I first participated in a Model United Nations (MUN) in the 7th grade. It helped me acquire knowledge about crises and conflicts I didn’t even know were happening in the world before. The 3 days of my first MUN were challenging but gave me lots of exposure – I left with a sense of satisfaction and a certificate tucked under my arm.
Fast forward to 3 years later, I’ve participated in almost every MUN my school was invited for, won most of them and even chaired a committee. Yet the more I reflect on all the crises I researched and the debates I had, I become more and more aware about the immense amount of privilege and inequality MUN reiterates.
Model United Nations (MUN) is an extracurricular activity popular in select high schools around the world and in India. A simulation of the United Nations, middle school and high school students come together to debate various topics from the perspectives of their allocated countries.
Over the course of three days, the delegates debate the assigned topic, often an ongoing refugee crisis or real world conflict and its different aspects. By the end of the third day, they’re expected to collectively write a resolution with effective solutions to their crisis thus solving it.
A very coveted activity reserved for elite schools, participation gives a significant boost to a student’s resume as it tends to demonstrate leadership skills and public speaking skills.
Almost all of the MUN conferences in India are attended and hosted by elite private schools. They extend invitations to other elite private schools thus creating a space teeming with privileged students who then gather to debate and find fictional solutions for real people living in conflict areas.
For example, the fees charged for the Harvard MUN conference is Rs.6500, not inclusive of flight tickets and accommodation.
This actively withholds participation from students who come from a lower socioeconomic background where the annual income for families, especially those below BPL ranges between 1.2-1.8 lakh per annum.
A monthly earning therefore comes to an approximate Rs.15,000 or higher which rules out fancy extracurriculars for students from this strata of society.
It’s also important to note that invitations are never extended to schools which are not exclusive and there is no system in place to provide financial aid or scholarships.
It is therefore ironic that the same values for which the UN stands for such as diversity or inclusion are rarely reflected in Model United Nations conferences.
Conversations about global issues and the exposure needed to look at them from different perspectives are constantly gate kept making them inaccessible to students from varied backgrounds who will never have access to the exposure MUN provides.
An important question to pose in order to understand the harm MUN does is, what do high school students attending MUN come to an MUN conference for and what do they leave with?
Some of the many reasons they come is because it’s a shiny extracurricular on their resume, a great place to practice debating and public speaking skills, and importantly, it gives you a sense of how the UN and global politics work and helps you acquire a considerable degree of knowledge about various crises.
These students will get what they came for but they also leave with a great sense of entitlement. The satisfaction one feels at the end of a MUN conference can quickly morph into complacency.
The question one should ask is that along with your certificate, are you leaving with a sense of empathy? Will the conversations you had be a catalyst for change?
The truth is that in an MUN, all the debates are factual and heavily reliant on statistics, thus disconnecting students from the reality of what they are discussing. Conflicts, deaths and tragedies are viewed in the terms of numbers on a page much like how our world leaders view them.
A sense of diplomacy is emphasized throughout MUN, one that becomes synonymous with apathy. At the end of the three days, delegates pass their resolutions and ‘solve’ their committee agendas. However, outside the air conditioned conference rooms wars rage on, and actual living people lose their lives.
Moreover, students and individuals who have the lived experience of conflict, deprivation and marginalisation are systemically kept out from these conferences, thus turning it to an echo chamber.
The sense of accomplishment, felt at winning an award is good but shouldn’t substitute for a sense of contentment, of having done enough or of having cared about the conflict you have discussed. MUN should be a place where the debates you have are from a sense of empathy and acknowledgement of your privilege.
In the way that your activism shouldn’t end on social media even though that is an important part of raising awareness, in the same way your activism shouldn’t end with you having a debate with your fellow privileged peers and coming up with potential solutions.
The upper-class/caste Indian wOkE doesn't outrage about issues in India as much as Black Lives because such issues do not earn them points in their debate rooms, MUNs, or foreign university applications. These issues are irrelevant in the bubble of privilege that they live in.
— अनुप्रास अलंकार अनुरागी अम्लान💙π (@AmlanSarkr) May 31, 2020
Making MUN more equitable and diverse is a necessary step in creating a more equitable education system. The validity of the conversations had in an MUN is nil if it’s a conversation only had by students favoured by privilege.
In order to have debates that stimulate change they need to be had by diverse groups of students.
MUN debates are held in relative comfort as they’re safeguarded by the elite which is why high school students don’t question why they’re trying to come up with climate change solutions in an AC five star hotel drinking water out of plastic water bottles.
The need not only to spread awareness but also to be aware of who gets to have these conversations and what happens after them is key to reforming MUN culture.