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Monday, January 24, 2005

What Model UN Does Wrong

Model United Nations is a powerful institution designed to educate young men and women in several critical areas. It teaches them about negotiation, the difficulty of working in an international body, and, most importantly, how to see the world through the eyes of another country and often another culture.

These are skills that, especially in the United States, are lacking. But, like any system, there are things wrong with the Model UN system as I have seen it implemented here in the US. The key to all of these flaws, for the most part, is one word - `competition'. Competition is at the same time what drives Model UN and what pulls it down. It is what keeps it at its fairly good level without leting it excel or disappear into insignificance.

Why do students do Model UN? What is the interest in going somewhere for the sheer reason of arguing with others or cooperating with them? Why bother? Because you can win something. Because you can be proud that you got the top, or second-best, or whatever, award. And sometimes, because you're in a class that requres it and you need that class or can't drop it this late into the game.

This is a dangerous set of motivations. The reason is that it inhibits the system of the UN itself from materializing in the committee room. Now that I've been both a delegate and an assistant director, I have a few perspectives that I didn't before. And, because I've been speaking extensively with a Conference Director, I am also acquainted with some of the faculty-side limitations that exist.

The most amusing thing the Conference Director told me was that certain teachers would be upset if the Awards section of our website wasn't accurate. You see, the problem is that most of these conferences are called something-MUNC. The poor faculty advisors are mostly under the impression that this means `Model United Nations Competition'. In fact, it tends to stand for `Model United Nations Conference'. Quite a difference.

The United Nations is driven by a (usually unequal) balance of national and international interests. The problem is that, at a Model UN conference, the balance is not between national and international interests, it is between cooperation and clearly differentiating oneself from the supposed `competition'.

I should relate an experience that pertains to this. A few months ago, I was Assistant Director on Security Council at a Model UN conference. We had some very good delegates, but only two or three who stood out, and one who was very enthusiastic. We ended up giving him the top award in the committee, or the second-best. Regardless, he deserved none of the top three, and it was due to utter lack of alternatives that we chose him. Why didn't he deserve any of the top three? My director and I went about committee, and specifically unmoderated caucuses, a bit differently than most directors usually do. Most directors tend to stay seated and maybe look around every once in a while. We decided that we would get up and walk around and mingle with the delegates to follow the discussion and resolution-writing process from beginning to end. Amongst other things, this would allow us to know exactly what people were talking about when they addressed the committee in formal debate.

What I found, in the end, was that this particular delegate, when I was watching his group, could not focus on others. In speaking to the various delegates, he seemed to be speaking directly to me because he would look at me as he spoke and occasionally glance at the other delegates. He was constantly focused on me. I can't think of anything more annoying, when someone is trying to convince me as a delegate, than that delegate not looking at me. And this didn't only happen once; he consistently did this every time I was watching the little group he was talking to. Three or four times I had the urge to reach out and shake him by the shoulders and yell, `YOU'RE NOT TRYING TO CONVINCE ME!!! YOU'RE TRYING TO CONVINCE THEM!!' But naturally, I didn't. I'm too careful a person to do that.

This time around, I can't even remember which country he represented. I'd seen him a year before at the same conference, that time as the delegate representing the United Kingdom (and I'd already decided I didn't like him; he's one of those that will let others come up with ideas and then take the pats on the back). I think this time he was the Russian Federation. Regardless, he was one of the Big 5.

This little anecdote illustrates everything that is wrong with the way some people approach Model UN. Our faculty advisor naturally wanted to win awards, but he didn't pressure us into doing that - he pressured us into doing our research and into being good delegates. He realized that if we did this, we could get awards. And he knew those of us who could do it well. My senior year, we went to a conference, and we had, essentially for the first time, what we call a `stacked delegation' - one where our faculty advisor had tried to fill it with people who he knew were good at it and would make excellent impressions. He told me at some point that he wasn't particularly happy that he had to do it, but in order to compete with other schools who were doing it, he had to.

We did well at that conference, of course, but the question is, should that change have been necessary? What is this obsession with winning that causes people to consciously cripple some of their delegations in order to make one that will be able to crush others? It entirely defeats the purpose of model UN. And it is this, perhaps, which annoys me the most. As a director, I have to continuously make sure that everyone is sticking to their country's position; however, I also have to keep an eye out for those who will take others' ideas and pretend that they were the ones who came up with them. If I fail in that job, I only fuel this hypercompetitive environment that feeds actions counter to what should be happening.

There are those who will say that politics is cutthroat, and this is just an example of it. There are those who will say that there are probably plenty of examples of stealing someone else's thunder in the real UN as well. But how can we expect to get rid of corruption and cutthroat politics if we foster it from the very beginning? The answer is simple - we can't.

2 Comments:

Blogger Michael Belinsky said...

I've always viewed competition as helpful in this regard: a class where a teacher grades on a curve (ie where doing better than your classmates will get you a better grade) will have harder working students in it, capitalistic competition (not going into the details, just the premise that in its perfect instance it leads to the production of better quality goods), etc. And, like that, competition in a Model UN fosters a better Model UN environment because without the competition and the fake plastic medals and plaques in the end, no one will be motivated to give better speeches, to write better resolutions, to represent your country the best. Without the incentive for profit - in this case awards and glory - people won't be motivated to succeed. The last statement, of course, is my view on human nature, in general.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Antonio said...

You see, if we want to keep awards, they should be done differently. Namely, we should switch from awards for individual delegates, not to awards for individual delegations, but to committee awards for a group of delegates who worked together the most diligently and skillfully to resolve a situation, and who managed to gather the most cooperation. Because in Model UN, what we need to reward isn't individualism, it is cooperation. Granted, we also need to reward people who represent their countries well; however, that can be factored into the decision of those who work together the most skillfully - add on skillfully and representatively. In the end, what we get is awards that represent a group effort, as opposed to awards that reward going off and doing your own thing and trying to eclipse anyone else.

11:58 AM  

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