Bolor-Erdene Battsengel wants to transform Mongolia into a “digital first” country — and help young people, especially girls in this sparsely populated nation of 3.3 million, to learn how to code.
During her time with Mongolia’s digital development and communications authority, including a year as vice minister, Battsengel, 30, worked on digitizing the country’s government services so people in remote areas don’t have to spend long days traveling and waiting in lines for access to things like passport renewals or filing taxes.
Today, Battsengel is completing a policy fellowship at Oxford University and runs Girls Code, which teaches girls from disadvantaged communities and nomadic families computer programming.
She spoke to The Associated Press about facing online harassment as a young woman in politics and about Mongolia’s unique position as a democracy nestled between Russia and China. Over 84% of Mongolia’s population is connected to the internet, up from just 18% a decade ago, according to the World Bank.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
QUESTION: Why was this digitization project so important?
ANSWER: Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. We have nomadic communities living in the countryside. Unlike the people in the cities, nomads would have to drive 5-10 hours just to get to their government facility.
And then they would, you know, have to stay there for a week to wait for the passport or come back. So now it’s very convenient. And one of the things I love about Mongolia is that now you can see a herder on a horse in the middle of nowhere, using e-Mongolia and registering a company or getting an ID card or looking at their social security etc.
Q: What is internet access like in Mongolia?
A: We have 330 small villages and towns in Mongolia. It’s a very big country for 3.2 million people and the most important thing I worked on was digital inclusion — I wanted to reach out to people who do not have regular access to the internet. Those are the communities who need to be connected, to be well-informed. So now we have internet in all 330 small villages and towns in Mongolia. And it’s relatively free, we haven’t banned any website or social media or anything like that. So actually the statistics on our spending on social media is quite high.
Mongolia is a democratic country. And it’s very interesting actually, being stranded between Russia and China and trying to protect our democracy. When they travel to Mongolia, I know a lot of people are shocked there is free speech. And now with social media and internet, a lot of things are coming out. For example, currently the Mongolian prime minister has a big fight against corruption. So a lot of parliament members are being prosecuted, resigning because of the corruption issues.
Q: Why did you leave your government post?
A: My vision always has been to transform Mongolia to a digital nation, because Mongolia is a very mining dependent economy. I genuinely still believe that digital technology will give us a second chance and it will be the second economic sector in Mongolia.
When I worked in government, it was typical that I would get a question asking me like, “Oh, whose assistant are you?” Or like, “Are you here to work as a waitress?” Whenever you see a young woman, it’s the stereotype. And even from the public, it’s an unusual image. And then I got a lot of cyberbullying from old male politicians because they would see me as a competitor. But I also got a lot of young supporters as well. So by the time I resigned, I needed to be able to fight against the system. But me being in the system, it was almost impossible to fight. I wanted to resign and then bring young people together, especially women together, and also tell them realistically what it is like to be in government as a young woman.
Q: What changes are you hoping for in Mongolia?
A: I always feel bad that the world does not know what’s happening in Mongolia, not aware of the things that we have done except like Genghis Khan or horses or these typical images. I really hope that the world learns about modern Mongolia. I believe it is the next tech hidden gem.
Q: Do you think that you will be able to push for them better now that you are organizing from the outside?
A: What I’m looking for, honestly, and hoping to achieve in the future is a generational shift in the government. Mongolia is very small country. We have to use young talent. And if you have been in the government for 20, 30 years, not understanding the modern world and not willing to accept advancement and human rights, etc., you can’t really make much change.
So for us to create change or create this society, we want young people, especially talented, well-educated, persistent young people, to join together. I get a lot of questions from Harvard graduates who are Mongolian but working in the U.S. Graduates from Cambridge, Oxford, who want to join the government or who want to come back to Mongolia and work. But still they’re on the fence. They can’t decide. So I hope we are going to bring those young people together.