Response to: Is Model UN a Disgrace in Pakistan?

by KFC on January 14, 2016

Pakistan flagI read an article titled “8 Reasons Why MUNs Are a Disgrace These Days” published by Syed Wajahat Ali on KhabarFeed on January 14, 2016. In the article, the author points out eight reasons why Model UN has become a “disgrace” on the Pakistani circuit, particularly in Karachi.

This is troubling because MUN in Pakistan is influential to MUN as a whole. If we use traffic to this website as a proxy for circuit size, Pakistan ranks #4 among all countries and Karachi ranks #5 among all cities worldwide. Pakistan has a history of strong performance in MUNs: Lahore University of Management Sciences, Lyceum School, Aitchison College, Lahore Grammar School, Beaconhouse School, Karachi Grammar School, and Westminster School and College are among the institutions that are known outside of Pakistan for winning awards at major conferences and for producing Pakistani MUNers who occupy leadership roles at conferences in the USA, Canada, UK, and Europe. The Pakistani network is global and influential, but it all starts in the Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad circuits.

Although the author wrote the article in a “Buzzfeed” style list with some humour and may or may not be exaggerating, many of the issues he pointed out are issues I have heard of before as an observer of Model UN worldwide. In particular, I repeatedly hear of many of the same issues coming from Indian delegates as serious concerns about their Model UN circuit. Apparently this may be in the case in Pakistan now, too.

Given that they are grounded in some reality, I wanted to share my thoughts on each of the eight issues mentioned by the author. I will note that my perspectives are American-centric and may not necessarily work in the Pakistani culture or in other places where there are similar issues.

1. “Every nob is a Chair.”

In a student-run activity, part of the educational experience is for delegates to chair for the first time and they will make mistakes. As delegates become more experienced, they should be attending more advanced conferences where the chairs are equally experienced or better. And if they attend conferences staffed by less experienced chairs, it’s also a learning experience to go with the flow and display leadership in unexpected circumstances. In real life, not everyone in a position of power deserves to be there and not all rules will be followed.

That said, there should be some minimum qualifications to be a Chair. For example, most high school student-run MUNs are chaired by upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) that have multiple years and multiple conferences experience. At the Model UN Institute, a minimum of five conferences experience is needed to qualify for the chair training programme (Pakistanis attend more conferences than Americans on average, so that number may need to be proportionally higher). Some high schools even invite university students or alumni to chair because they know their own staff is not strong enough yet. Most conferences also have some sort of rules of procedure exam that the Chairs have to pass as well as a Chair “roast” where they have to practice both the standard script as well as troubleshooting scenarios with the Senior Secretariat.

2. “Every MUN is ‘the biggest MUN.'”

I suspect this is a South Asian cultural issue, because it’s the same case in India where one of the common marketing points is being the “biggest” even though that MUN is being run for the first time ever. In contrast, the biggest conferences in the world don’t necessarily advertise that they are the biggest. Nevertheless, in a crowded market, size is supposed to convince others that they are the best.

There are better ways to market. One way could be based on facts instead of aspirations. The conference should mention how many delegates actually attended the previous year. Another way would be to market based on differentiating factors. For example, some conferences brand themselves as the novice conference or the crisis conference or the Security Council-only conference or the middle school conference, etc. For example, in Southern California there is now a circuit of novice-only conferences and they do not have to compete with other conferences for size because they know their market. Lastly, bigger is not always better. Ironically, large conferences are usually frustrating experiences because delegates have fewer chances to be called on for speeches; smaller conferences should capitalise on the fact that their in-committee opportunities tend to be better.

3. “What happened to the UN?”

This question is asked by faculty advisors in America, too. As conferences have tried to differentiate themselves, they have started to do so by turning to more obscure committees or fantasy committees because they are fun and can attract delegates to attend. But in the process, they have sacrificed some of the educational value of Model UN — learning about real world issues — as well as the spirit of the UN itself.

