How to Research for MUN
Research is one of the keys to success in Model United Nations. However, even though there is a lot of information on the internet, and in libraries, most of the information out there is useless. Furthermore, sometimes what is most interesting to read may have little value for your simulation and topic. The following guide is here to teach us exactly where to focus to save time and make the most out of your research.
To be properly prepared for a Model UN simulation you need to research 6 things:
- Your country
- The study guide topic
- Your committee
- Past actions and future policy recommendations
- Your allies and opponents
- Current statistical data
At the end of this guide we will also include
- Where do we find this information?
- Example of Methods of research
Before we start remember that we aren’t learning for the sake of knowledge alone. All of the information we research is used to support an identity that you will build as a country which helps establish your motivations and “personality”. It is this persona that will lobby for your country’s interests and know what to do and how to adapt when the situation changes. Your journey towards getting the most out of your research, and being a better Model UNer, starts here.
Know your country – History, and motivations
At the bare minimum, when representing a country, you need to know your past, your interests and the red lines you cannot cross. This does not mean you need to learn everything since the second World War. Instead, when learning about yourself, focus on four key things:
History, National Interests, Political structure, and current political affairs.
History means recent history. This means you start researching from yesterday and go back no further than a year. Researching decades of history, such as that big revolution that took place in the 1960’s, is one of the first traps you will come across when researching for a Model UN conference. Often, the most glorious, or interesting, part of a country’s history might have happened ten, twenty or even one hundred years before the simulation. The discussion you are having is happening today, which makes the only news more important than yesterday’s news is something that happened this morning.
At HNMUN 2013, SPECPOL was discussing the topic of the civil war in Syria. I received a 70-page study guide which gave the history of Syria from the Ba’athist coup d’état of 1963 until the civil war started in 2011. How useful was that for a discussion taking place March 2013? If you guessed not at all you would be right. It took me an hour of targeted research on my own to get all the information I needed and it was that one page of facts that I put together that served me for the entire conference.
For this reason, whether you’re representing Ireland, Kazakhstan or Egypt, remember to (1) start from the most recent news and (2) learn backward to get context (up to one year) and (3) STOP.
If you find yourself wondering what to do if the current leader of the country came to power 15 years ago, the answer is, if they are still ruling today this makes them relevant to yesterday’s news.
If you study the history of Egypt until 2010 would you be able to represent Egypt? No because the Arab Spring had not yet happened. If you studied Egypt until June 2013 would it be relevant? No, because Mohamed Morsi was still president. If you studied until 2015 would you be able to represent Egypt? No, that is before the civil war in Yemen and the ISIS attacks on Egyptian christians. Also, it was prior to the Pope’s visit. Whether it’s a drought, a new opposition party or press freedom sometimes all it takes is one event for us to see everything differently.
Probably the most important part of researching yourself is what your country wants right now.
As a delegate you should be driven by what you feel your country wants and that usually comes down to one of two things within a given simulation. A country either wants to get more or not lose what they have, or at least not that much.
USA – Improve national standing, even at the expense of current alliances
Lebanon – Get financial support for all the refugees it has
Russia – Reassert the position of key global player
Greece – Be able to overcome the policies of austerity
Uganda – Have Ugandan factories be more competitive in the globalizing market
Get a general idea of what is important to your government, and when relevant, the interests of the people you represent. Also, knowing your interests and what you want means knowing what is not as important to you
If you are China, city pollution may not be that important. If you are Brazil, a woman wearing religious headdresses may not be high on the agenda. If you are the UAE, a political representation may not be a priority. Knowing where you are lacking is just as important to your character as where you are “good” or “strong”.
Understanding our policy parameters can also be important when it comes to finding common dialogue with potential allies.
The political structure is important because, as a representative of that government, you are limited by whatever limits your state employers have. As a delegate negotiating on their behalf and, whether limited by your high court and the Geneva Convention, you are bound by what they can or cannot do.
So, what type of political structure do you have? Is it a Senate? House of commons? Authoritarian dictator? Democratic People’s Republic? and how long is their term in office?
How much you take human rights, the opinions of other countries and which internal pressures influence you are all influenced by a mix of the national interest and the political structure of the country you represent.
Current political affairs
Current political affairs relate to political structure, as some countries do not care what the population think, and are strongly related to the specific interest of the day. This is an extra layer to be added over the national interest and political structure.
For example, when a populist or xenophobic party takes over a country this does not change the political structure or general national interest but does change the current political agenda.
