About the authors:
Leela Koenig is finishing an MA in Applied Ethics and is about to enroll into
an MPhil program on Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She was the Chief
Adjudicator of Amsterdam Euros 2010 and held dozens of CA and DCA positions around
Europe. As a debater for the Leiden Debating Union, she broke at many tournaments, is a
Euros quarterfinalist and she was best ESL speaker at Tallinn Euros 2008 and Koç Euros 2007
as well as best ESL speaker of Corks Worlds in 2009.
Maja Nenadović is a doctoral candidate at the European Studies Department, University of
Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Her research focuses on the development of democratic political
parties and party systems in post-conflict internationally administered countries, provisionally
titled "Installing Democracy in the Balkans: Assisting Political Parties in Bosnia and
Herzegovina and Kosovo." When not busy with research and writing, she is a freelance
consultant in public speaking, advocacy, campaigning, strategic planning and fundraising in the
civil society sector. In the past decade, she has founded several debating societies and clubs
across Europe and actively continues to coach debate.
This article draws on debate training experience that took place in Prishtina
Kosovo, in the summer of 2008. As part of the effort to jumpstart debate in
Prishtina’s universities we held a workshop introducing the British
Parliamentary debate format to students. Soon into the training it became
apparent that certain underlying preconditions are essential in order to have a
debate at all.
To debate government and opposition roles, participants need to understand
the formal role these occupy in a democratic system. Further, and more
crucially, they should trust that these roles will be performed. Any debater
needs to be under the assumption that governments indeed perform their roles,
but little did we know how the structural failure of a government to function in
such a manner would, for example, affect the ability of a participant to set up a
simple first proposition case.
Teaching debate in substantially different political contexts can be a great
challenge for coaches. The purpose of this article is to discuss these challenges
and offer suggestions for dealing with them. Although this article was inspired
by our experiences in Kosovo, its findings are applicable to a wide array of
cases, such as teaching debate in post-conflict societies or
authoritarian/totalitarian regimes. The suggestions offered here are simply a
starting point for developing a method for preparing to teach debate in areas
where there is little faith in government.
We start with a brief description of Kosovo’s problematic political culture, after
which we describe what took place during our training. We then describe how a
lack of trust in one’s government affects a beginner’s ability to debate. Lastly,
we offer a few suggestions on how to deal with such a situation as a coach.
When our debate training took place in July 2008, Kosovo had declared its
independence five months earlier. It has the youngest population in Europe –
the average age of the two million inhabitants is estimated at twenty-five. These
young people are facing grim prospects; an official unemployment rate of 40%,
visa-restricted travel and continued uncertainty regarding Kosovo’s status in the
In terms of the prevailing norms, values and attitudes of both people towards
their political elites, and among politicians themselves, Kosovo’s political
culture is directly influenced by decades of clandestine movement for
independence which was closely linked with, if not synonymous with, organized
crime networks in both the Balkans and in Kosovo Albanian diaspora
communities living abroad. Think-tank analysts, academics, military
investigators and journalists all paint Kosovo as “a clan-based society in which a
handful of criminal leaders controls the population – and are tolerated by
bureaucrats from Europe and the rest of the world…”2
This political culture was based on historical-cultural and psychological legacy
of both communism and conflict. In this environment, the political parties are
seen as “typically failing to represent the interests of their constituents in many
areas…and are more correctly characterized as vehicles for patronage and
advancement of their leaders and the extended families…”3
Other analysts have pointed out that the international community’s effort of
state building in Kosovo is in a “state of denial” as Washington and Brussels are
in fact “…ushering into existence [what] looks set to become a heavily
criminalized state in the heart of Europe, with far-reaching implications.”4 The
UN police spokesman in Kosovo is cited as saying that it “is not a society
affected by organized crime, but a society founded on organized crime.”5
Moreover, the general perception that organized crime and corruption are
endemic in Kosovar society is confirmed by several surveys and opinion polls
of Kosovo’s citizens,6 as well as by Misha Glenny’s research on organized crime
worldwide which features Kosovo whose political elites had “consolidated [it]
as a new centre for the distribution of heroin from Turkey to the European
Political culture in Kosovo is not one in which citizen’s interests are
represented. We now turn to describing an experience of teaching debating in
such an environment.
Teaching Debate: Description
Prishtina currently hosts several dozen universities.8 During our visit, the
introductory debate workshop attracted approximately twenty students from
three universities. After explaining the basic model of British Parliamentary
debating, we decided to brainstorm a bit to practice argument generation for
each of the positions at the table.
Opening government came first. The motion we selected came from that year’s
European Championships: “This House Would Make Fines Relative to
Wealth”. It is not abnormal for a silence to occur after a motion; participants
need some time to reflect. However, this silence took longer than normal, so we
asked if anyone had any thoughts about the reason behind this motion. Did
they see what which problem was targeted by this motion? More silence.