There is no fix for this since every conference brands itself as Model United Nations even though it may be more akin to LARP-ing with parli pro. However, if conference standardisation was ever feasible, my proposal would be to have a conference be required to simulate a minimum percentage of United Nations committees or current international relations bodies in order to be qualified to call itself a Model United Nations. Short of that, conferences have to self-regulate; perhaps they can have faculty advisors approve the committees and topics that are selected. They could also consider adopting THIMUN procedure or UN4MUN procedure — both international standards — which are more geared toward simulating actual UN bodies.

4. “Fake accent = You WIN”

This happens occasionally in America too at the high school level where accents may seem impressive to fellow high school students. But I would think in a developed Model UN circuit like in Pakistan, there has to be better conferences where this does not go far in committee and experienced chairs and delegates take Model UN more seriously. Attend those conferences instead.

5. “Research? Nope. I’ll just YELL!”

I also suspect this is a South Asian cultural issue because it is also pronounced in India. In fact, it is often one of the biggest criticisms of Indian Model UNs. Some Indian Model UNs even encourage this where you can Motion to Challenge another delegate and engage in an one-on-one debate in front of the committee, which in practice looks like two delegates yelling at each other. I’m not sure if Pakistani MUNs look like that now too. Most procedures are reflective of their home government’s real-life parliament; I wonder if this is the case here?

The main criticism about the yelling and one-on-one debates is that it goes against the spirit of the United Nations. Model UN is about compromise and consensus. It is not the same activity as debate. “Debate” in Model UN is meant to be constructive, not destructive. Tearing down another delegate is not going to achieve world peace; yelling at Nawaz Sharif or Narendra Modi is not going to convince them to agree with you. Outside of the media, countries are actually very diplomatic to each other in real life at the UN. In order to carry this spirit over to Model UN, published awards criteria should be based on the spirit diplomacy. In America, delegates who yell tend to NOT win awards (though some of them occasionally still do).

6. “Debate? Umm… Socials bro, socials!”

Model UN should probably weed out people who don’t actually want to do Model UN. For the sake of gaining attendance, conferences have resorted to extracurricular events such as socials to attract them. But that just waters down the experience for everyone else who’s there primarily to do MUN and uses the socials to celebrate their hard work with their newfound friends. If a conference can not attract delegates without a social, then it probably should not exist. And if a conference is scared that they will lose market share by not offering a social, my suggestion is to stick with your principles and your conference will attract the right, high-quality participants and grow accordingly (slower but with sustainable quality). In America, the vast majority of high school-run conferences do not even have a social.

7. “Secretariat Exchange Program (SEP)”  

Students chairing at other conferences is a phenomenon that primarily exists in India, Pakistan, and the European university circuits. The main criticism is that it could become an “old boys network.” Once you have become friends with the other Chairs, you are pretty much guaranteed to be invited to be a Chair at other conferences. In fact, some participants only Chair and stop being delegates once they’ve gotten admission onto the “chairing circuit.” This is in contrast to the American model, where the host institution provides all the Chairs, so participants usually only chair once or twice all year at their own conference and are delegates the rest of the time at other conferences.

This one is harder to fix without changing to a system where the host supplies all the Chairs. One possibility could be like in THIMUN where students from different schools apply for Chair but have to go through an appointment process by teachers instead of student-leaders. Another possibility could be for the high quality conferences to establish a formal circuit like in Puerto Rico where all the schools in that circuit send some Chairs to each conference so that it’s fairly balanced, and to cap the number of times any individual could Chair in that circuit. In terms of self-regulation, perhaps more stringent requirements are needed that demonstrate actual merit. In THIMUN, the vast majority of Chairs have previously attended the conference and were recognised as main sponsors (THIMUN doesn’t give out awards).