The questions to ask yourself are Who is in? Who is out? What is on the table today? What is your stance on this specific topic issue? What other stakeholders do I need to take into account?
Examples of current political affairs:
- Economic crisis
- Popular revolt
- Ebola-like virus
- Neighboring country testing weapons
- Sanctions on your country
- Trying to meet the criteria of a new union
All of these issues can be overcome and might not be a concern a year or five down the line. They can influence the national interest but usually exist alongside them as an additional layer of considerations. For some countries, current political affairs can trump national interest for a given topic. In other cases, the current political affairs don’t touch the topic discussed. However, in most cases one must have an idea of all of these when choosing the persona they will adopt for the simulation.
Breaking it down:
National interest + political structure = How much to take people’s will into consideration
Political structure + people’s will = Current political affairs impact on policy
What do I do when my country doesn’t have a clear policy?
This is one of the most asked questions of first time Model UN delegates. The answer to this is first, you should always have a policy, as well as a national interest that drives you. If you went into a discussion where you could have influence, and in some way have a stake if you say or do nothing you will be fired. Think of the Model UN simulation as a diplomatic job, wherein the best case you improve your country’s situation and at worst make sure they don’t lose as much as they could.
There was a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Ecuador on April 16, 2016. 668 people were killed, 8 missing and over 6,200 injured. 7,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged.
For Ecuador the current political affairs for the months afterward were recovering from the damage, taking care of the injured and replacing the housing of those who lost their homes and jobs.
If the Model United Nations committee is discussing earthquakes, some countries could say the following:
Poorer countries that are earthquake-prone would want the resolution to include clauses committing the UN, or larger countries, to give significant financial support in such cases.
Poorer countries that don’t have earthquakes could decide to expand this financial support beyond earthquakes to help with other types of disasters.
Corrupt regimes would want to make sure the aid is given in the form of funds sent directly to the government.
Countries that don’t pay much into the UN budget would want to continue to not pay and would support clauses that keep the donations focused on those who are currently funding UN aid and disaster relief.
Rich countries who fund UN aid would want to limit the payout to very specific types of aid and argue for clauses that limit what is spent and who it is spent on. They could make it specifically about Ecuador or only earthquakes which took place since 2014. They could also say that 7000 buildings are a small amount and that Ecuador can cover the cost themselves. They could also opt for a policy that requires the countries that do not pay much to pay more.
As we can see here, the national interest (help self, help neighbor, try to get money thrown your way, pay less, set precedent) can be seen for every type of country. The earthquake in the Ecuador case could be seen as very specific but if applying the methods written above, you should be able to find a way for your country to be not only relevant but possibly lead the discussion.
Learn about the topic
Learn about the topic the committee will be discussing. This usually comes in the study guide/background guide you receive from the conference. (In the cases where the topic is not clear, or the parameters of debate are unclear, check out our article on “What to do with a bad study guide”)
A good guide should give you an understanding of the issue by the end of the introduction. Others require you to read further. Sometimes you need to do your own research. However long it takes, by the of the process you should know the specifics of:
Where? (if relevant)
When? (if relevant)
What is expected if no one intervenes
This last one is both not obvious and especially important because the outcome of what happens if nothing is done is the justification for the policies that you would put into the resolution.
Usually, there will be a few negative outcomes to the United Nations (or non-UN committee) inactions. Learn what your country’s relation is to the issues. If there is none make an educated assumption. (See Ecuador Earthquake example above)
Make sure to frame the problem to yourself. Do so in a way that makes it relevant to you and gives you the best position to be a leader in the discussion.
Every delegate, representing every country can reach a place of prominence if they take the scenario they are given and frame it in a way that works for them. Generally, that framing will also work for many other countries allowing that block, or interest group, to have their interest represented as they solve the problem.
Read topic – frame according to the national interest – represent problem in a way that is relevant to you.
Know your committee
Each Model UN committee has different powers, budgets and responsibilities. The discussion you will be having can be as different between committees and the diverse topics discussed at the conference. Knowing what is the normal course of action, has precedent or is legal/illegal can give you a central place in the discussion even if you have less knowledge about the topic or feel you have a less relevant position.
When researching make sure to take time to learn how your specific UN committee works. It is a suggestion to find answers to the following questions:
What does your specific body do? (Does it send troops? Disarm? Help children? World hunger? Alternative energy?)
What is its history / major past actions it has done?
This is important because it sets precedents for what is allowed/encouraged. Is
what you’re offering new or an extension/improvement of what was?
