“Sometimes I get the study guide and wonder what the $&%# am I supposed to do with this? Was the chair high? I mean #$%$!”
Many a delegate, all over the world
Sometimes we get a study guide that sucks. Simple as that. We have no idea what the chair wants from us. It could be because they are inexperienced or incompetent. It could be because they are lazy and decided to copy and paste from Wikipedia. It could simply be because they never learned how to write a study guide.
The following guide will teach us how to reconstruct a case from a few disjointed words. It will teach us the techniques of Narrowing and Grounding, which lets us construct a case that we can research for and is debatable. In the end, your ability to take a bad topic and make it debatable will with you praise and adulation from your fellow delegates and, sometimes, even from the chairs.
Why Do Some Study Guides Suck?
There can be many reasons for why a study guide can suck. Model United Nations is a very large world which, for better or worse, lacks universal standards. Some conferences do not have the luxury of getting the best pool of chairs and are forced to take whoever applies. Some conferences do not know what they are looking for in chairs. Some conferences, whether because they choose friends or have few applicants, have a lacking chairing staff. Sometimes the chairs are great but the conference has local officers writing the guide who don’t know Model UN have nothing to do with the actual chairing.
What makes a bad study guide?
A bad study guide is one where, after reading it, you are still not sure what you are supposed to be debating or where to continue to do further research on your own.
Examples of this are:
- When topics are very wide / vague / non defined
- When we don’t have a clear problem / reality
- Where the case studies show no clear conclusion
- Where the block position and guiding questions are too general
This can happen for many reasons. Some chairs do not know how to write any form of academic paper, some chairs do not know how to write study guides while others don’t even know how to think MUN.
A topic that is interesting to read about over a weekend in a magazine like Foreign Policy, Newsweek or Time does not make it a good topic to debate in Model UN. In fact, you will often find interesting articles to be off clash, meaning non debatable. Examples of this would be an analysis of honor killings or the outcome of nuclear war. No one would ever speak in favor of either of those. The facts and figures might be interesting but it would be a fairly one sided debate.
Topic: Limiting Nuclear Proliferation
Problem: After giving examples of the horrors of the WWII Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings we are left with the conclusion that the “wrong” entity with the bomb could be dangerous.
So, who is dangerous?
They could be rogue states who build them (Iran, DPRK), countries who didn’t ratify NPT (India, Israel), countries with old stockpiles which aren’t preserved (Former Soviet Satellites) of countries with reactors who are vulnerable to terrorist takeover (Pakistan). The delegates are left with all of these as potential focus points. Without further guidance they may research in the broadest sense to try and find a policy that covers all of them.
What Are We Missing?
It is the chair's responsibility to structure a debate with two sides or more. There needs to be enough meat in the topic that all countries should be able to find relevance and play a central role in the debate. It is this multi-sided situation that needs to exist before you can properly begin Model UNing and if the chair does not establish it in the guide, you need to do so in your research.
The following techniques of Narrowing and Grounding will help us turn a vague and specifics lacking topic into something that can be discussed. When we finish this process, we should have a topic with two or more sides as a starting point and we can begin our research as we would for any other Model UN topic.
To limit the scope of discussion to something that can be practically discussed.
We narrow to avoid generalizations. When we have topics like “an centImproving urbers” or “Development of Renewable Energy Technology in Developing Countries” a policy that includes every country in the world can be thrown off with one example that contradicts it. For this reason you need to bring criteria to justify why you are narrowing it to what you chose.
Topic: Combating the Slave Trade
The problem: A slave can be anything, anyone and anywhere. How do we define a slave? Also, to combat the slave trade so we focus on the slavers? The victims? The middlemen?
Narrowing the Topic: To make it more debatable, we can narrow the discussion to sex slaves. We can limit the discussion to woman forced into prostitution through deception and kidnapping. Woman within a certain age group are easier to find than anyone anywhere. Once we prove that this group is harmed in enough ways we can offer it as an interpretation in our opening speech.
With one strategic narrowing of the topic, our map already looks very different.
To justify your narrowed choice you need to bring criteria for why this qualifies and reasons why that is the most important. Examples of why a certain group is chosen can be because it harms the most people, that the victims are children who can’t defend themselves or many other reasons. Further methods to justify your choice and make it more important can be found in our article How to Make Your Model UN Clauses More Important.
Grounding – To take the your narrowed topic and put it in a physical location / give it a real world example.
Once your topic has a location, you can use real data to add numbers, names and statistics to quantify the problem into which you can solve.
Topic: Combating the Slave Trade
Topic after Narrowing: Human / Woman Trafficking
The Problem: Women are trafficked from many places, in many ways. Again, one solution won’t work for them all people affected.
Grounding: One you have narrowed slavery to Human / Woman Trafficking choose a location. If we choose the Baltic states we can show that there are over 3 million slaves of European origin. 32% of these are from the Balkans with 544,000 new slaves a year. If we research how they become slaves, we can find that many are kidnapped after being lured by a false promise of a foreign career opportunity, such as babysitting. Once we add an age range (late teens till early twenties) and pick up points and you have something to work with.
Additional data for grounding can be found in articles like “The fate of Eastern European sex trafficking victims”. Following Victorias story lets us see the chain that resulted in her entrapment and trafficking.
