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Johannes: The beginning of my MUN career was actually triggered by my desire to work for the United Nations some day. I had always been interested in international affairs and the United Nations, particularly UN peacekeeping, and wanted to get somehow involved in UN-related activities.
However, before I started studying I was totally unaware of the concept of Model United Nations and stumbled upon the website of the United Nations Youth Association of Austria/ Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs, a student organization (which organizes a great variety of events related to foreign policy and international relations, amongst them the MUN clubs). So having explored the website a little, MUNs seemed quite appealing - a sensible, yet fun way to spend your free time. In the first term I never really had the courage and time to attend the sessions of the MUN Club in Vienna, but at the beginning of my second term, the MUN Club offered a beginner’s workshop.
So I seized this opportunity and showed up at the workshop, not realizing that I had not even been registered as far too many applications had been submitted. Luckily, the head of the MUN Club was very welcoming and after the workshop I started joining the sessions as a delegate, which kick-started my MUN career. In the third term I was asked to join the organizing team of the Vienna Model United Nations Club and around the same time I attended my first MUN conference.
MUNPlanet: How did you come to be Secretary General of VIMUN?
Johannes: Probably there was just no one else stupid enough to take up the challenge. All kidding aside, the options of who can become Secretary General of VIMUN are in fact rather limited. That is probably the disadvantage of having a whole organization, the Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs, behind the project, rather than running VIMUN as a completely independent project.
Basically the SG should be someone, who does not only have MUN experience, but also VIMUN experience, and who is also somehow involved in the Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs. So in January after long considerations, I was asked by the president of the Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs if I either wanted to take over the Vienna MUN Club or VIMUN, both quite intriguing tasks, but I opted for the latter.
Johannes: One of the traditions, if you like, is the venue. Originally, VIMUN was held in a hotel, but for more than 10 years it has now been held at the UN headquarters here in Vienna, which provides for a very special environment. Several social events such as our reception at the city hall, which is a marvelous building in the heart of the city, and the intercultural night during which delegates have the opportunity to represent their countries through performances, have established themselves as traditions at VIMUN as well. It goes without saying that there is also the tradition of having after-parties following the official social events.
What is probably rather peculiar to VIMUN, are the overlap of the conference team and chairing teams. All chairs are also somewhat involved in organizing the conference up to some extent, as well as in promoting the conference.
All in all, I would characterize VIMUN as a relatively lively conference that keeps a good balance between both the social events and the serious negotiations. VIMUN is also especially appealing to newcomers, who have never attended a MUN before and probably have not even fully grasped what MUNs are all about until they step into the committee rooms. A lot of them are very dedicated to the goals of the United Nations and are very interested in pursuing a professional career in international organizations, hence they want to try out MUNs too, and VIMUN seems as an obvious choice; I presume mainly due to the venue.
Twenty years on, a lot has been tried out already and there remains little room for “revolutionary” new ideas. Luckily, we could incorporate a few new features this year. Some of which had existed before, but were not part of the simulations in the past few years.
For instance, this year we will have a media simulation committee, commonly known as media team and also a new committee that has never been tried out at VIMUN before, namely the Futuristic Security Council. Also, we will include interpreters in the simulation for our opening and closing ceremony, which should render the whole simulation even more authentic. Apart from that we will also apply new rules of procedure, which should reflect the real rules of procedures of UN organs and committees in a better way, without jeopardizing the dynamic flow of debate. The new ones are some sort of a compromise between the real rules of procedure and standard parliamentary rules of procedure used at most MUNs. Since we have tested them at our MUN Clubs, I am confident that they will facilitate the debates in the session and put the focus back on the content and not on the correct use of some technical, comparatively complicated parliamentary rules.
Johannes: Given the fact that we have a pool of resources and institutionalized expertise, I fortunately did not have to worry about certain things that are crucial to organizing MUNs, for instance, the conference venue and some of the locations of our social events.