What is it doing now? Updated data, current projects, upcoming aspirations
What are its limitations?
Know what are your powers and what resources you can give
Where one committees ends another begins
While not always relevant, sometimes to solve the issue in your study guide you will need to utilize the resources of more than one committee. This can be done in suggestion clauses in the resolution and gets point from the chairs for being realistic, not creating a new body and showing an understanding of the system.
Once you understand your committee, think generally about which policies you would consider implementing. Sometimes, the most comprehensive policy will have a plan which involved more than one UN body. In these cases credit is given to delegates who properly utilize and integrate the abilities of the different bodies. For this reason, when researching your committee, when you find a limitation, see if you can find which other committees would complete this course of action.
UN bodies that can work together
Past Actions and Future Policy Recommendations
For first time Model UN delegates, we suggest not spending too much time on this section. Your study guide will usually have the main past actions which should be enough for your first conferences. For those who are looking to challenge the most prepared delegates in the room, knowing what was done up until this point, as well as knowing the policy options recent discussion about the topic will bring significant advantages during the simulation.
Some past can be found when you research your committee. However, many past actions taken, relating to a specific topic, were not done but the United Nations and often the most relevant actions were done by individual countries or NGO’s. For this reason, you want to be aware of what actions had the biggest impact, regardless of who did them.
Future Policy Recommendations
The draft resolution that you, and your allies, will be writing can get inspiration from policy recommendations. These can come from the United Nations, think tanks, NGO’s and experts in the field. These recommendations can do two things. The first is to give ideas and inspiration for further policies to be built off of these. The second is to present yourself as knowledgeable in a debate. An example of using this is when other delegates bring policies that are vague or have already been done. In these cases you can use targeted policy recommendations to make your speech more effective.
Allies and Opponents
Now that you know interests, your position on the topic and what your committee can do it is time to map out who you can, and just as importantly, who you cannot work with.
The rationale for knowing the positions of other countries is that you, to adequately represent your country, will need to interact with delegates from different countries to get their support to pass a resolution together. Knowing their positions on the topic will help you predict their arguments before the debate and think of good responses.
It is also important to have allies and opponents for the sake of quality debate and negotiation. The achievement on all sides is much greater when differences are overcome than when everyone agrees from the start. There can be no compromise if there is no clear for and against!
Generally, countries are divided by a set of values that created the “traditional” blocks found in most Model United Nations debate. These cooperations are generally formed along lines similar to those described by Samuel Huntington in his good Clash of Civilizations. His division can be seen on this map.
Other customary divisions between countries can be between large and small, rich and poor, developing and developed and democratic and authoritarian. Depending on the topic you may find more than one criteria influencing who you work with and that should be judged on a case by case basis.
If you are a first time Model UN delegate, we suggest you map your potential allies and opponents based on these general divisions. To skip to the next section click here.
If you feel you are more advanced, or feel ready to dedicate more time researching the other countries in your room, continue reading.
Advanced research of allies and opponents
Almost all the delegates in the room can be potential allies for almost any policy. This does not mean everyone should join forces, as there is a lot of value to debating and discussing the issues.
When possible get a list of the other countries in the room. Divide the countries into interest-based categories relevant to the topic (or another division which makes more sense) and follow the steps below.
Finding That Common Ground
Learn who is “obviously” on your side. There are endless possibilities to find common ground if that is what you need. The reason to work together can be a military alliance / similar government-type / past experience / trading partner / common enemy / region / religion, etc.
When researching before the conference look at the list of countries and find those you feel you should work with but your obvious interests do not show it. Look at the information available about the country and see what links you can find. When you bring this up in speeches or lobbying time, it will almost always create a justification to work together.
Learn who is “obviously” against you. Sometimes it is strategically of value to create opponents for the sake of a better discussion. In such cases, when researching, map out which countries would need to be against you, and why, to keep yourself and your policy central to the discussion.
Tip from the masters: The moment there is no disagreement between your block and another, around the policy you are looking to implement, a new disagreement, or clash, will emerge which might not have your country as a central part of it. For this reason, it is sometimes strategically of value to make sure not all sides reach a compromise a the wrong time. Sometimes it is worth planning both how and when the clashes will be resolved to keep yourself and your country at the center of the action all the way to closure of debate.
The opposition is not a bad thing
When you chose your “opponents” list them and write out what you expect their cases to be. Then, find weaknesses in their case. This can be done by learning a bit about their history and find inconsistencies that would make their stance on your side of the topic being discussed problematic and inconsistent with their policies.