Grounding gives you something quantifiable to work with. One you can measure it you can price what it would take to solve it. Your solutions are your clauses. The data from your research is the information to justify your choice of placing the case study where you did. As we can see in the example above, an entire committee can debate how to stop female trafficking in the baltics.
Where should you focus?
After you read the guide and narrowed and grounded accordingly, create a chain of events from beginning to end of the issue. Zero in on one link to focus on specifically making a change in that part.
Advert about well paying foreign job - abduction / autonomous travel with promise of work - transfer through local border - shuttling through midway country - smuggled into recipient country - life controlled by brutal facilitators
A clause in a draft resolution can tackle any one of these points. You can decide that stricter border control will be your focus and draft a clause to instruct border police to stop girls who fit this profile who go to specific countries. Once their potential job are researched and found wanting they will be turned back. Additional clauses can be added to track the potential employers or continue to supervise the girls. However, the main focus is should remain specifically on the link in the chain that you want to focus on.
It is true that what you did was not all encompassing. At the same time, you can quantify what you did down to the cost it would take to train all the border control police officers in Latvia. When measuring results, instead of a general clause that says “resolves to increase supervision at airports and border crossings” you can point to how newly trainer police officers can enforce stricter border control. Quantifiably, if this reduces even 5% of the women who are trafficked, that is 25,000 less women who will be subjugated in that terrible world. It is those concrete numbers which will take you further than any general clause, no matter how well meaning. Additionally, a more advanced delegate can say that the specific clause actually encompases the more general clause. After all, training border police in Latvia to identify and stop a few thousand women from leaving the country does “resolve to increase supervision at airports and border crossings”.
Identifying Which Topics Need Narrowing and Grounding
The name chosen for a given Model UN study guide topic can already tell you a lot about the what to expect and whether the chair knows what they are doing.
Examples of MUN Topics:
Outer space security
The Right of Children to Education
Poverty and Social Impact Assessment
The Current Situation of Domestic Workers
Reduce inequality within and among countries
All of the above are read topic names from real Model UN study guides and real Model UN conferences. What do they all have in common? All of these are impossible to debate as they are currently formulated and need serious narrowing and grounding. :Reduce inequality within and among countries: is Sustainable Development Goal 10. Without narrowing and grounding, where would we start?
There are 3 types of topics in Model UN, Open, Semi-Open & Closed.
Open Topics– Need Narrowing and Grounding
Semi-Open Topics – Need Narrowing or Grounding
ClosedTopics – The Parameters of Debate are Clear
Closed topics give you a clear place to start. Completely open topics inform you that you have hours of work ahead.
Examples of Semi-Closed Topics:
The Question of NATO Expansion – A Review of the Alliance’s Global Partnerships
Reviewing and Improving Carbon Emission Trade
Examples of Closed Topics:
Creation of digital identification system in Burundi
Question of Sovereignty in Western Sahara
Not all topics that are Semi Open, or even Open, are necessarily bad. Some of them can be excellent and you should not judge before you read the introduction. However, an extremely vague title should raise an orange flag so always stay alert. If the introduction doesn’t clarify what a chair means for a topics like “Sustainable development: International Strategy for Disaster Reduction” you are probably on your own.
After Narrowing and Grounding
Once you have developed a policy which solves the problem you created by reframing the topic zoom out and encompass more countries. Practical ideas that work in one place can be amended and used in another. At the same time, creating a case to apply to everyone from the get go will leave your research very peripheral and without examples. The key is to narrow and ground to something concrete, important, relevant and debetable. Once you have done that, there will be room to zoom out and cover all the rest.
Once you have finished narrowing and grounding you will have an interpretation of the topic to deliver in an opening speech. Your interpretation, if delivered correctly, will give the entire room a narrative to debate and discuss. Many delegates, and often the chairs, will recognize your interpretation as a legitimate and debatable one and accept it. Countries do not need to be on your side of the debate.
Ideally, you will have countries for and against what you present. If you see that happen, you set up a good interpretation of the topic. Your fellow delegates will reward you be taking up positions for or against you along the debate lines that you set. After all, you were the one to bring order to chaos. Finally, if the chair has any ability at all, you should get a lot of credit for being the one to create the debate. This should weigh heavily in your favor and, if combined with a strong performance as a delegate, should give you extra points when considered for an award, whatever the outcome of the simulation might be.
When you put your finger on something tangible you bring the concept from the world of ideas into the world of practicality that we live in. With real names and numbers we can find real solutions. If we can solve a big problem in one place, the same logic can be used to solve it somewhere else.
Look at the name of the topic and read the introduction. Narrow and Ground accordingly. Create the chair of causality, find your focus point and quantify a way to bring about a change. With this detailed solution you can zoom out until you cover enough to be central in the debate. You will be secure in the knowledge that you can zoom back in and have the details to defend every position. Ideally, you will not need to completely Narrow and Ground too often. In a perfect world, you will always have well researched and clear study guides written buy the best of chairs. In those cases Narrowing and Grounding can be used to help with certain points which are unclear, or to tighten up a policy proposal. However, if by chance you do come across a vague, general and poorly written study guide which, in other words, totally sucks, you will be ready.