In general, I would claim that the hardest part was the fact that a lot of responsibilities lie with the Secretary General due to the structure of our organization. Time-consuming tasks like answering all the mails, reviewing applications and registering the delegates cannot be delegated to someone else in the organizing team. Sometimes it really felt like a one-man job, but likely not all the time.
Administrative tasks were the most exhausting ones and had me stay up late. When I was appointed Secretary General, I was told that I should expect to be a secretary rather than a general; as far as a great deal of my workload was concerned, that may be true, provided that one assumes that a general just commands and gets all the glory at the end.
When it comes to organizing the conference, keeping everything on schedule and having the whole team fully committed is certainly the hardest task because that is a factor which is beyond your control at times. In addition to that, I could start rambling on and on about visa issues, which is a rather daunting task due to the same reason: partly beyond your control.
MUNPlanet: Having participated in several conferences and experienced the ups and downs of organizing a conference on your own, what advice do you have for future MUN organizers?
Johannes: “Small is beautiful”- be aware that larger conferences are more difficult organize and coordinate. An obvious truth of course, but something worth noting. I have not been to a lot of large conferences, but I have always found the larger ones to be relatively chaotic and stressful. When you want or have to organize a larger conference, effective division of labour will be the key to success.
VIMUN is not yet a large-scale conference. We will have approximately 250 participants, quite a reasonable number; but already you can have trouble finding suitable locations for the whole crowd. When you need to start splitting-up the delegates for social events, and maybe even need various locations for committee sessions, then it does not only get more complicated for the organizers, but also frustrating for the delegates.
Select a team which includes MUN veterans as well as newcomers who have just started with MUNs and are full of passion, commitment as well as new ideas. Experience and idealistic passion - you will require both in your organizing team. You really need to have a few extremely dedicated people who you can rely on and who can run things independently; otherwise it is really just a one-person job, which does not do any good to the conference and yourself.
Also, keep some team members on reserve in case someone drops out. At VIMUN, about three weeks before the conference one of the chairs in the SC dropped out as well as one of the rapporteurs, which is of course a bit annoying, but you have to expect such unpleasant things to happen.
Draw upon already existing expertise from previous organizers of your respective conference. Not everything needs to be re-invented, what has proven to work in the past will most likely work for your conference as well. You should at least keep certain tested options as Plan B, in case all hell breaks loose.
Be careful with visa issues: if you think that there is something fishy going on, there is most likely something fishy going on. It is not always easy to obtain a visa to enter a country, so MUN conferences are a great possibility to improve your chances of being granted entry into a country. Some applicants might never show up at the conference, as they just want to go on holidays - in the best case scenario.
Johannes: In some countries MUNs are extremely popular. What’s the MUN community in Austria like? MUNs are relatively unknown in my opinion, especially outside the capital. I have never heard about MUNs before I started studying at university and it was not even at university where I discovered it, but rather by accident. The university and student unions are not very attached to the MUN community, except about 3-5 professors, who have tried to come up with MUN simulations. Therefore many students are unaware of the idea.
Logically, it comes as no surprise that a great bunch of Austrian participants at VIMUN are newcomers. Within the high school sector MUNs are practically non-existent, so there is still a lot of potential. It will be interesting to see if we can manage to gather MUN veterans to tackle that issue and reach all those potential MUNers in the future.
MUNPlanet: How does Vienna, being a UN city, influence the spirit of MUNing?
Johannes: Vienna is home to a plethora of international organizations, but is probably much more renowned for its historic buildings than its international stage. I guess a lot of people are unaware of the presence of many different international and European bodies or regard them as insignificant. On the contrary, Vienna still has to play a major role, despite the end of the Cold War when it was viewed as neutral territory. Apart from the UN Offices and programmes, there is also the IAEA located in Vienna along with the headquarters of the OSCE and OPEC. Furthermore, there are still a lot of international conferences organized in Vienna, some of them game-changing. A few weeks ago the Iran nuclear talks continued in here and a lot of big names such as John Kerry participated.
