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EU-ECAMA 2019 Student Debates: The Journey to championship

23/12/2019 - 16:09
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In large halls dotted across the country, the silence of the vast spaces is broken by the sounds of cheers, then silence. Suddenly, new sounds take precedence; it is a youthful voice of students debating punctuated by critiques, arguments, counter-arguments and even proposed solutions. The topics of discussion are development related policies and practices ranging from private sector development, energy diversification and foreign aid to agriculture subsidies. This trend has been the hallmark of the EU-ECAMA 2019 Student Debates.

The debates have been an exciting journey for 8 universities in Malawi. Organized by the European Union Delegation to Malawi and the Economics Association of Malawi (ECAMA), the debates are designed to promote platforms for youth contribute with innovative approaches to the development of the country by allowing them to discuss various developmental challenges and opportunities for Malawi. Through the debates, the culture of debating at tertiary institution level will be fortified by creating a platform for students to interact and share knowledge on how they can contribute innovative approaches to the development of their country.

The first round of faceoffs, topics and the stakes

The anatomy of the debates was framed in 7 debates, 8 participating institutions and 1 winner. The competing schools were,  Malawi Assemblies of God University (MAGU), Lilongwe University of Agriculture (LUANAR), Malawi Polytechnic (POLY), Chancellor College (CHANCO), Catholic University (CU), Blantyre International University (BIU), University of Livingstonia (UNILIA) and Mzuzu University (MZUNI).

The faceoffs spanned over three months and commenced on 20 September with four regional knockout debates that were concluded a month later on 25 October 2019. Following the regional debates, victorious teams would be drawn to participate in two semi- stages from which the finalists would emerge in a grand stand off from which the winner would be crowned Champions of the 2019 EU-ECAMA Student Debates Competition. The topics were relevant and provocative to discuss in debate; and this in essence set the stage for a series of intellectual clashes that would bring out the best presentation, research and team building skills from the teams. 

The first round of the debate competition was the regional knock out phase that commenced with Central Region teams in Lilongwe on 20 September 2019 between the Malawi Assemblies of God University - MAGU (the proposer) and the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources LUANAR (the opposer) on the topic "Should the government be more active in supporting private sector?"  MAGU emerged victorious.

The second regional debate was for the Eastern Region, on 21 October between the Malawi Polytechnic (the proposer) and Chancellor College (the opposer). Polytechnic emerged victorious under the topic, “Is Energy Diversification a Solution to Malawi's Energy Crisis?" and the Malawi Polytechnic triumphantly qualified into the second round.

The third regional debate was for the Southern Region, on 22 October between the Catholic University of Malawi (proposer) and the Blantyre University (opposer), debating on the topic, "Does foreign aid effectively support growth in Malawi?" Catholic University carried the day. 

Friday, 25 October was the day for the fourth regional debate between Mzuzu University (proposer) and the University of Livingstonia (oppose), debating on the topic, "Is the Fertiliser Subsidy Programme (FISP) beneficial to Malawi?", with University of Livingstonia prevailing over their counterparts. 

Therefore, making it to the second round from the regional debates into the semi-finals stage were the Malawi Assemblies of God University, the Malawi Polytechnic, the Catholic University of Malawi, and the University of Livingstonia.

Sharpened for greatness

On the eve of the semi-finals, the four teams attended a grueling mentorship session conducted by the best in the business, Dr. Elias Ngalande, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi and a seasoned economist with over 3 decades of experience under his belt. From orienting the finalists on opening, sustaining and closing arguments to the full package of presentation skills including posturing, tone and strategy; the seasoned veteran economist poured out years of experience into these purposeful students . The finalists were also allowed to fine tune their preparation with a Q&A session that saw the zeal with which these young leaders wanted to title of championship of the 2019 EU-ECAMA Debates. 

Each side demonstrated the spirit of a champion as they held their mentor “captive” with questions and clarifications that left no stone unturned way into the night. The battle lines were clearly drawn. All that remained was, the sound of battle drums to commence, but that was only hours away.

The semi-final round

The four teams locked horns in the second round of the debate competition, the semi-finals round in Lilongwe on November 22, battling for a seat in the finals championship debate. 

Malawi Assemblies of God University faced-off with the Malawi Polytechnic, with the former proposing on the topic, "Is the current fiscal policy in Malawi effective in spurring growth?". In a parallel heated encounter, the University of Livingstonia (proposer) and Catholic University (oppose) debated on the topic "Is the current monetary framework in Malawi effective in spurring growth?". 

From this semi-finals stage, the Catholic University of Malawi and the Malawi Polytechnic emerged winners, moving on to the grand faceoff of the competition.

At stake for the finalists was a cash prize amounting to MK750,000 for the champions while the runners up would walk away with MK500,000

The much anticipated championship round

The dawn of 29 November 2019 shall forever be etched in the records of Malawi’s Tertiary Institutions as the D-Day of the EU-ECAMA 2019 Student Debate Championship – and there was to be only one winner. Who would it be? 