We decided to explain the Government case to the class. We explained that low
fines were an insufficient deterrence for really wealthy people and that they
were therefore ineffective. Furthermore, we suggested that, for example, it
might be unfair that rich drivers were proportionally less harmed by a fine than
poor drivers and that this policy would have an equalizing effect.
The response from the participants was not one in which they had picked up
the problem and further developed or nuanced it; instead, they challenged
something we had taken for granted – namely, that these fines would be paid.
“Rich people will just bribe the officers and not pay any fine, what are you
talking about?” was the incredulous response from the students. Though
slightly startled, we mentioned that although bribery was a possibility, we had to
consider the debate as if the actual payment of the fine would occur and mainly
debate the merits of the case.
This did not work out as we expected. Instead of pretending it would actually
work, they mocked the entire idea of this policy ever being effective. “Why
should we think about this? It will never work this way, rich people will bribe
officers and this policy sounds stupid.”
At that point, we changed the perspective on this motion, and reminded the
participants that we were “playing parliamentarians” – we had the job to think
as politicians and debate a proposed policy. Unfortunately, this only fanned the
flames. The students offered all sorts of objections; “Why would politicians do
this?” “They are the rich people in this country, so why would they ever
implement a policy that is against their own interest?” “Even if this policy is
implemented, these politicians will also just bribe the officers!”
In our last attempt, we argued that if we can prove that a policy is intrinsically
fairer than the status quo, we could argue that a politician would have good
reasons, perhaps even a moral duty, to implement it. A few disappointed
participants had left the classroom at that point, and although, as debaters, we
continued to encourage the remainder to join the bandwagon of government
policy and rule of law, we could no longer ignore the wall we came up against.
The main obstacle to having a debate was that participants could simply not put
themselves into the shoes of an elected politician who serves the public good.
Based on their experiences, a politician would never introduce a policy that was
against his or her own interest, especially if it would only increase the number
of bribes the rich had to offer to the law enforcement in total. This utter
distrust in government and the political system in general imbued the
atmosphere in our training room with the question: “Why bother discussing
policies at all if politics is so corrupted?”
The role of trust in political cultures and how
it relates to the practice of debate
After the workshop, we sat down to discuss how we could have succeeded to
involve the entire class in a discussion on the merits of this case. We realized
that in a country where there is a widespread and deep lack of trust in
parliament, a debate coach has to be inventive in making the first step in order
to enthuse students to debate and think outside of the box of their own
disappointing political culture experience.
In established democracies, citizens have a set of expectations of a politician or
political party. A level of trust in the executive power is embedded in this set of
expectations. Politicians are held accountable by the electorate, rule of law and
the (independent) press. Corruption of politicians, when exposed, is publicly
condemned and is usually likely to have consequences for the party in the next
elections as well as for the individual politicians whose reputations get tarnished
in the process and who could face criminal charges for their wrongdoing. In a
debate context, we mirror such a political system. Having trust in one’s political
system makes debate plausible and meaningful.
Yet what if the situation is completely reverse? Living in a country where
corruption is so deeply ingrained that it is considered normal, debating the role
and responsibilities of publicly elected officials hits a wall. This wall consists of
a failure to trust politics, a low level of expectations from government and
inability to imagine a different political system. It is hard for students to
consider themselves as having the power to challenge politics. Even if they
imagine themselves as one of the politicians they see, they cannot seem to
adopt an attitude of service. They struggle to see a point in engaging in a debate
about government practice at all.
As debate coaches, how can we deal with students who come from background
of paralyzing disillusion with politics and who have disempowering ideas of
their role as individuals and active citizens within those political systems? How
do we combat this disillusion as debate coaches?
Various studies of democratization processes and democracy assistance point to
the limits of institutional engineering and the constraints that are inherent in
(political) culture.9 In other words, instituting the façade of a democratic system
is relatively easy, but changing the norms, values, attitudes and behavior of both
political elites and citizens within those systems is by far the more challenging
and long-term process. To be sure, where we come from influences how we
think, and debate coaches coming from consolidated democratic political
systems often realize this when travelling to other countries. However, there is a
lot to learn and share regarding teaching debate in countries different from
one’s own and we would like to make a modest attempt to share some of our
We would now like to offer a few simple suggestions of debate exercises that
might be useful to coaches who teach or are about to teach in areas with very
little trust in government. Needless to say this list in on no way exhaustive, and
we hope other coaches will further refine and improve the suggestions we
One way to get students in new democracies excited and interested in debate is
to start from the basics - exploring together what the role and purpose of
government in a democratic system is. Discuss with students what their image
of a government is, and what their expectations of a good government is.
Perhaps a comparison of a government with a way in which a family household
is run, or the way in which another familiar authoritative system is run provides
a stepping stone towards the more abstract ‘government’.
After establishing the idea that a government is something along the lines of
‘people in charge who have an important responsibility towards citizens’ it is
worthwhile to discuss whether an idea is at its best when unopposed or
unchallenged, or whether it is better if ideas are discussed and scrutinized by
several parties. This is one way in which the importance and the role of the
opposition can be illustrated.
