Published by Modern Times Review

Imagine having a package delivered to the exact office building, park location, or even couch you’re sitting on. Pretty convenient, right?

This might become possible with the new location system developed by what3words, an UK-based start-up. Instead of lengthy GPS-coordinates, their system allows you to select the 3m by 3m square you’re (currently) located at.

Obviously, this is convenient when, say, you’re ordering a package but want to work late at the office. More than that, though, it can become essential if you live in countries where street names are rare or nomadic tribes exist.

It comes as no surprise that Mongolia is the first country to adopt the 3-word-system for delivering mail. With just over 3 million inhabitants in a country almost half the size of the European Union (even without the UK), it struggled for years to reach its people with official government mail.

Helping citizens get official documents, open a bank account or start a business, is not the only reason the 100% state-owned Mongol Post pays what3words to use the 3-word system for reaching Mongolian citizens.

When you think of Mongolia, you might think of vast steppes, or horseback children tending to reindeer herds. Perhaps even colourful interiors of the typical round, one room tents (yurt or ger) they call home.

This used to be the predominant image of this large country with relatively few inhabitants, but over the years many people have moved to the capital UIaanbaatar. Between 2010 and 2015 an average of 2.78% moved to urban areas. That’s over 10% of the total population in just 5 years.

Now, a staggering 72% of this historically nomadic population live in urban areas. More than 1.3 million people live in UIaanbaatar, some in housing, others in their traditional yurts around the outskirts of the city. According to the United Nations Development Programme, this is a big change from the 1950s when only 20% lived in urban areas.

“Unplanned growth of the capital city and rapid migration have brought many challenges, including unemployment, traffic congestion, air pollution, and the expansion of the ger areas.”


Still, education and employment have been the reasons for people to move to the big city, according to a report by Development Progress. Traditionally, there was little need for secondary education in Mongolian society, but since the discovery of many minerals, including ‘oil, coal, copper, molybdenum, tungsten, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, fluorspar, gold, silver, iron’, the government needs its citizens to man the mines. This requires a more educated populace.

Industry in general brings in 34% of the annual GDP. And with 21% of people living below the poverty line in 2014, hope for a better future for their children is driving people away from the nomadic life.

Improvements in education have been made, but a lack of skills among the workforce is still a problem for the – predominantly foreign – mining companies, according to Development Progress.

This demand for educated people to work in the mines, in turn requires improved tax collection. This is exactly what the Mongolian government has been doing, according to a 2009 World Bank report. “[I]mprovements in tax administration have led to improved tax collection efficiency and higher revenues.”

In this light we can also understand the recent decision of the Mongolian government to use the 3-word system. Simply put; if you can find your citizens, you can tax them easier, improve education with that money, and attract more foreign mining companies as a result.

Improved education and wealth has many benefits for a population in which many live below the poverty line. But don’t forget it will also benefit the country greatly. Optimising the benefits for the country can only occur if people are steered towards jobs in the mining industry.

Since mining companies have complained about the lack of workers with specific skills, the government needs to steer its very small population of 3 million towards those type of jobs. And nomads are not very likely to get a 9 to 5 job.

Mapping people is a way to get a grip on the population and increase the output of workers with desired skills. In many countries, land maps were only introduced when a substantial market developed, as James C. Scott explains in ‘Seeing Like a State’.

“Land maps in general and cadastral maps in particular are designed to make the local situation legible to an outsider. For purely local purposes, a cadastral map was redundant. Everyone knew who held, say, the meadow by the river, the value of the fodder it yielded, and the feudal dues it carried; there was no need to know its precise dimensions. […] But a proper map seems to have come into use especially when a brisk market in land developed.”

Mapping land and its population increases control and potential for appropriate taxation by the state. According to Scott, these increased state functions will only benefit the population if there is regard for their views. “The state, as I make abundantly clear, is the vexed institution that is the ground of both our freedoms and our unfreedoms. My case is that certain kinds of states, driven by utopian plans and an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects, are indeed a mortal threat to human well-being.”

Additionally, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a nomadic lifestyle without government support. This is because desertification and mining activities are reducing grazing lands used by Mongolian nomads, and they need help to offset the effects.

Large infrastructure projects will decrease the available land and the ability to move around with large herds even more. Imagine trying to cross a highway with your herd of reindeer while fast-moving trucks transporting minerals speed by every few minutes.

I hope the Mongolian government will take the considerations of its population into account, and allow the traditional lifestyle to remain. And to you, dear reader, I can only recommend a visit to Mongolia before its nomadic culture and vast steppes become a thing of the past.

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