Opponents need not remain opponents for the entire simulation. Sometimes the topic changes and sometimes a compromise can be found. Many enemies can be turned into allies if done right!
Model UN is a game won by consensus and while all delegates best case scenario is to be in the cabinet (resolution writers) most would still rather be in the coalition than the opposition. There is no rush to move towards everyone agreeing within the first hour, and often, taking time and proper planning will bring the best result.
Don’t forget the human element
Policy and draft resolutions will, at the end of the day, be pushed through by active delegates, not just the flag or country name. That is why advanced delegates don’t only research countries but also factor in the human element of Model UN and follow the golden rule.
Delegate ability > country
While countries are important, it is always the most proactive and competent delegates who are the ones leading the discussion and drafting the resolutions. It is those delegates to look out for and work with, or against.
If you are able to find a list of delegate names and recognize a name or institution that you know has strong delegate, they should probably get more attention when you research allies and opponents.
Current Statistics Data
Once we reach this step we should have a pretty good understanding of who we are, our UN committee and the world around us. However, what is usually most missing from delegates’ speeches is hard data to support what they say.
Embrace Hard Data
Be familiar with, and write down, current statistical data about your topic and country.
The names can be anything from the names of cities and regions to chemicals to treaties to politicians.
The numbers can range from GDP and Population to a country’s unemployment rate to the child mortality rate to the percentage of women in politics.
The key is to sprinkle this data, which is not obvious and shows your researched, throughout your speech to serve as support for your arguments. Hard data is more persuasive and separates the plausible from the unlikely. Persuading other delegates is much more difficult when it is not based on / supported by reality.
Tip from the masters: Specifically use numbers – Make sure to use at least one number in every speech. Numbers are harder to argue with and nine out of ten times when a delegate hears another delegate using many numbers they will take them at their word and want to work with this. Of course, this doesn’t compensate for good speeches and strategy but it goes a long way and will make your content much more effective.
Throughout your research, write down any number and names you think may be relevant and have them available. This quick sheet of numbers will be very useful when writing speeches on the fly. We come across many of these numbers and names throughout our research. However, our natural inclination is to read them, understand the general idea and forget the specifics. Overcoming this reflexive way we absorb information is why the current statistical data step is so important.
Sorting your information
Ideally, you should write down anything you think might be useful later, such as fact, figures and bullet points, to use during speeches and lobbying. This information will be found in each section. Also, sometimes research gold will randomly pop up so be ready.
Along with sorting the information, and taking notes, write down a few practical policies which come to mind while researching. The policies, which should lead to some form of improvement on the current status quo, should be based on your research and ideally be in the find resolution you pass. These policies, and their desired outcomes, should:
A. Solve the problem
B. According to your interests
C. In a way you think you can realistically achieve
Should we research anything else?
Review the Rules of Procedure
When you go to a new conference review the Rules of Procedure (RoP). While the principles are usually the same, sometimes they can be quite different.
The RoP is intended to create a level playing field and you may be at a disadvantage if you don’t know them, at least on a basic level. Some delegates use the rules of procedure as part of their strategy, but at the least you don’t want to be caught off guard by not knowing something basic. This could be a rule you are used to not existing or different phrasing such as one conference will say “Open to questions” instead of “Open to points on information”. Other differences can be how resolutions are introduced and discussed or were working papers don’t exist and delegates can only submit draft resolutions.
The rules of research, debate principles and strategies of Model United Nations are generally universal, the specific conference rules are not. It’s a pity to be at a disadvantage because of slightly varied RoP so much sure to brush up before each conference!
Where to find this information
We know what to look for and now we need to learn where. Below are a list of the top resources used by veteran Model UN delegates to build their country profiles and prepare their cases and policies.
The study guide – The study guide, or background guide, provided by the competition hosts is the best place to start your research. While not the place to end your research, as each country should seek its own path, it is usually a good place to start.
Wikipedia – While open to edits from anyone anytime, Wikipedia more editors, and faster updates, than almost any other online resource. Also, an excellent place to get started.
The last UN Resolution on the subject – The last resolution (or key treaty) on the topic being discussed will not only will this give you the most recent update on where the United Nations (or other body) stands on the issue but it can also give you phrasing and preambulatory clause ideas.
The CIA World Factbook – When looking for numbers and hard data, the CIA world factbook is probably the best place. However, it is also like a phone book and unless you know specifically what you’re looking for you can get lost.
