V.Lutenco: To increase the productivity of labor force, we have to invest in the education system

Mongolian Economy
2022-07-07 15:06:46
Category: Interview

Mongolia joined International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a member in 2008 and in 2011 IOM opened an office in Ulaanbaatar. Since then IOM has been contributing to the efforts of the Government of Mongolia to manage migration effectively through a wide variety of projects and programmes. Mongolian Economy spoke with Victor Lutenco, Programme Manager at the IOM in Mongolia.  

-Could you briefly introduce yourself to readers of Mongolian Economy magazine?

-My name’s Victor Lutenco. Currently, I’m working as a Programme Manager at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mongolia.

I’m originally from Moldova and I’ve been working in the field of migration for my entire life. Initially, I joined IOM in Moldova, in 2005 supporting the work on preventing trafficking in human beings for then moving to the United Nations Population Fund, another UN agency, to work on demographic policies. I took the invitation to join the Moldovan government team as Senior State Advisor on Social and Development Policies in the Prime-Minister’s Office, but quickly circled back into the migration and development field by founding and leading the Diaspora Relations Bureau – a specialized agency of the government of Moldova.

Besides that I had a quick take on the politics serving on the Municipal Council of Chisinau – the capital of Moldova. While working for the Government of Moldova, I realized that there are so many things I need to learn so I went for a year to Minnesota as a Humphrey Fellow and then completed a Master’s degree in Public Administration in Boston. As a matter of fact, Mongolia is my very first international assignment.

-Let’s start our interview with Mongolian migrants. Nowadays, young, educated and skilled Mongolians keep migrating to foreign countries in search of high paying jobs and a better quality of life for themselves and their families. What could Mongolia do to reduce and prevent brain drain?

-First of all, I think that going abroad to study and work, to expose oneself to international knowledge and experience, is not a bad thing. Learning from other countries and being exposed to a different culture is something that is definitely helpful to Mongolians, especially young people, and in the long run to their country of origin.

In general, international migration gives rise to two issues. First one is called brain drain, as you mentioned. This is when migrants, some of whom tend to be better educated, fluent in other languages and overall good at their jobs choose to go abroad because there are limited opportunities in their home country to make use of their higher skills and knowledge. The second one is “brain waste” and this is happening when these skilled individuals are taking up jobs that at a much lower level than their qualification gradually loosing or wasting their skills. For example, many of those Mongolians who go to South Korea and take up unskilled jobs for the sake of higher pay actually have university degrees and often an experience in a skilled or even high-skilled profession. Not using those skills, sometimes for several years, will make people lose those, put those skills to waste along with the money, efforts and time spent on acquiring them.

What can we do about that? The first measure might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s to actually help people to go abroad. Migration is an individual decision, free choice and human right similar to a right to marry or right to property.

The very first thing that the Government should do is to make sure that people can freely decide to migrate internally and internationally, defending the right to migrate. What we see from our experience, not just in Mongolia but all around the world, is that the more the decision to migrate is forced, the higher the chances that the person will end up in a vulnerable situation.

By forced migration I mean migrating due to external reasons such as economic situation, serious conflicts and impacts of climate change in their home country, among others. When it’s a free choice, then the migration tends to help those who migrate and their home and host countries as well. To illustrate, migrants represent approximately 3 percent of the world’s population, but produce around 10 percent of global GDP.

In short, migration accelerates economic growth, but when it’s done properly and when it’s a free choice. Hence, the primary responsibility of the Government should be not to keep people put or restrict migration, but to create legal and simplified opportunities for those willing to go abroad and fulfill their dreams, doing it in orderly manner, helping them to reach their migration objectives faster and by that contributing to them returning sooner or, if they decide to stay abroad, motivating them to contribute to the development of Mongolia.

-How can we give motivation to return back or contribute to Mongolia?

-The answer is simple and straightforward: the more we help them, the more they will be willing to stay in touch with Mongolia. We could cooperate and coordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the embassies, councils and diaspora associations to reach out, stay in touch and help Mongolians preserve their heritage and language. Simultaneously, we must allow and help them to benefit in the country where they are, to increase their income, to get knowledge and experience. Only after providing them with opportunities, respecting their rights and giving necessary support, we can expect them to contribute to their home country in the form of sharing their knowledge, experience or even investing in Mongolia.

We tend to think that the best contribution of people who went abroad is to return back to their home country which is not necessarily true. Now, we’re living in a world where we’re no longer bound by our geographical location and space.

We can live, study and work in several countries at the same time. Policymakers have to take that into account and catch up with the reality.

Very often what people can do from abroad for their country is much more than merely returning back. Thus, we don’t have to push them to return back to Mongolia but motivate them to contribute to Mongolia in their own ways. To enable it, we need to create opportunities and corridors for a diverse range of contributions to Mongolia because some of them want to invest, to start a company, to work for the Government and local administrations. Why can’t we mobilize these capacities, resources and knowledge that Mongolians living abroad have? I’m quite sure that many of them want to contribute to Mongolia but don’t know how. So, we need to build these corridors in order for them to contribute to their home country.


