Learning to debate as an aid to boosting democracy

Democracy in African countries could be assisted by developing debating skills among African university students, according to three champion debating students from the Melbourne campus of Monash University in Australia.

Intent on putting their belief into action Kiran Iyer, Sashi Balaraman and Damien Bruckard established African Voice as a non-profit organisation to run debating training workshops for young people across the African continent.

The workshops focus on strengthening public speaking confidence, developing critical thinking skills and increasing awareness of crucial public policy challenges. The trio’s plan is to raise enough money to send debaters from Monash every year to those countries in Africa that are transitioning to democracy but which have had limited exposure to debating.

“We run debating workshops aimed at facilitating awareness of human rights and good governance principles, while equipping students with the communication skills to reshape their societies,” says Kiran Iyer, the 2012 World and Australasian Debating Champion.

Damien Bruckard was a finalist at the Australasian championships and a former president of the Monash Association of Debaters, while Sashi Balaraman was a finalist at the World Debating Championships, a runner up at the Australasian event and a former editor of the Monash Debating Review.

“We wanted to use the skills we developed through our time with the Monash Association of Debaters to make a difference in countries with leaders that have traditionally resisted the transformative potential of discourse and debate,” Iyer says.

“Debating in African universities has developed over the last few years but we believe our initiative could accelerate the transition.”

During a year of planning, the three students contacted universities and non-government organisations in several African countries so they could tailor programmes to suit the specific needs of students. They undertook a trial of their scheme, teaching students at Monash University’s South Africa campus in Johannesburg, funded by the office of the pro-vice-chancellor, the faculty of arts and the faculty of law.

They then ran a two-day workshop for students with the Rwandan NGO Never Again Rwanda, assessing post-genocide transitional justice strategies.

This was followed by a three-day workshop for university and secondary students with the Zimbabwean NGO Contemporary Affairs Foundation, held to coincide with World Aids Day and aimed at developing a culture of free and open debate among Zimbabwe’s future leaders.

“The students we met were extremely engaged by politics and passionate about making a difference in their communities,” Iyer says. “However, they had often never received the training in public policy issues or in advocacy that would enable them to effectively articulate their views.

“Our training programme was not aimed at imposing our values but rather sought to empower these young leaders with the skills to better express themselves. It was refreshing to meet people who were not cynical about the future of their countries and were committed to making a difference. Our hosts were incredibly welcoming and we learned a lot from them.”

The three students say the content of the training draws heavily on what they learned at the Monash campus in Melbourne and integrating concepts they were exposed to in their arts, law and commerce degrees into the workshops.

Iyer says legal policy, international relations and economics are central to debating.

“We are hopeful we can send generations of debaters to Africa to transfer the skills they have developed at Monash. We are currently planning workshops in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria, in addition to our established programmes in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe,” Iyer says.

“We also plan to run a workshop specifically targeted at Rwandan women, aimed at confronting the patriarchal culture in Rwanda that limits female advancement.”

The group can be contacted at: