Diana Carlin may not know the answers for solving the ongoing strife, corruption and other problems facing Afghanistan.
But she knows the right questions to ask — and, more importantly, how to ask them.
Carlin, a Kansas University professor of communication studies, is busy teaching college students in the embattled Asian country the ins and outs of British parliamentary debate.
The goal: teach the country’s future leaders how to discuss, debate and ultimately decide — on their own — issues that will be critical for future success in their own lives, of communal institutions and even for Afghanistan itself.
“These are the kinds of skills that they need,” Carlin said. “This is a place that needs as much civil society assistance as anything right now. I really believe that, once the troops leave, these types of skills will be more and more important to keep the country moving forward.”
Carlin’s work is financed and organized by a nongovernmental organization interested in fostering leadership skills and building institutional strength in a country born 263 years ago but wracked by instability during much of the past four decades: a coup in 1973, a communist counter-coup in 1978, a Soviet invasion in 1979 (and withdrawal in 1989), a Taliban takeover in 1996 and, following the 9/11 terror attacks, arrival of a U.S.-led coalition. Then came a constitution and, in 2004, the country’s first democratically elected president.
Not that all is well. By contract, Carlin cannot identify the group because neither she nor the project’s organizers want to draw attention in a region where doctors and others working to build institutions have been kidnapped or killed.
“I’m realistic,” said Carlin, who keeps her travel plans discreet. “The threat level is higher there than if I’d go to Italy or China or Georgia.”
For now, she’s working safely with three universities in Afghanistan, each with 30 students — men and women — interested in learning the mechanics, strategies and potential for parliamentary debate. At least six more universities are lined up to participate, and Carlin figures the total could rise to 10 or 12 by June.
Helping Carlin educate the students are debaters from Washburn and Truman State universities, who were videotaped debating the following resolution: “Working while going to the university does more harm than good for students.”
“We stayed away from highly charged political issues,” Carlin said. “This is a pilot. This is an experiment. You don’t want to create major controversy out of this to begin with. You start in small steps.”
Parliamentary debate is considered among the most basic levels of such competition, an “extemporaneous” version that relies on quick thinking rather than voluminous research compiled over periods of weeks or months. Competitors don’t learn the topic of their debate until 30 minutes before it’s time to start talking.
And they do so in English, not Dari or Pashto or anything else.
“The students have caught on very quickly; they’re very highly motivated,” said Carlin, who plans to organize debate tournaments during her next visit. “They are very eager to improve their lot but, more importantly, they are very dedicated to their country’s future.”
The organization also has officials undergoing the training so that they’ll be able to expand the teaching of debate rules, styles and tactics to others in the country. Many of the participants in Carlin’s program are attorneys, bankers and officials in government ministries; one student already has run for parliament.
Through debate, they learn how to frame arguments, think logically and communicate clearly. In the end, they can better understand their opponents and their arguments, which can lead to more effective advocacy or, when appropriate, worthwhile compromise.
That’s valuable anywhere, but particularly in a place where a stable government struggles to emerge and endure.
“This is a part of the world where people don’t always see that there can be two sides to the same issue,” said Hodgie Bricke, assistant vice provost for international programs at Kansas University. “It seems to me this (program) is clearly a building block in creating a civil or a democratic society. Right is rarely on one side.”
Carlin is considered an expert in debate. She served 13 years on the Commission on Presidential Debates, the sponsor and producer of presidential debates in 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000. She founded DebateWatch, a project designed to improve the effectiveness of presidential debates for viewers. She also set up the first mayoral debates in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic.
Now she’s looking forward to returning to Afghanistan early next year to continue work designed to help students become leaders, governments become representative, and institutions become and remain effective.
“They see that whatever learning they can have, whatever skills they can develop, whatever resources they can get — to improve public policy, to improve whatever institutions they’re working for — they understand that if this helps them do that, then they’re all for it,” Carlin said. “They’re optimistic about their country’s future, and that’s been evident from very early on.”