A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
A series of debates, entitled ‘Analyze, discuss, and debate’, held by the Basement, Shaima al-Ahdal, said, “Creating such a platform where people can voice their opinions openly creates a culture of acceptance and builds the public speaking and debate skills of a promising young generation”.in Sana’a, continues for the second year in a row, and buzzes with the presence of enthusiastic youth. The two-year project, ‘Spaces’, has become a haven for many who are eager to present their views on various social and cultural issues. Commenting on the program, the director of
Throughout 2018, there were debates and symposiums on areas such as ‘Has the improvement of the means of life in Yemen created a better generation?’, ‘Does a higher education degree define competence?’ and ‘Child labor in the current circumstances in Yemen’.
Audiences passionately engage with the subject matter. For example, in late December 2018 they debated ‘Do you support creating more opportunities for foreign labor vs local labor?’, with participants discussing how important foreign workers are for the country. Some argued that as many of those foreign staff are getting higher wages than locals, which made local workers to sense lack of fairness. However, others argued that foreign workers are helpful, a capacity-building opportunity, and that Yemenis should use it well, and accordingly prioritize the employment of foreign labor and connect to the wider world. Mushera Abu Hashem says: “We, 15 persons and I, were trained on debating skills through the project ‘Spaces’. Through it we were able to discuss public topics along with many different media. Prioritizing foreign labor was our selected topic. I was selected along with three others as a thesis team, we were chosen to apply debating skills in order to earn victory by changing people’s votes. Because we had the weaker position, we predicted that many would stand with the local laborers, so we started to focus on practicing experiences, then we supported our position with some storytelling and questionnaires related to the topic. Finally, we gained the audiences’ hearts and minds.”
In the seven debates held so far, participants have demonstrated their powers of persuasion. As well as moderating the debate itself, the organizers take additional measures to evaluate the debates, through polls conducted both before and after the debate. The latter aims to gauge the impact of the debate and the ability of the debaters to influence the audiences’ opinion on the topics discussed. So far the impact is visible on various fronts, among them an impressive public presence, positive engagement on social media, and extensive coverage of the events on local television and print media by local journalists and intellectuals.
Youth experiences of debate
“I first heard about the Basement through social media and was curious to participate in their activities, especially the debates”, said Sarah al-Afif. As a participant, she added, “I’m interested in engaging in discussions on issues that concern local society, and feel quite critical of how the international media portrays the issues and concerns of Yemeni society. Through the contributions of others in these debates, I was able to directly experience society. In fact, my experience so far has introduced new things into my life and has been a unique and enjoyable addition. I have increased my skills in expression and presentation, and in assessing different ideas – one should not confine oneself to a particular idea, position, or context”. She continued, “The Basement has developed an approach to debates and guidelines that is unique in comparison to other institutions. This on its own has helped contribute to solutions and set an example to society’s approach to debate”.
In May 2017, Shaima Barakat (22), moderated a debate titled, ‘Is art a luxury or a necessity?’ She was still a student in the Radio and Television Department at the Science and Technology University at the time, but had already participated in a number of international debating competitions. “My experience at the Basement was very different. It was the first time for me to introduce and moderate a debate. As a participant who has always been a part of the debate on the other side, it was fun to find myself in the moderators position,” Shaima explained. “In this new experience, I was trying to support every team in communicating their point of view to the public, without any interference from my side or from anyone else. The result was that I learned how to manage opposing opinions without being swayed,” she added.
What makes the debates at Basement successful?
The Basement takes a creative approach towards debates, unlike other institutions that follow conventional methods. Prior to the debate, an intensive training program is organized for participants. During this program, various aspects are addressed, such as: the nature of the content being discussed and its relationship to society, skills and strategies of debate, research mechanisms and access to information, moderation skills, body language, strategies of persuasion that are aimed at both fellow debaters and the public, and how to make use of time as well as the context of space.
In addition, at the public level, the organizers publish reading material on their Facebook page that aims to contribute to the discussion and inform the public on the topic before the event; the public post their opinions about the subject, some with and some against the question under review. Organizers also share articles and short videos that present both sides of the debate and explore the issues. On the whole, the debates are accessible for all and steer away from convoluted techniques and language. In the end, the public has the final say and the results are determined by a public vote rather than by a jury panel. As part of their project, the Basement published a manual, which includes the techniques they follow and offers guidelines for conducting debates.
The success of the debates is the result of the extensive efforts and experiences of Basement. During the past seven years, they have accumulated experience in organizing, training, and moderating debates – long before launching the Spaces project. Today, however, this debate-focused project has added a popular element to the process. Debates mainly include the general public and are no longer confined to the political and intellectual elites. The topics discussed are of interest to students, workers, and other members of society, including children and women.
Getting ready for debates
In preparation for a debate, the Basement publishes a general announcement on the topic, together with an online submission form. Following the deadline, the team selects a long list of the best applicants and invites them for an interview. After that, eight people are selected for a one-month training on debating techniques following the Foundation’s guidelines. The training also includes workshops on public speaking, persuasion skills, and methods of online research. The participants also receive an introduction on the topic, which describes the history of the issue and provides hard data that is helpful in preparation for the debate.
Upon entering the debate room, the audience casts their vote and chooses which team they support. The debate begins with both teams presenting their opinion on the topic, first by providing arguments to support their positions, and then by responding to the arguments of the other team. Towards the end of the debate, each team makes a closing statement presenting their final conclusion. As part of this process, the public participates in two Q&A sessions between each team presentation. At the end, another vote is taken to determine whether there was a shift in public opinion at the end of the debate; the winning team is selected based on the number of votes in their favor.
The Basement Cultural Foundation, founded in 2009, will continue its Spaces project in the upcoming year and is preparing to launch four new debates. The topics will be selected based on a questionnaire distributed on their Facebook page. The suggestions for these topics have been developed in line with public interest.
Workshops and training courses will be organized prior to these debates. At the moment, the target group will be around 60 participants from various age groups, and the selection team will focus on the diversity of their intellectual and political backgrounds as well as varied academic and social backgrounds. The participants belong to different communities, segments of society, and come from different regions – from both rural and urban areas. The diversity of the selection is made possible through the questionnaire design that takes these aspects into account.
With this momentum and the positive responses so far, the project organizers hope that young Yemenis will feel encouraged to work towards finding solutions to complex problems in their everyday reality – and in the context of ongoing conflict and instability. The project provides hope and is an action to create a better future based on free, rational, and diverse dialogue.