious lifestyles possible. When property markets were privatized in the late 1990s, apartments were readily available for about US$5,000, Belgian real estate investor Chris De Gruben says. Those same apartments now sell for about US$90,000. These apartments form an important part of the economy. Locals can sell their apartment and use the cash to start a business and get a kick-start in life. It allows people to move forward,” De Gruben said. New apartments and penthouses are beginning to appear. In the prestigious Zaisan area in the south of the city, modern units start at about US$2,000 per square meter. The city’s priciest digs are downtown in the sail-shaped Blue Sky building, where penthouses are advertised at US$8,875 per square metre. \^/

“As soon as people start getting money, they want to display their wealth,” De Gruben said. “You can see ostentatious displays of wealth anywhere in the world, but in a place like Mongolia it’s more apparent because it’s still surrounded by high levels of poverty.” Some Mongolian-made luxury goods are even making their way overseas. The best-known is Gobi cashmere, which sells sweaters, scarfs, hats and coats made from the soft fur of goats.” \^/

Poverty in Mongolia

Despite a wealth of recently discovered mineral resources, many residents remain desperately poor. According to CIA World Factbook: Population below poverty line: 29.8 percent (2011 est.). Percentage of population under the poverty level of $10 a month in 2001: 36 percent. In 1991 it was only 15 percent.

For most of Mongolia’s citizens, poverty is still their daily reality. More than tw decades after embracing democracy and capitalism, AFP reports “the government is struggling to meet the increasingly urban population’s social needs. More than 40 percent of the country’s total population lives in Ulaanbaatar.”

In the early 2000s, some families were so poor they have moved into buildings at an abandoned coal mine in Nalaikh. They survived by collecting coal from the abandoned pits and selling it, earning about $50 a month. They spent so much time around coal, coal soot blanketed their skin and stiffened their hair.

In the Soviet era this kind of poverty was unknown as subsidies helped create enough jobs for everyone. But after the Soviets left the Mongolian economy collapsed and many people lost their jobs and guaranteed prices for animals. Factory workers lost their wages and herders could not maintain their animals and lost them.

The government policy towards poverty is to attract foreign invest to create jobs. It doesn’t take in enough taxes and revenues to offer much of a safety net.

Urban Poor in Mongolia

In the 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of rural families who had lost their animals in the winter or suffered other hardships drift into Ulaanbaatar and other cities looking for work. But often there wasn’t work for them.

Poor herders who lost their flocks in the harsh winters of 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 shared a three-room wooden shacks on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar with five other families. They survived by collecting coal and firewood, which they sold. Children were put to work sifting through garbage for food.

In the early 2000s, there were an estimated 45,000 homeless people in Ulaanbaatar. Many of them were children who were abandoned by their families because there was not enough to eat or left because their parents were abusive alcoholics. One 15-year-old boy, who looked about 20 and spent his day collecting rotten vegetables and clumps of rice which he ate, told Reuters, “I left home because there was no food to eat.”

In 2010, AFP reported: “Munkherdene should be in high school. Instead the 15-year-old Mongolian sifts through mountains of garbage each day at a rubbish tip in Ulaanbaatar, collecting scraps of steel, copper and plastic. Munkherdene, his widower father and elder sister — who moved into a traditional ger closer to the dump after his mother died — sell their wares at the markets. For his toil, the teen makes about 3,000 tugrik, or US$2.70, a day. “I couldn’t enroll at a new school so it’s easier for me to work at the tip,” Munkherdene said, explaining that when the family moved they lost their legal urban registration — and with it the right to education and healthcare. [Source: AFP, October 4, 2010 ]

“Thousands of herders have abandoned traditional nomadic life in search of economic opportunity or were driven to Mongolia’s cities after a devastating winter that killed off much of their livestock. “Ulaanbaatar’s population grew from 600,000 in 1989 to 1,000,000 in 2007 and it’s expected to be 1.3 million in 2025,” UNICEF deputy representative Gilles Fagninou said, adding that overcrowding is a major obstacle to poverty alleviation. Outside the city center, almost half of the capital’s population live in the sprawling ger districts, with no access to running water, poor sanitation and limited social services. “

Children Living Underground

In some parts of Ulaanbaatar in the 2000s homeless children slept underground in dank, dirty tunnels built to house the city's heating pipes. One homeless 16-year-old boy in a filthy underground chamber told Reuters, "This is my home." A 14-year-old boy said, "I've been here for three days. before that I was sometimes at home, sometimes on the street. The children like the heating pipes because they keep them warm in the winter.

Western aid workers estimate that there were around 4,000 homeless children in Ulaanbaatar in 2005 up from about 1,000 a few years earlier. During the day they joined other children to steal food and pick pockets. Girls as young as 13 have venereal disease and many children suffer from alcoholism, malnutrition and disease and have lice and scabies.

Many of the manholes to the tunnels are gone. They have been stolen and sold for scrap metal. There are several Mongolian and foreign aid groups that have set up housing and schools for the children. Some of the children prefer independence and living in the tunnels.

Politics, Mines and Poverty in Mongolia

AFP reported: “In parliamentary elections in 2008, economic issues took center stage, with candidates from across the political spectrum pledging to improve national strategic asset management so as to guarantee a better distribution of wealth. Both main parties promised cash payments of about US$1,150 to each citizen but those handouts never came, leading to public protests in 2010 in Ulaanbaatar. “We unfortunately don’t have a professional government. It consists of a bunch of politicians who were not properly trained,” said Jargalsaikhan, a leading Mongolian economist and political analyst. [Source: AFP, October 4, 2010 ~]

“A UN Development Programme report points to a failure in the country’s welfare system — not only were 89.1 percent of poor households receiving welfare payments, but 72.2 percent of non-poor households were also getting benefits. “Cash payments solve short-term problems, but what really needs to be looked at is who is targeted,” Fagninou said. ~

“As mining companies sign massive deals such as the US$5 billion agreement inked last year for the development of Mongolia’s massive Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit, the population has come to see resources as a quick fix. Experts say those mining revenues will not necessarily trickle down to those who need them.“I think the expectations are different to the realities,” said Arshad Sayad, who completed his term as the World Bank’s country manager for Mongolia in July. “Several things need to be done to generate employment. One of them is realizing mining will not generate jobs. We need to look at other industries where you can add more value, like meat and cashmere,” he said. ~

“Despite this, the more than one-third of Mongolia’s people who live below the poverty line cling to their dreams of a better life. Ariunzaya, nine, cares for her six-year-old sister and three-year-old brother while her parents work at the rubbish tip. “I want to be a professional dancer when I get older,” Ariunzaya says. She shows off a few moves learned from other children — but her home has no electricity, so there is no music.” ~

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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