8. “Source of Income”

There has been a rise of Model UN entrepreneurship, especially in large countries where the public school system does not have the ability to support extracurricular activities. MUN companies have filled the role of hosting conferences that schools have traditionally filled. This exists primarily in China, India, and Pakistan, as well as Italy. There is probably an equal list of pros and cons to this, but I am going to focus on the cons because that’s what’s highlighted in the article.

For-profit MUN conferences tend to receive three types of complaints. First, they are more expensive than school-run conferences. Second, they do not invest in the quality of the conference because their investments are focused on recruiting more delegates (goes back to Issue #2). And third, they tend to ignore educational value because there is no faculty advisor oversight — or sometimes educational value is thrown out altogether in favor of entertainment and marketing factors that can sell delegate seats (related to Issues #3 and #6).

I am not against Model UN entrepreneurs — in fact, I could be categorised as one myself. But MUN entrepreneurs should understand that they have a social responsibility because their industry is education, not investment banking. Quality experiences, educational outcomes, and feedback from participants and faculty advisors matter. Access to leadership roles and sustainability of the leadership structure is important so that the next generation of leaders can step up; the Founder shouldn’t need to be Secretary-General after the first year. And lastly, humility is the rare trait that is much more respected than boasting. Since every MUN entrepreneur seems to post “inspirational” Facebook statuses and quotes, I will leave you with a quote too.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”  -C. S. Lewis

**

I’m sure the issues are true to some extent, but I hope the issues are not as systematic as it may have come off in the article and that most conferences are maintaining a high standard of quality in Model UN. I do believe the Pakistani MUN student leaders could speak out and address these issues accordingly. That will be a display of leadership and ability to create real change outside of a simulation — and prove that MUN has prepared the next generation of Pakistani leaders.

The USA, India, Canada, Pakistan, and the UK are the five largest Model UN countries in the world if I judged by traffic to this website. Pakistan is the only one of those five that I have yet to run a workshop as of 2016, though I have met many of their amazing schools and university students while liveblogging at various conferences. I hope to be able to visit one day to conduct a Model UN workshop, speak, or simply liveblog a conference.

  • Syed Wajahat Ali

    Hello Kevin, thank you for referencing my work and presenting your recommendations. I agree to almost every bit of it.

    However, my post was catered primarily (if not exclusively) to the Pakistani circuit. The Pakistanis you encounter in the international circuit from the likes of schools and universities you mentioned are the upper echelon of our debate teams who are privileged enough:

    i) Belonging to a prestigious institution
    ii) Have debate coaches who themselves have been a part of several MUNs

    The huge majority of our debate teams however are not privileged enough to avail either a debate coach nor do they belong to a prestigious institution with a notable debating alumni/team.

    The issue here is the mass proliferation of MUNs here in Pakistan which is ruining the overall quality. Not everyone here can go to LGS,KGS,LYCEUM or LUMS therefore, in order to orient themselves with MUN, they usually choose the readily available conferences. These “Mcdonalds conferences” which I like to call them are littered across the countries where rules are substituted with “chair’s discretion” and Chairs are severely under-qualified.

    Instead of making MUNs more competitive, these Mcdonald Conferences have made it so commercial that they are loosing their true essence. You have chairs chairing at these conferences who talk about “Sanctioning Assassinations” in DISEC.

    Finally, as a side note, there has not been a single, and I repeat, a single serious disagreement to my post yet from anyone in Pakistan. Therefore, I think people passively agree to this sad reality.

    • kevinfelixchan

      Hi Syed, thanks for also putting into writing issues that I have often heard from others and for your reply.

      It’s good to know there is a distinction between the elite conferences and the “McDonalds conferences.” However, I wonder if there should be some participant overlap. Are any of these newer conferences interested in becoming better? And are any of the MUN leaders from the elite schools interested in making a difference by educating their country? If so, the more experienced conferences (especially those that don’t need to grow bigger) could create partnerships to help the newer conferences develop, or at the very least train them in certain quality standards.