Furthermore, we discovered that the values which often ‘clash’ in debate are
hard to imagine for some beginners, or at least, they do not have the intuitive
appeal we expect. For example, in the debate on making fines relative to wealth,
the values of ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ did anything but inspire. It is
worthwhile to spend some time just discussing these concepts, what they mean
and how opinions can differ about how important a given value is.
It makes sense to introduce motions which have very clear clashes between the
values, or a motions which focus on whether a given means is justified in order
to obtain a certain value (e.g whether positive discrimination is a fair way of
achieving equality, or whether a legal system is more just if it assigns lawyers,
instead of allowing the rich to pay for better lawyers).
Another worthwhile exercise is introducing a bit of acting into the workshop. A
coach can assign certain roles to participants and they each have to advocate
their position. One of the participants can act as the ‘government’ and one as
‘the opposition’ while other participants are ‘the tax payer’, the
‘environmentalist’, the ‘parent’, the ‘religious minority’ or whomever is a
relevant stakeholder in a motion you as a coach want to analyze and debate.
Besides this being a lot of fun, participants can identify with the role
governments can play when they play this role or when they see their fellow
classmates play this role.
Our last suggestion for getting students interested in debate is to, at least
initially, keep motions strictly ‘local’ and close to their political contexts. For
example, in a previous debate training held in November 2007, trainer
attempted to introduce the motion, “This House Believes Kosovo should be
Independent.” This motion was debated in tournaments across Europe, and
debaters called on sovereignty versus right to self-determination arguments.
The problem in Kosovo was that no one wanted to debate the opposition side
(which would essentially mean using Serbia’s arguments).
So we amended the motion to the hot issue at the time, meaning whether
Kosovo should proclaim independence on December 10, 2007 following the
release of Marti Ahtisaari’s report, or whether it should wait for multilateral
international support in. (Needless to say, those advocating immediate
proclamation of independence won the debate by unanimous audience vote.)
Trainers need to be highly sensitive and attuned to the local environment, if
they are to succeed in getting students interested in debate.
For us, teaching debate in Kosovo was a humbling experience that brought
awareness of a whole host of issues that debate trainers working in established
democracies do not generally encounter in their work. In order to spread debate
as an enriching and valuable academic activity that inspires critical thinking – we
need to be aware of the challenges similar to those presented in this short essay.
We hope our experience will contribute to the discussion about how to teach
debate in societies different from ours, in the hopes of expanding our debate
training methodology – as well as our minds.
1 Serbia challenging independence at ICJ. The Court’s advisory opinion issued on July 22, 2010 stated that
Kosovo’s proclamation of independence was not illegal under international law. Nevertheless, Serbia is not
expected to ease its blockade of Kosovo’s entry into various international intergovernmental organizations
(e.g. the UN). Kosovo had the status of autonomous province of Republic of Serbia within the Federal
Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević revoked its autonomy in 1989,
which further cemented the deterioration of relations between the Albanian majority and Serbian minority
ethnic groups living there. The guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began fighting Serb police and
military forces in mid-1990s. In 1999, NATO launched the Operation Allied Force which consisted of
military combat sorties and air strikes against Serbia from March until June of that year. This
unprecedented intervention – conducted without the United Nations Security Council Resolution, on
humanitarian grounds – targeted the Serbian President Milošević and his policy of human rights violations
against ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo. Since 1999, Kosovo has been under international
administration, embodied by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Special Representative of
Secretary General (SRSG) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
2 Walter Mayr, “Confusion and Corruption in Kosovo: The Slow Birth of a Nation,” Der Spiegel / Global
Research, April 24, 2008.
3 Fred Cocozzelli, “Political Parties in Kosovo,” Global Security and Cooperation Quarterly 11 (Winter
2004): 7, in: Jeff Fischer, Marcin Walecki, Jeffrey Carlson (eds.), Political Finance in Post-Conflict
Societies, report prepared by IFES – funded by USAID (May, 2006): 81 – 82.
4 Svante E. Cornell, Michael Jonsson, “Creating a State of Denial,” The New York Times, March 22, 2007.
6 Global Corruption Barometer 2009, Transparency International, available online at:
http://www.transparency.org/publications/publications/gcb2009 (accessed: August 10, 2009).
Transparency International ranked Kosovo the world’s 4th most corrupt country in 2007.
7 Misha Glenny, McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), 55.
8 The most established oldest university of the University of Prishtina. However, in the post-war
development boom, several dozen private universities were founded throughout Kosovo, but mostly
based in the capital. Quality-control, copying educational programs and syllabi from prestigious Western
universities and lack of academic standards, as well as corruption and diploma-selling are considered as
greatest challenges facing the Ministry of Education in accrediting and organizing all these universities
currently functioning in Kosovo.
9 Christopher J. Coyne, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2008); Francis Fukuyama, “The Primacy of Culture,” Journal of Democracy 6:1 (1995);
Iain King, Whit Mason, Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (New York: Cornell University
Press, 2006), etc.