Such an international stage is, of course, a perfect environment for MUNs. You have many more opportunities and can also access more resources. This international environment just makes it more interesting and more authentic for participants to join MUNs, particularly as they feel that they could probably work for some of those organizations, which are literally around the corner, in a couple of years. Maybe it is an illusion, but it certainly feels different to be part of a MUN in such an international environment and have the possibility to meet high-level diplomats and experts throughout the year at the various lectures organized by those international organizations or non-governmental organizations related to the work of the UN.
MUNPlanet: The past decade has seen an increased dynamics and globalization of MUN as a concept. How do you see MUNs at the moment, and in the years ahead?
Johannes: During the past few years, the number of MUNs has expanded incredibly. I have heard about so many conferences that have just been organized for the first or second time. There is no need to point out that the idea of MUNs still needs to grow and blossom in some countries, including Austria. Amongst other things, MUNs still need to be established on a high school level in many countries of the continental Europe and also outside Europe. However, I do agree that MUNs really have become a global phenomenon and the number of conferences and participants will unstoppably expand further.
MUNs are doing quite well at the moment. Yet there is certainly a huge gap between the conferences as far as the quality of simulations is concerned. Moreover, a more serious issue is the lack of realistic simulations. If MUNs are supposed to be accurate simulations of the UN, then working methods of the committees as well as the Rules of Procedure should mirror those of the UN more closely... Having said that, I have already attended MUNs where they tried to use the real UN rules of procedures and rumor has it that several MUNs are revising their rules of procedures, so I do believe the future will see even more realistic simulations.
While I do appreciate efforts to make MUNs more popular with students, who are not so much interested in international politics, I am also somewhat skeptical towards all those fantasy committees and – as I would call them- “extreme” crisis committees, where delegates get assassinated or kidnapped... At the end of the day, a MUN should not merely be considered a game, a debate or a negotiation exercise. MUNs should (indirectly) teach you how the organs and agencies of the United Nations and how the countries within that institutional framework can tackle global issues.
Johannes: That very much depends on the participants themselves. MUNs are certainly a great opportunity to broaden your horizon. Rarely will you have the chance to meet so many people from so many different national, cultural and academic backgrounds at just one location. It is such types of youth conferences that help you connect with people from all over the world and get to know their personal stories as well as those of their countries. MUNs certainly help remove boundaries in the minds and make you better understand different nations and cultures.
Even though MUNs help build up your network, understand traditions from other countries much better and change your view of the world, it all depends on whether MUNers can move beyond MUNs and are willing to dedicate their free time to “more serious” business, i.e. get politically involved and become truly committed to the ideas they discuss at MUNs.
MUNs create awareness, but that does not automatically lead to a truly transnational leadership force. Should such a transnational leadership develop, it will not occur due to the conferences (alone). Admittedly, such a genuinely transnational leadership force is rather an idealistic concept which will never fully work on a global level and not even the European one for that matter- at least not in the next couple of years.
Johannes: Do not be afraid, in MUNs you do not have to choose between winning or dying, there is a middle ground!
MUNs can teach you a great deal of things and are extremely fun. The time I have spent on MUNs has been one of the best times of my life so far, and I would neither want to miss the memories nor the friendships I have built up due to MUNs. They are a valid excuse to escape from the essays you would have to submit and exams you have to take, and change how you see yourself and the world.
Let me also point out that MUNs are for everyone, regardless of what you study. I have not only met IR students or law students, but also engineers and medical students. There is no way you cannot fit in.
Last but not least, let me go back to what I said before. MUNs are not about winning (or dying for that matter), so do not focus on getting awards. A competitive spirit is nothing reprehensible per se, but in certain MUN conferences it sometimes destroys the spirit of what we claim that the UN and MUNs should actually be about.
P.S. Share your experiences and stay in touch with your fellow MUNers through social media. MUNPlanet is really an amazing asset to the whole MUN community and I am convinced that it can really help in strengthening the MUN community in Europe.
MUNPlanet: Johannes, thank you for devoting your time for this interview. We wish you a successful VIMUN 2014 conference, and keep us updated on the developments.
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