Clad in blue was the Polytechnic team of 3 who strode confidently into the auditorium of the Crossroads Hotel, charged up and ready for the task at hand. Equally charged up were their counterparts who stood between them and championship, Catholic University, clad in yellow. 

As soon as the teams locked eyes, the atmosphere in the auditorium was charged as battle cries rang across to warn the rival team of the impending duel to determine the champion. Spectators were treated to a spectacle as the blue and yellow teams circled each other and let out charged chants to outshout their nemesis. They only backed down when summoned to the battling ground at precisely 9:30am. The stage was set and the auditorium supercharged. All spectators sat on the edge of their seats. The master of ceremonies had to calm down the supporters of both teams.

The argument, emotions, mistakes and recovery

Debating on the topic, "Does agriculture offer the largest potential for Malawi's economic growth?", with the Malawi Polytechnic supporting the motion, and the Catholic University of Malawi opposing the motion

From the onset, both teams were understandably nervous. It was a first for them and no one could have prepared adequately for what they had never experienced. A lot was at stake. From reputation, wasted effort, disappointing their mentors to missing championship title; the moment of truth dawned on each presenter as they took to the stage. 

The atmosphere and all that was at stake was overwhelming for the presenters and emotions were high as nervousness creeped in and mistakes took their toll on both sides. But this was just for a moment. Sensing the tense atmosphere, the supporting audience offered encouragement through chants of support, claps and out rightly declaring their team winner even before the championship was in full sway. This emotional support breathed new life into the contestants and the debates caught fire! 

Among the many arguments and counter arguments in this final debate, the Malawi Polytechnic advanced the proposition that agriculture has strong and high backward and forward linkages with other sectors in the economy, contributing up to 30% of Gross Domestic Products (GDP), accounting to about 64% of the work force, and a great influence towards poverty reduction. They also argued that other sector of the Malawi economy actually depend on agriculture for their existence and relevance. The Catholic University counter argued that despite these estimates, heavy dependency on agriculture has negatively impacted economic growth as evidenced by comparing GDP percentage contribution of agriculture in relation to workforce proportion that it consumes against other sectors, and the heavy association of environmental and institutional risks and uncertainties- particularly price fluctuations on the economy. They further fronted other sectors like the service and tourism sectors as contributing far much more to the GDP than Agriculture's 30%, and provide more decent employment and yet do not receive as much Government support as the Agriculture sector.

At this point both teams were still on equal footing. Then, the fruits of the mentoring and focus of what brought each team to this moment exploded. The spectators began to witness history in the making as the presenters morphed into seasoned debaters. The spirit of a champion was unleashed with clinical precision as both teams counterargued and presented their cases like the professionals they had become. 

Awe punctuated the judges faces, donors, media and civil society present were literally edged on their seats. This was going to be too close to call. No one wanted to be in the judges position! And who were these judges to make the final call on an epic debate? They were Mr. Tamani Nkhono, an agricultural institution ecologist and expert of development studies; Dr. Onelie Nkuna, Manager of Economic Policy Research at the Reserve Bank of Malawi and Leslie Mkandawire, a Corporate Development Executive. 

The verdict

The seasoned judges had the difficult task of separating the great debating gladiators. There could only be one champion. After a grueling and nervous-wracking wait of over 30 minutes, the verdict was out and had to be delivered to the anxious contestants and spectators. History was about to be made and the judges, had to announce the judges statement.

In their remarks, the judges commended the debating teams for observing gender equality, team work, high levels of confidence, linking of theory and practical situations and solutions, and good presentation of facts together with reference to current statistics, and most importantly for their critical and innovative skills, proposing better ways of doing things to policy makers and activists in the agriculture sector. However, he advised debaters on the need to improve their response to questions and counter arguing. Overall, the debate was delivered to a very high standard and both teams demonstrated why they were in the championship round. The innovative thinking and of the debaters and their proposed solutions proposed to policy makers was particularly concurred and appreciated by the guest of honour for this final debate, the Controller of Agricultural Services, in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Dr. Alexander Bulirani, in his closing remarks. With all these factors considered, the Catholic University of Malawi was declared Champions of the EU-ECAMA 2019 Student Debates Competition and walked away with the winners purse of MK 750,000 and Malawi Polytechnic were awarded the runners up prize of MK 500,000.

Next Steps

Another year gone, another series of debates successfully delivered. 2020 presents yet another opportunity for the schools to take the lessons of 2019 and increase the stakes of the debate going forward. Shall Catholic University relinquish their championship? Only time will tell as the teams horn their debating skills in preparation for the 2020 version of the EU-ECAMA Student Debates. 

The EU-ECAMA 2020 Student Debates Competition promises to be bigger and better as more universities and colleges will be joining the 8 on this exciting journey. Don’t miss it!

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