-As of 2021, there were approximately 5,600 migrants living and working in Mongolia. Migrant workers mainly come from neighboring or other Asian countries such as China, Russia, Vietnam and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. What can we do to attract migrant workers from European and North American countries?

-To begin with, Mongolia should attract migrant workers based on their skills, not nationalities. It’s the same as saying we don’t want other countries to discriminate against our people based on their nationality. For this reason, migration policy should be centered and based on skills that the labor market needs here.

Secondly, we must not only invite specialists from other countries but also try to learn from them and capture their skills. We have to strive to reduce dependence on foreign experts and professionals. If we badly need engineers in the mining industry, we must start investing in teachers and mining faculties to prepare our labor force. That way, in the long term, we could benefit from our own specialists in this field.

On top of that, we have to make sure that the education system is tuned and aligned with the labor market. Shortage of workers in certain fields is a signal to the labor market and education system that adjustments need to be made.

-Do Mongolian nationals living and working abroad have an option to seek help from the local IOM? What type of help could IOM provide to Mongolian migrants?

-Yes, they can. Most of our missions in the EU support Mongolians extensively and our Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) program is designed to help Mongolians who want to return to their home country. The AVRR provides orientation to plan their trip back to Mongolia and help with reintegration into Mongolian society. It is not intended as long-term assistance but aims to help them to reintegrate and return to their normal life upon return.

First thing we do is try to connect those people with the Government support system such as social welfare, employment and education systems. Many of them have returned after several years, not a few months so they tend to be disconnected from Mongolia both legally and mentally. We always strive to adapt, adjust and tailor our reintegration assistance to the specific needs and goals of those people. The integration assistance depends on the host country, but usually involves various grants for healthcare, accommodation, entrepreneurship and vocational training. IOM also builds the capacities and skills of those who are interested in learning new skills to improve their livelihood through in-person and online courses. Also, I would like to mention that we’re trying to connect our courses to the overall educational system of the country. That means not only our beneficiaries but everyone who is interested could take our courses regardless of their place of residence.

-I heard that IOM is supporting the Government of Mongolia in reinforcing reverse (urban to rural) migration choice by investing in regional and local development. Could you elaborate on that?

-Generally, we start with the premise that the best place to live is at home. Home is where you have community, family and friends. Unfortunately, it often happens that people have limited opportunities to grow and develop in their home regions. That’s why people are moving to the aimag center, capital and abroad. Therefore, IOM has been working with the Government of Mongolia to create more opportunities at home for people to grow and develop. Last year, IOM worked with NGOs in 11 aimags and in Ulaanbaatar to provide socio-economic support to these people. They often need simple things such as access to health care and education. So, in total, we’ve helped around 11,000 people who are potential and existing migrants.

This year, we’re focusing more on increasing employability, capacities to find a job and opportunities to start income generating activities in 10 aimags and Ulaanbaatar.

Furthermore, IOM provides necessary information on migration and employment training. We also have special courses for encouraging people to get a job and not to be dependent on social welfare.

-IOM has collected extensive data to develop a better understanding of why many Mongolians are moving to the capital city from rural areas. Could you share the key findings of the study?

-Recently, in December 2021, IOM has presented the results of two studies, namely “Migration and Employment Study” and “Research Study on Assessing the Effectiveness of Migration Restrictions in Ulaanbaatar City and Migrants’ Vulnerability”. The studies revealed that the flow of internal migration is still high, which means people continued to migrate to Ulaanbaatar despite the migration restriction. This suggests that migrants have been moving to the capital but didn’t register in the Civil State Registration Database. In other words, the migration restriction policy, which was in effect between 2017 to 2020, led to a reduction in registered migration inflows from the rural areas. As a result, the unregistered migrants faced difficulties in receiving health care, social services or buying accommodation, finding a job and owning assets. It was concluded that the migration ban was ineffective and ended up pushing people into more vulnerability.

Another major conclusion was that instead of banning migration Mongolia should invest in better integrating internal migrants by establishing an agency for migration management and integration at the national level.

Many people who are living in Ulaanbaatar forgot that they’re migrants because they had integrated very well and very quickly. The faster people integrate into the society the faster they will find a job, pay taxes and contribute to the society.

In addition to that the study recommends rural and regional development as a way to stabilize migration flows in the long run. The reason is the inflow of migrants to Ulaanbaatar is caused by huge discrepancies between urban and rural areas. For instance, the second biggest city in Mongolia is 13 times smaller than the capital city. In order to have a successful policy to keep people interested in staying in rural areas is to invest in those regions. For this reason, IOM is working with the Government to incentivize reverse migration. Within that framework, we plan to organize a national Reverse Conference on Reverse Migration to support and strengthen the regional development efforts of the Government of Mongolia in June 2022. During this conference, migrants will take the stage, not policy makers, to share their experience and opinion. We want migrants to talk to policy makers and come up with recommendations on how to enhance reverse migration. To achieve a large-scale reverse migration, we must have much more sophisticated and comprehensive policies to support these people. That’s what we want to work on in this area more extensively.

-In the past years, IOM has supported Mongolia in building capacity for improved border management and counter trafficking efforts. Could you tell us more about it?

