THE BLOG

Youth, Digital Infrastructure and the Future Success of Mongolia

It was my last night in the capital city of Ulanbaataar (UB) during my first visit to Mongolia. I had spent an evening at a private reception generously hosted by the President of Mongolia, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, taking part in some of Mongolia's older traditions -- like trying my hand at the Mongolian bow and enjoying a bowl of fermented mare's milk.

My visit also included a day at the stunning Terelj Resort in Mongolia's National Park; strolling the semi-arid steppes of the country's highlands; and checking out the breathtaking statue of Genghis Khan seated on horseback, the largest statue of its kind in the world. Overall, I had spent four days exploring the many faces of the country, engaging in discussions about the future of this most ancient nation.

The value of the country is indescribably vast, and for those who know it, the possibility for gainful success is great -- if the country can move in the right direction over the next several decades.

With a population of three million people, Mongolia is currently one of the world's fastest growing economies, with GDP growth for 2013 forecasted to be 14 and 16 percent (with a value of USD $10 billion) and a natural wealth valued at more than USD $3 trillion.

Landlocked between China and Russia, the country is benefiting from a booming mining industry, which is still far from realizing its full potential. To this effect, the government has strong ambitions to use this wealth to improve infrastructure and foster growth, ultimately improving the lives of its people.

I had been invited to participate in the World Economic Forum's Strategic Dialogue on the Future of Mongolia. This forum brought together 150 Mongolian government and other leading domestic and international stakeholders to develop a set of scenarios that explore the different ways in which Mongolia's future might develop.

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With my friend Chikara Funabashi trying fermented mare's milk at a private reception hosted by the President of Mongolia on the first night of my trip.

These scenarios were used at the Strategic Dialogue to explore policy options in three decision areas: managing the mining industry and its revenues; encouraging economic diversification; and pursuing essential trade and investment relationships. See the World Economic Forum's final event report for details.

Sitting in a jeep, humming over the city's bumpy roads, I was deeply engaged in a discussion with an executive from Mongolia's Central Bank and one of the World Economic Forum's UB Global Shapers, Gantig Batsaikhan.

Our talks centered around perhaps one of the most important scenarios that had yet to be discussed or explored during the meeting: the role of the country's 1.6 million youth in the next 20 years as Mongolia grows. A staggering, 60 percent of the population of Mongolia are under the age of 30.

This group is increasingly interconnected and wired. Some 75 percent of people under the age of 30 have a cell phone and 45 percent have smart phones (namely iOS and Android). What's more, in the last few years, more than 300 computer/video gaming centers have been created across UB to cater to an increasingly demanding gamer culture.

However, according to the World Economic Forum's UB Global Shapers Hub (a community of leaders between the ages of 20 and 30 dedicated to improving the state of the world starting with one's local community), the central problem here rests in a digital divide. Simply put: most young people in UB have access to cell phones and the Internet - but many, especially outside the nation's capital, do not. In fact, by the end of 2012, the household penetration of Internet access was only one percent outside of UB.

There is a very clear indication that the youth who have access to wireless connectivity are using it and thriving as a result. However, in order for the country to grow, there needs to be a significant investment in digital infrastructure and education for the whole country, including rural and remote areas. There are several groups, companies and organizations already leading the charge in this respect.

For instance, the Ulaanbaatar Shapers are tackling the growing digital divide and lack of access to information between the urban and rural area of the country by visiting 330 town centers to offer short-term training on the importance of Internet access to children.

Mining company officials are also deeply aware of the growing importance of the relationship between young Mongolians and digital connectivity. The largest of the companies, Oyu Tolgoi, just funded the modernization/refurbishment of a street in UB -- colloquially called "student street" -- to include public WiFi. What's more, Oyu Tolgoi has focused attention on connecting with Mongolian youth through digital platforms, and has 80,000 likes on Facebook.

There are also groups of young entrepreneurs exploring how to engage youth from across the country. According to Enkhtur Zurgaanjin, co-founder of the leading Mongolian app-development company, Slide, ltd., he and his brother have been developing mobile applications to connect youth, such as: pica and pica social. The apps aim to make live easier for youth to connect with one another in UB.

The Mongolian government, company executives and incoming foreign investors must be attuned to the need to support local connectivity and corporate social responsibility campaigns targeted to youth.

As the country strives to maximize its vast potential over the next two decades, such awareness and engagement must be at the very heart of its growth strategy.

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