The curse of long hours in private tuition after school and at weekends means that most children have neither the time nor the energy to engage in extra-curricular activities. Therefore, the Model United Nations (MUN) conference stands out as a beacon on an relatively barren landscape of citizenship building activities. It is not surprising that some students become very attached to this event, talk of their first involvement as a life-changing moment and return to help the following year.
The MUN conference is a large scale role play of the activities of the UN General Assembly and its various committees, commissions and councils. It is, without doubt, an amazing feat of organisation and one wonders if it could possibly exist in Mauritius without the indefatigable contribution of the lead coordinator, Mr Narain Dabee. It provides students with an opportunity to debate, practice diplomacy and extend their grasp of global issues. It also gives them a rare opportunity to interact with their peers from other schools.
The preparation begins in January when groups of four students, each from different schools are brought together to form a delegation representing a specific country. Each delegate is allocated to the UN Security Council or one of 15 commissions dealing with a particular global issue, such as biodiversity, sustainable development and refugees. They research and produce position statements for their countries and those nations with similar positions band together to draft resolutions.
During the first day of the conference, each delegation presents a very brief statement of the interests of its country before the whole General Assembly. For most, this is the first time they have addressed such a large audience. During the second day, the delegates split into commissions to debate and vote on the draft resolutions. The best delegates from the preceding year chair these commissions while others play the role of journalists and cameramen. On the third day, the General Assembly is reconstituted and the chairpersons report on the commissions.
The first criticism of the whole exercise is that it models an institution that is itself dysfunctional. One needs only reflect on the fiasco of the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change for evidence of the lack of effectiveness of the UN in solving global problems. Unfortunately, the participants of MUN are not given the opportunity to reflect on this and propose new mechanisms for international cooperation.
Observing the debates in the commissions, a few weaknesses soon became apparent. First, many students were not very comfortable using English, the official language of the conference. Most simply read out what they had prepared earlier, even in response to questions from other delegates. There was little off-the-cuff public speaking. The depth of research and argumentation was also disappointing and this led to significant overlap in the draft resolutions which tended to be of the “motherhood and apple pie” variety.
As for diplomacy, none was apparent during the conference. Outside the main meetings, the delegates rapidly slipped out of role. Hence, the behind the scenes consensus building, bargaining and lobbying of allied and neutral countries that is a prominent part of the UN was completely absent. Even during the General Assembly, the delegates had a habit of childishly jeering mistakes and one wonders what is the purpose of having everyone sing along to a theme song while waving penlights.
A spin-off of last year’s conference was MUN in Action because, to quote one of the founders, “actions speak louder than words”. However, recycling paper in schools and visiting the elderly, while admirable activities in themselves, are hardly in keeping with creating change by international cooperation. Indeed, such initiatives are better suited to other extra-curricular programmes such as Green Schools and Community Action Teams, not least because they are based in schools and have a more structured follow-up. It is also strikingly incongruent that there was no waste segregation and recycling during the conference. Worse still, one newsletter was produced per delegate per day and probably most found their way into the waste bins.
It is a shame that a consideration of global issues did not result in the creation of petitions to our own as well as other nation’s governments. Surely having young, perhaps idealistic minds researching and debating issues both old and new would generate solutions that today’s decision makers either cannot or refuse to conceive themselves?
For future conferences, the following suggestions are made:
- Create more opportunities for students to practise public speaking and debating in schools.
- Encourage more interaction between schools on a regional basis.
- Build up to the main conference by role playing country groupings such as SADC, EU and ASEAN.
- Encourage creativity by researching innovative solutions by NGOs and independent think-tanks.
- Encourage critical abilities so that students can think on their feet and question each others’ assertions.
- Introduce the role playing of activist groups into the debates.
- Encourage reflection both on personal performance and the overall processes which can be aimed at reforming the UN itself.
- Investigate the Mauritian Government’s position on the issues debated and lobby Ministers in accordance with the resolutions that were adopted.
- Encourage volunteering with actual NGOs after the event to capitalise on the interest created in social and environmental issues.
In conclusion, just like the real United Nations, MUN is good in theory but leaves a lot to be desired in practice. However, unlike the UN, MUN could be easily improved by skills development, more in-depth research, and better build-up and follow-up to the event.