Ni Lar: Alone on the Grasslands

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized, we’d like to feature some of their stories.


Ni Lar, 56, like her mother and grandmother, used to breed and sell cows and sheep in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An ethnic Mongol, she is among the 55 ethnic groups clustered in autonomous regions that comprise 64 percent of China’s landmass but account for little of the country’s economic activity.

In the past decade, the Chinese government has put pressure on Mongols to cease raising livestock, ostensibly to preserve the grasslands for tourism. Failure to comply can result in steep fines. Ni Lar remembers grand promises to ease the transition by helping Mongols like her seize the new tourism opportunities while supplementing their income in the process.

Now, however, Ni Lar lives on government payments of about RMB 7,000 (USD 1,124) each year. Called dibao, these transfers were introduced in the early 1990s and designed to address poverty by increasing individuals’ income to a Minimum Livelihood Guarantee, set by the government.

There is tourism in Inner Mongolia, but Ni Lar and her neighbors don’t see it. Tourists are directed to government-designated tourist parks, far from the villages, where they pay hefty fees. Ni Lar receives none of these benefits.

Support for the Mongols has been variable, despite official policy. Ni Lar’s husband passed away five years ago, and her children, who are not eligible for support payments, have left to find work in Hohhot. Her dibao payments have been fluctuating for the past few years, but she has no idea why. She worries they will disappear completely. She has just enough to feed herself. Any extra expense, whether it’s a sudden illness or the marriage of a village youth (which requires a gift of money), leaves her at a loss of what to do.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Futher reading.