IDEA UK: Young Arab Voices in Algeria Boxing Days competition 2016

I was surprised by the invitation a month ago to the British Council Algeria’s Boxing Days debate competition, both by the invitation itself, and that Mat let me go when it was happening simultaneously with our Art & Design for Advocacy training in London. Algeria is an immense country (2.3million km2) yet one that is almost unknown in the UK. The inhabited bit is on the Mediterranean but there is a vast interior stretching into the Sahara.  If Algeria itself is a bit off the beaten track its debate community is almost unknown. Yet building such a community has been exactly the British Council’s objective over the last few years as part of the Young Arab Voices programme which IDEA UK was privileged to be a part of near the start before handing on to IDEA MENA and this was a chance for me to see how well they are doing. The Boxing Days competition brought together teams of four debaters from all over the country. Not just the big cities, such as Oran where we were staying, but also smaller towns and rural areas. Moreover the competition had been significantly oversubscribed with many debate clubs from across the country not making the final cut.The competition itself involved had two streams; one in Arabic and one in English. To my surprise I was acting as the chief adjudicator for the English track. There were eight teams in each track and three rounds before semi-finals and a final, a tiring schedule for the judges as each round had two sets of two debates rather than all four happening simultaneously. The format was somewhat unconventional with two teams in a BP style format rather than four.The debates themselves had a wide variety of the most important topics for Algerians with the Debate Clubs having been asked their preferences beforehand. Some of the debates, such as on the Algerian constitution were very local, while others were much more global but with a local flavour; like Europe and the UK austerity is an issue, but this is austerity as a result of 2015’s sudden oil price drop. Other debates were purely global issues; does Assad have to be included in any peace deal or should him leaving be a prerequisite? This proved to be an interesting introduction to Algerian current affairs.The winners of the final – Constantine Debate Club – gave an emotionally charged case for why they believe women are still oppressed in Algeria which despite its potential flaws Tizi Ouzou failed to effectively challenge that the majority are still oppressed rather than a small minority. It was good to see the teams improving through the competition and the winning team in particular taking into account the feedback on creating a good summary speech from previous rounds in their win.  Most heartening was however that the competition happened at all, that there is a large and growing debate community in Algeria. That community still needs deepening with more competitions and training on more advanced areas of debating to ensure that it becomes self-sustaining over the longer term. But from the looks of it there is certainly a good start. I look forward to the continuing progress over the next few years.