I am very proud to say that less than a year since starting our Model United Nations project in Shymkent, South Kazakhstan witnessed its very first full MUN conference for students from around the region. This was the culmination of a lot of hard work, planning, organization, fundraising and training and the conference was quite an amazing experience.
The SKIMUN 2011 was held over three days on June 23-25, and focused on the theme “Prevention of Violence.” It was co-sponsored by my organization, the Youth Volunteer Leadership Center “Dostar,” and Aaron’s, Teachers of English in Shymkent (TESh), with support from the United Nations Information Office in Almaty. We were generously provided with materials and facilities by Miras University and College. And finally, enormous thanks goes to our amazing group of private donors, many of whom also helped fund our trip to attend Miras International Model UN in the spring: Jeffrey Temple, Roger Holland, and Lawrence Sobramooney. They helped pay for transportation, accommodation and meals for all participants.
Our inaugural conference was honored by the presence of some fantastic VIP guest speakers: UNESCO Human Rights Officer Laura Kennedy (who also helped consult us on the theme of our conference!) and U.S. Consul General Michael Snowden. As opening and closing speakers respectively, delegates and staff alike were given the unique opportunity to interact with real diplomats who have built their careers working on these very issues, and we were delighted that they were able to make the trip from Almaty for Shymkent for us.
As I have mentioned before, Model United Nations is a fantastic program to teach students of all ages about international relations, global perspectives, cultural exchange and a huge range of political, social, economic and security issues. Participants learn this wealth of substantive information through participatory learning, by themselves representing countries (not their own!) from all over the world in mock committees modeling the real United Nations. Through these exercises they also learn teamwork, leadership, debate skills, critical thinking, public speaking, research methodologies, academic writing and diplomacy.
For the South Kazakhstan delegates that attended the Almaty conference, SKIMUN was a chance for them to learn new skills and also witness what conference preparation and execution is actually like, so they can take this role on themselves sustainably in future years. We also had a fantastic Secretariat and Moderator staff of mostly other Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteers, who offered their own energy, expertise and knowledge to the conference events. Our 5 moderators did an amazing job of preparing accessible substantive study guides for their committees, and the Secretariat members smoothly carried out all of the administrative functions in addition to leaving their own substantive mark on the committees as exciting Expert Witnesses (more on this later).
Following our theme, the committees were General Assembly – Genocide, UN Women – Violence Against Women, and UNGIFT – Human Trafficking. Each of the committees provided very rich substantive debate for delegates and informed them on a wide array of issues that were very much lacking in their former educational experiences here. When Aaron and I conducted MUN sessions on the topics and helped participants start their research pre-conference, we were shocked to hear that the Holocaust is not taught anywhere in the Kazakhstan high school curriculum and was completely new to almost all of our students. Debates about genital mutilation in African and Middle Eastern countries and the “tradition vs. human rights” dilemma with regards to practices violating women’s rights led to new perspectives on parallel subjects closer to home, such as brideknapping. And all the delegates were shocked to hear about the problem in human trafficking that affects the world, whose victims are in many a South Kazakhstan neighborhood. All of the global topics at our conference were nevertheless readily relevant local context, and greatly informed students about their own rights and responsibilities as individuals in their own countries.
Our Model UN conference, I am proud to say, took on innovations from one of the best (let’s face it…probably the best;)) collegiate MUN conferences in the US: Harvard National Model United Nations (HNMUN). I had the pleasure and privilege of serving on the Secretariat of HNMUN when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, and with the blessing of the new Secretary-General (thank you Dominik!), took many of our best practices and brought them here to South Kazakhstan. This included the detailed study guide preparation by our moderators used to both prepare delegates substantively for their committees, and serve as an example of well-researched academic writing complete with citations; use of multimedia including pictures and movies within committee to bring debate to life; and the aforementioned Expert Witness program, which was a roaring success at this year’s SKIMUN 2011.
Expert Witnesses can be either real-life persons or actors from the conference staff, designed to play a certain role in committee and illuminate the issue from different, humanized perspectives. This year our fantastic Secretariat members played various roles so convincingly that many delegates thought they were the real thing: General Romeo Dallaire, UN Peacekeeper in Rwanda (GA-Genocide), Sudanese aid worker and border guard patrol re: the Sudan genocide (GA-Genocide), INTERPOL officer (UNGIFT-Human trafficking), supermodel, female genital mutilation victim and UN spokesperson Waris Dirie (UN Women-Violence Against Women), Congolese aid worker reporting on mass rapes (UN Women-Violence Against Women), and a Ukrainian trafficking victim. This last witness role of a trafficked woman stolen by her uncle to be sold in slavery in Thailand, performed by PCV Yelena Khosevitch (who is herself Ukrainian-American), was so touching and realistic that we duplicated it in all committees…in every single one she managed to bring delegates (and Secretariat members) to tears. The SKIMUN Oscar definitely went to Yelena! These performances, supplementing and humanizing the theoretical and diplomatic language of substantive debate, left great impressions on the delegates and inspired them to further introspect on the role of the UN in affecting and solving the problems of real people.
[Included above: Yelena’s makeup work for her role. And yes, that is me with a diagram of a vagina, explaining female genital mutilation. The delegates listened very attentively but promptly erased it as soon as I left ;)]
And that was SKIMUN 2011! Perhaps one of the best sustainable results of the conference was transferring the experience and knowledge of Model UN to these wonderfully motivated and capable PCVs, who will be implementing it at their sites throughout this year. Now there are Model UN programs popping up in Aktobe, Pavlodar, Zhezkazgan, Ust-Kamenogorsk and continuing on in Shymkent, thanks to the help of these PCVs. Thank you again to Melissa Avis, Valentina Cardenas, Yelena Khosevitch, Matt O’Neill, Bethany Schroeder, Robin Swearingen and Raychel Worley for carrying on the torch!
For anyone interested in starting a Model UN program in their site or community, visit www.unausa.org/modelun for a rich array of ready-made resources.