Extracurricular activity, business or a party!

Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree sheds light on how profit-making motives, behind the organization of Model United Nations (MUN) conferences, are gradually making the conferences drift away from their main objectives of developing young leaders for the nation

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The practice of Model United Nations (MUN) in Bangladesh became popularised among the educational institutions over the past seven years. Initially, it was undertaken by young enthusiastic university students who were trying to do something new, which has the possibility to open new doors and provide new grounds for Bangladeshi students. The motive was to bring out the potential in young leaders among them while nourishing their diplomacy and negotiation skills through active participation in these conferences.

The commendable aspect is that MUNs require a good deal of research and knowledge into the world issues, continuous effort in finding out new resolutions for resolving existing crisis  as well as precautions to potential threats by effectively bringing all the nations together through the delegates in the simulation.

But what is it like behind the scene of these conferences? How are they really organised and are they working out while incorporating the agenda? Are the delegates really learning and honing their skills in diplomacy and negotiation?—these were some of the questions that this New Age Xtra correspondent wanted to find out.

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Back in 2011-2012, Dhaka University Model United Nations Association and later on United Nations Youth and Students Association of Bangladesh were the first organisations to take up this task, and the number of MUNs per year was confined between one to three at best, always Dhaka-based. But in recent years, there have been almost 50 MUNs on an average per year being organised throughout the country. This increase in the number has brought about unprecedented changes in the MUN fraternity, as some MUN delegates and organisers have shared with New Age Xtra.

Two prime concerns have come up with the recent increase in the number of MUN conferences in the country; one is whether these conferences are organised from a commercial perspective despite it being an educational or academic activity, and two whether the quality of the conferences are being maintained.

In the case of MUNs, among delegates, executive board members and organisers have opined for and against the increase in number of conferences being organised. There have been allegations of major MUN clubs being indulged in activities like organising fairs, cultural festivals or career festivals which do not necessarily coincide with the activities such clubs should be arranging like mock sessions, workshops etc. On the other hand, event management organisations that do not have anything to do with institutional Model United Nations, have stepped forward thus making this more commercial, when ideally these conferences are supposed to be organised by academic institutions.

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Additionally, it is highly alarming that many veteran MUNers  (people who actively participate in MUNs) of the country termed the MUN organising arena as a market or a business! Asked if MUN in Bangladesh has been commercialised, Ahnaf Tahmid, a MUN veteran tells New Age Xtra, ‘I do not think MUN in our country has become purely commercial yet. But as it is a growing market, the commercial aspects will grow normally. This is not a business at the end of the day. But if an enterprise with a social cause can conduct business , then why not MUN!’

Most of the MUN enthusiasts would agree upon the fact that MUN is an academic extracurricular activity, the prime focus being on how to bring up extraordinary youths as future leaders of the country. Incorporating business ideals might change that cause and derive the focus to monetary gain thus potentially ending in a decrease in the quality. To a question whether some people have pure monetary gain in perspective while organising such conferences, Jonayed Nasir Anik, another popular figure in the fraternity, shares, ‘Business means monetary gain is the focus. Even those who ensure the highest quality possible, their focus is the money and not quality.’ He further adds, ‘If a business does not focus on quality, it will fail, it’s only a matter of time.’

 

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Former and current delegates also pointed out that there is also an unhealthy bit of lobbying, especially for the positions of Executive Board Members, which is hampering the overall motive of the conferences.

A former delegate said that most of the EBMs have not done more than two to three conferences. ‘But they manage to get the position easily through lobbying,’ he says.

Also, the knowledge of the delegates are not up to par, as some stakeholders pointed out. For example, students of an entire class of an English medium school, who has recently attended a MUN conference, were asked elementary questions about the conferences. Definitions of committee session, moderated caucus, unmoderated caucus or a ROP (Rules of Procedure) in a MUN conference etc. were asked. None of the students could answer. When asked what they have learnt during the conference that they have just attended, most of the students claimed that they had attended the conference to have fun. ‘We had heard about the parties and prom. We were excited to spend some time in such events and so we attended it,’ says a female delegate.

Md Zahid Hasan Akhand from House of Youth Dialogues, an organisation that has organised nine MUNs over the last two years, informs New Age Xtra that they do not organise a conference if they cannot make at least 15 per cent profit. ‘This is fundamental for running my organization’, he says.

When asked whether MUN should be regarded as a commodity, he responds, ‘We are buying education, why can we not pay for an extracurricular activity!’ He adds, ‘New delegates are coming to MUNs for entertainment,’ which as organizers they have to provide them with, otherwise they will not have enough delegates. About preserving the quality, Akhand says, ‘Everything has a transition period, and for MUN, it is that time which shall soon pass.’

It is given that any MUN has some expenditure. Although there are sponsors, taking a certain amount of delegate fee becomes imperative for providing them with a standard conference. But to what extent should delegate fee increase up to? Recently, a MUN took place which had an amount of BDT 7,000 as delegate fee. This included accommodation costs at a five star hotel in Cox’s Bazar where 300 delegates participated.

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When asked about such exorbitant fees, Akhand says, ‘There are MUNs which have a delegate fee as low as Tk 1500. And then there are high priced ones. It is simple really. There is all kind of services. One is free to take the service that suits him or her.’ He further adds, ‘In my opinion, if someone cannot even pay Tk 1,000, then MUN conferences are not for them.’

Many former delegates asked the question, how important is it to provide the delegates with a high class venue like the Westin, or having a band to play in the gala or a buffet dinner etc. Former delegates pointed out that while no one is against a financial profit, that profit should not be the primary focus behind such conferences, as it has been observed in recent days.

A few months back, Samin Yasar Haque organised Notre Dame College Model United Nations. This had a delegate fee of Tk 1,500, which is considered low according to MUN fee standards in Bangladesh. But absolutely everyone that attended the conference was satisfied with the conference standard.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Haque says, ‘Putting aside all the irrelevant details the core objective for MUN is to develop the future generation’s political consciousness and abilities regarding their own countries and in comparison to others. Approaching the completion of such an objective requires a necessary amount of funds but commercial stimulation for profit is completely unnecessary because the programme has a nonprofit agenda. Commercialisation in this case is purely due to personal or organisational requirements. Thus profit here serves self interests.’

He adds, ‘Although it is important for a MUN to have all the basic necessities covered just like a debate competition, it is also a plus point for MUNs to ensure such enjoyments. But in all honesty it’s just that- a plus point. You’re doing a MUN for the fun of intense political debates, not to mingle with the opposite sex in a party or enjoy a buffet. For people who cannot afford costly MUNs they should not support such MUNs in the first place as the problem lies with the event for not organising criteria for those who cannot cover costs. Such a MUN in all cases is a disgrace and can be simply compared to a club party whose entrance fee is high.’

A MUN veteran shares with New Age Xtra, ‘Very recently, some organisations which are not under any institutional jurisdiction, are organising MUNs where the delegate fees are high and with that amount of budget, they are putting up contents that are serving students with, if not the intellectual purpose, unnecessary luxuries… even if we do not want to provide them with dinner and socials, they will rate us lower than those so-called ‘quality MUNs’.’

Khalid Mahmud Saad, a mentor and a veteran MUNer, comments, ‘All this is straight off a business and nothing else.’

While reflecting on the whole issue, Shehreen Ataur Khan, a lecturer at the Department of English at Jagannath University, tells New Age Xtra, ‘For me, it’s an academic extracurricular activity. I do not believe it is not for everyone. Anyone, who is interested in participating in a MUN, should be able to do it.’