      I would think that mass proliferation is happening not only because people are trying to make money and kids want to just go to socials and go yell in committee. I would hope that its in part because some students actually want to learn and do MUN, but training and institutional support are not readily available. It’s those students that need to be identified and linked up with the most experienced delegates so that they can be empowered to serve as MUN leaders for the non-elite circuit. Mass proliferation without guidance is chaotic, but mass proliferation with training and support could be life-changing for an entire generation of MUNers. Hopefully some experienced Pakistani MUN leaders see an opportunity to make a positive impact here.

      • Syed Wajahat Ali

        Let me present my point of view of your queries. You may cross check it with others from Pakistan as well whom surely you must have met in international conferences:

        1) Are any of these newer conferences interested in becoming better?

        By better, if you mean becoming “bigger”, then yes! In terms of “quality of the debate” or “quality of the secretariat”, “Aint nobody got time fo dat”

        2) And are any of the MUN leaders from the elite schools interested in making a difference by educating their country?

        Not exactly. The elite schools to start off with do not participate in any of the “Mcdonald Conferences” in the first place.Secondly, students from elite conferences in Pakistan usually invite each others to chair at their respective conferences thereby further isolating themselves.

        3) If so, the more experienced conferences (especially those that don’t need to grow bigger) could create partnerships to help the newer conferences develop, or at the very least train them in certain quality standards.

        This was certainly the case a few years back. We had ROTMUN under the auspices of the Rotract Club which partnered with schools such as CITY SCHOOL PAF CHAPTER who pulled of a great conference. But that has shut down now. I am to date not aware of any partnership though LUMUN does offer a similar mentor-ship program which sadly no MUN avails.

        4) Hopefully some experienced Pakistani MUN leaders see an opportunity to make a positive impact here.

        They certainly do. But in the absence of any regulating or central authority, you can only put up a piece of advice. But most influential MUN leaders either have long retired, started Parli, are debate coaches for prestigious schools or simply ignoring this.

  • Shayan Marsia

    Hello Kevin and Wajahat,

    Firstly, to testify that all of this is very much true and kudos to Wajahat for voicing these opinions. However, I just do not agree on one thing, there are some High school MUNs(considered Mcdonald MUNs) which seek to become bigger and better, not just in terms of monetary incentives but in an academic aspect too. In doing so, they also seek for mentoring from these large scale MUNs, but like Wajahat said, those conferences have isolated themselves, neglecting transparency and merit but developing a monopoly or let’s just say an “Elitist MUN faction”. But to stick on point, there are some conferences.
    Not to brag, but the MUN I am SG of this year has on one place collaborated with WWF to make it reach to masses, has made the theme of the conference an environmentally based one and on another is also trying to educate young minds about MUNs and public speaking in general by visiting financially deprived schools of Karachi and recruiting students to participate free of cost. Public Speaking is everyone’s right is what I believe.
    I hope my views were in good faith and provided an alternative perspective.
    Peace.

    • Syed Wajahat Ali

      True Shayan. But let me put the question to you bluntly. How many A Teams of prestigious schools/universities actually participate in local conferences such as yours with due respect?

      And that my friend is the issue.

      • Shayan Marsia

        Firstly, we need to define prestigious schools here. Do you mean in terms of popularity or past debating history? Then no sir, none. Where your point is very much correct. But if we are to look at schools which are growing and want to develop in a debating capacity, then there are a few of whose names I cannot disclose.
        But is it the mistake of those conferences? No. This is again the mistake of those “Prestigious” institutions which are in agreement with building up a faction which creates divide. This does not mean the particular conference is not growing.
        Also, I believe that a conference is “bigger and better” if it is inflicting that motto on the society too. In doing so, giving the circuit speakers who could not have come up through a forum where partiality and politics based on institution names is played. Simply put, Anyone can develop a star, finding one is always the first step.
        But I do understand your point.

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