BBC Country profiles – When looking for a quick history, BBC country profiles is probably the best resource on the internet.
The Observatory of Economic Complexity(OEC) – The OEC, is a gold mine when looking for updated numbers of international trade data, such as what a country produces or goods traded between countries. Developed at the MIT Media Lab, OEC presents useful macroeconomic information in a was that is easy to understand and use.
News Websites – BBC, CNN, France24, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, Fox News, the list goes on.
Weekly Editorials – Time, Newsweek and especially The Economist are great examples of qualitative weekly magazines that not only provide good hard data but also quality analysis through their editorial stance. Usually an article or two from one of these is better than an hour of research through other resources.
The United Nations Website – like the CIA World Factbook, the UN website can be hard to navigate to find what you are looking for if you are not sure what it is. At the same time, it is an excellent resource for information about the UN and also good to get ideas and inspiration for policies.
Specific committee website – Whether the European Union, the African Union, NATO or any other non-United Nations body being simulated, it is amazing how much you can learn from the official website. At the same time, bear in mind that official websites also leave out a lot, and sometimes gloss over some of the more nitty-gritty and less pretty details. You have a better chance of finding that information on the Weekly Editorials.
Foreign ministry website – Just as with the specific committee websites, the foreign ministry of the country you represent might have valuable information and, at the least, it will give you an idea of what kind of image it is trying to project.
Reports and Policy Recommendations – Whether NGO’s, Think Tanks, Academic Journals or UN reports, these policy recommendations are always based on research and data, some of which aren’t available to us or easy to find. While you should never feel bound by these, or obligated to lobby for them, these recommendations can be an excellent resource of what can be, should be or, depending on country, should not be done.
Random Internet Search Results – Sometimes the best information is not on any formal site and just a lucky click away. We suggest taking at least 10 minutes to just click around, who knows what random article or treaty will spark a new direction in your research.
The Library – In addition to resources you may find on the internet, you can also try the university or public library! (Yes, real books!) Books usually give an idea as to their content in the Table of Contents and can be useful for many types of research.
Biographies and Periodical Books – Especially useful for historical, crisis and Joint Cabinet Crisis (JCC) committees, fiction, and nonfiction, biographies and periodicals can really give the feeling of the times, as well as information about the incentives and challenges they faced. These books can be written about a country, an influential leader or a time period / event (ex: Ken Follett “Fall of Giants” or Peter the Great: His life and World by Robert K. Massie
There is no need to use all the resources above, and the best outcome will come from strategic use and a proper mix and match. The key is to know what information you are looking for when you write your speech and build your case. After your first few times
Methods of Preparation
There is no single right way to prepare for a Model UN conference. However, some methods of preparation are more effective than others and we can also get ideas from looking at what other effective delegates do.
Example #1 of advanced method of prep
1. Print, read and mark the study guide with a highlighter. Write notes with a pen if ideas come to mind.
2. Wikipedia about my country with a focus on major military, economic and political developments of the past year with a look at the past 10 years in direct relation to the topic being discussed.
3. Look at the council members list – See who are the other countries and lightly think who your obvious allies and opponents are (with flexibility because of all these changes based on who the stronger delegates are).
4. Jot down a few relevant treaties (for common ground purposes) and a few sensitive issues/mistakes other countries made (for leverage purposes)
5. Read at least two recent relevant articles in the economist. Preferably print and mark them in the same way you would the study guide.
Example #2 of advanced method of prep
1. Read the study guide headline and introduction paragraph.
2. Look at the last major treaties on the topic. Write down hard data and bullet points.
3. Read an article in Newsweek and one in The New York Times.
4. Look at other countries in the room. Base case on what type of policy can get a majority. Back up choice of policy with data from steps 1 – 3.
5. Look at what letter of the alphabet my country is. Prepare a speech to engage with the countries whose letters come before mine.
To Sum Up
With everything written above in mind, the final thing to keep in mind when it comes to Model UN research is to be extremely flexible and open to whatever comes. Model UN is a living, breathing thing. Sometimes the discussion will go in a different direction than we plan and sometimes a better interpretation of the topic will present itself. Always do the best you can but don’t get locked into your research. If a better option, policy or block comes along, while different from what you prepared for, recognize it and jump on. The best Model UN delegates are as flexible as they are researched and polished. After all, while research is the bedrock of Model UN effectiveness, it is flexibility, adaptability and the ability to make the most of any situation that truly embodies the spirit of negotiation and diplomacy.