-In terms of border management, our main focus was training and building the capacities of frontline workers who are in direct contact with passengers at the airport and border crossing points. For instance, in the beginning of April, we held a training for all the officers working at the General Authority for Border Protection of Mongolia. I remember that there was an officer who mentioned that he still remembers the training he did 10 years ago which helped him to identify two young women as potential victims of human trafficking and was able to successfully prevent it. With the help of such training, the officers will acquire skills and methods to identify and prevent human trafficking incidences.

IOM generally works with the Government of Mongolia to facilitate the cooperation between various agencies and institutions because prevention, protection and prosecution have to be coordinated in order to work well together. We also work with IOM missions and government agencies of different countries.

Our Baseline Assessment into the Causes, Dynamics, Vulnerability and Resilience Levels to Human Trafficking in Mongolia showed that limited financial capacity and lack of employment opportunities increase the vulnerability of individuals to human trafficking. Hereby, we need to work with technical and vocational education institutions to increase employment opportunities. When we talk about human trafficking we also talk about sexual and labor exploitation. However, there is also a lack of training for inspectors to screen for labor trafficking. In the future, IOM will work on building the capacity of local officers and inspectors on labor exploitation inside and outside Mongolia.

-What other events will be held in Mongolia during summer?

-We plan to hold a big information campaign on preventing human trafficking in August 2022. This is another dimension of our work that was in place from the very beginning of our operation in Mongolia. Unfortunately, Mongolia is still a country of origin, transit and destination for human trafficking. That’s why IOM is constantly investing in increasing the level of information and awareness, especially targeting the young. It’s not only international human trafficking that we must be aware of but also internal trafficking in Mongolia. In fact, the first phase of our information campaign Dream Umbrella was in place since March 2021, but will be completed soon. The second phase will start from this August to push for better awareness based on our previous work. It’s expected to start from World Day against Trafficking in Persons on Jul 30, 2022.

-It seems that better employment opportunities could reduce the vulnerability to human trafficking and enhance reverse migration. One of the vital components of increasing employment is productivity. What is your opinion on improving the productivity of Mongolian labor force?

-I find it amazing that the Government of Mongolia wants to increase its productivity including their staff. It has become part of “New Revival Policy” which shows that the Government considers productivity as an important element for the development. I think everything should start with education. If we want to increase the productivity of our labor force, we have to invest in the education system.

IOM’s Migration and Employment Study showed that female-headed households are earning less than male-headed households. This also leads to domestic violence, economic and gender inequalities. The significant part of productivity capacity is locked because women are staying at home with children. Before investing in better education and work-life balance, we have to invest in making sure that parents have time to actually get productive. To provide opportunities for women, the Government must increase child-care services at all administrative levels. It would free up women’s time for economically productive activities. There has to be a much bigger role of state and services must get closer to the people such as having schools nearby.

The distance to schools has become one of the reasons for urban traffic in Mongolia. In the future, we plan to do research on where people live and where they go to school to see the impact of this on traffic and how to optimize bus routes.

I would say that productivity starts by freeing up women’s time, investing more in education and making education more relevant to the labor market. On top of that we should offer a capacity and possibilities to be very mobile, horizontally and vertically. That means to give a skill mobility to enable people to learn new skills very quickly. At the same time, enabling people to be geographically mobile.

-What skills should we teach at schools to make our labor force more mobile?

-I think they should invest more in soft skills such as critical thinking, communication and public speaking skills. Also, we have to invest in English language skills. Being able to speak English does not only allow you to communicate with others but also gives you unlimited access to a lot of information and knowledge. Then, you need to invest in digital and computer skills. Mongolia is moving forward very fast with E-Mongolia and online public services. However, for a lot of people “digital” means use of social networking platforms such as Facebook. It’s not enough. Digital means a lot more, including how to use digital signatures, how to navigate the internet, how to find information and how to keep yourself safe online. Bridging the digital divide and making sure that everyone is benefiting from digitalization and technological advancements.

Otherwise, those who are connected and have access to digital technology will have an advantage over the vulnerable population who will be pushed into more vulnerability as a result. Therefore, more attention must be paid on making digital services and applications more user-friendly, because the majority of the population still find it difficult to use. To increase productivity, we must focus on providing user-friendly technologies and applications which will make everyone’s work more efficient and help them produce more value.

-Before we end our interview, is there anything you would like to share with our readers?

-I think Mongolia is culturally very close to the idea of migration. However, nomads are not the same as migrants. When Mongolians become migrants, they stop being nomads. This is what happened to the people who moved to Ulaanbaatar. Migration causes several issues because it is a permanent move, which has implications for local and national development. Our work in the last 2 to 3 years has been pointing out the difference and suggesting that internal migration has to be a separate policy issue and addressed with serious policy instruments. There are cases of migration that led to vulnerability and these migrants do need specific attention and support from the Government. This is the message we’re passing to the Government of Mongolia and Mongolian people.

The second message is migration is an important ingredient for growth. It compensates the structural deficiencies in the labor market internally and internationally. When the migration is well managed, well thought and well prepared, it brings tremendous benefits to the migrants and countries around the world.





Mongolian Economy