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Submitted by Alexander Cavell on 21 July 2012
Prepared for everything
I was prepared for everything but the cameras.
Three months ago I was given the opportunity to travel to Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, to run a series of workshops on British Parliamentary style debating for representatives of Central Asian debate societies.
I already knew a little about the politics and post-soviet history of the area. I had looked at some of the issues affecting Uzbekistan in a background paper that IDEA distributed to young debaters attending its 2012 Youth Forum. Like most debaters, I have a serious current affairs habit and a daily routine of BBC Radio 4, the Economist, StratFor and Eurasianet.org had driven my interest in developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But I hadn't realised how quickly debate had spread through Central Asia. Since the region's first IDEA sponsored debate events in 2002, since the first Aitmatov cup- a colossal Russian inter-varsity competition that regularly attracts in excess of 200 teams- formally organised debating had taken root in Khazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Societies and clubs had sprung up in a number of universities and speakers regularly travelled across CA's northern borders to compete on the Russian debating circuit.
It is difficult to understate the level of commitment that it takes to be an active debater in Central Asia. Khazakstan alone covers 2,700,000 kilometers of land. A trip from Bishkek to Yekaterinburg in Russia would cross 2,400 kilometers of terrain. A road trip from Bishkek to Dushanbe in Tajikistan would cover 1,200 kilometers and three national borders. The determination of CA's debaters and IDEA's focus on creating sustainable cultures of debate have produced something truly remarkable in the region.
But running a debate society, even on the IoNA and European circuits, is expensive and time consuming. Travel costs and the relative isolation of Central Asia make it difficult for debaters there to participate in big international tournaments. It also makes knowledge sharing and work with veteran debaters extremely tricky. By comparison, London's debating societies are spoilt for choice when it comes to accessing senior speakers who can act as guest coaches and competition judges. The development of the European debate circuit has been driven by individuals who have been able to afford to continue contributing their time and insight long after graduating. Chances to apply the same strategies have been few and far between for CA's debaters.
Training for the international circuit
As I began to work on the specifications of the training program with IDEA's Central Asia office, it became clear that the workshops I had been asked to run were not intended to be introductory training sessions. They weren't meant to be gentle explanations of judging methodologies or research techniques. IDEA CA wanted a training program designed around international debating standards; it wanted to respond to growing demand among CA's debaters for information that would bring them up to speed with the ideas and approach to coaching taken by the international community. Many of the debaters who would be attending were the presidents and training officers of their clubs. They wanted to gain a perspective on debating that would help them to guide and grow the societies that they had worked so hard to create, even as they made the difficult transition into adulthood and full-time careers. They wanted to unify the rules and practice of debating across their separate countries and societies.
IDEA Central Asia had the top floor of the American University of Central Asia at its disposal. It had access to IDEBATE Press's extensive catalogue of debate manuals. It had a Russian translation of Steven Johnson's Winning Debates. It had thirty-six keen participants from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Khazakstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. And it had me.
Preparing for the program meant seeking out and reading the last four years' worth of WUDC judging briefings. It meant reviewing a haystack of my own notes, the by-product of three years on the IoNA debating circuit. It meant re-reading published training guides.
Teaching on the course would focus partly around socratic seminars that would start by stripping the key components of BP debating- structured reasoning, responsiveness, prop and opp, first and second half roles- down to their essential components. Participants would then collaborate with their trainers to build up the rules and strategies surrounding each principles until they had reproduced an “international” model of that aspect of debating. Each day of the program would also feature two practice debate rounds based both on previous WUDC motions, and motions that tapped in to issues relevant to the region. Participants would also look at alternative ways of attracting students to debating and sustaining their interest in the activity.
Digital knowledge sharing
I was going to be part of a team made up of IDEA CA's Master Trainer Nurlan Abdaliev and two certified trainers, Sherzod Abdujabborov and Talant Smailov. They would be responsible for reviewing and feeding back on the quality of my training and lesson plans, and helping to overcome any language difficulties we encountered.
I was prepared for everything but the cameras.
I had forgotten how much emphasis IDEA places on building sustainable, ongoing debating projects in the communities that it works with. Altynai Djumasheva, IDEA CA's Regional Co-ordinator had arranged for the entirety of the training program to be filmed and photographed by a squad of Bishkek based debaters who had experience with television production. This was something that I found out five minutes before I was due to introduce myself to the program's participants. Recordings of the sessions and debates that made up the program would be distributed across the region as examples of best practice. Every potential mistake, every misjudgement, every failure to take differences in language into account – all caught on camera. The challenges kept coming.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking at the challenges IDEA faced in Bishkek, discussing the training techniques that we used, covering the Central Asian perspective on debating, and detailing the goings on at IDEA's second Youth in the 21st Century Camp at Lake Issyk-Kul.
Alexander Cavell - Kyrgyzstan, 20 July 2012