Debating for Development: Why we need to learn how to argue our corner  

Published on 16 December 2020

Marcela Gomez Valdes

We live in a world where it feels increasingly vital to stand up and make the case for the positive changes we want to see whether that’s protecting rights or securing our wellbeing. International development finds itself in an increasingly precarious position, from grassroots civil and women’s rights Movements being supressed by increasingly authoritarian governments, to the nationalist ideologies steering countries’ foreign and domestic policy, to Trump pulling out of the WHO and Paris Climate agreement, to rising levels of multidimensional inequality significantly threaten people’s wellbeing. 

It is clear that the validity of foundational principles that international development is built upon have come into question and are even in danger of being lost forever. It is not enough anymore for development actors to merely speak truth to power; what counts is how convincing they are in presenting and speaking that truth. 

Against this backdrop, it is vital that development practitioners build their confidence in articulating their case, honing their skills to make their voices heard and their ability to inform others. This means debating skills are an increasingly invaluable part of any development practitioner’s arsenal.  

Communicating development outside our bubble

It is common to hear that those who work in development operate in a bubble, sharing similar opinions to their peers from having worked and studied together. Being around like-minded people is fantastic for creating an environment of academic excellence or for nurturing the production of high-level development research. The problem is when you step outside of the bubble and interact with politicians or local stakeholders, citizens or community groups, local businesses or a special interest group. They will have entirely different experiences, will be from different socio/economic contexts and therefore have different interpretation of what development objectives should be.  

We can see examples of these opposing positions today, climate crisis scientists and activists opposed to new drilling licenses in Arctic refuges.  To global health practitioners arguing for full transparency from pharmaceutical firms and for Covid-19 vaccines that are profit free and accessible for low-income countries. To the UK Government’s recent announcement that the amount they earmark for spending development aid will be cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income 

Navigating difference to explain development approaches

The last example is a powerful illustration of how important debating skills are in development practise. On the one hand, the UK government has made a strong case to reduce aid spending to allow for the economic impact from Covid-19.  Why, when resources are stretched thin and times are hard here at home should UK taxpayers give away over £15 billion a year to often ineffective governments, NGOs and researchers?   

So, how would you rebut this argument? How would you convince a politician, member of the public or just someone outside of development circles that foreign aid spending is worthwhile?  Could you talk about the development spending being a great tool of soft power putting the UK in a better lobbying position on the global stage for example? Could you argue from a securitisation standpoint saying how aid makes the world a safer place for everyone including people in the UK? Or could you argue how tackling poverty as being part of our moral duty in UK global leadership? While there may be evidence to back up all of these, what often counts is how well you present and argue the evidence.  

Debating for development at IDS

In a recent IDS programme, we ran a series of debating workshops lead by Marcela Gomez, an expert in unruly politics and women’s and LGBTQ+ movements, and a professional debater, who has been a semi-finalist in the World Debating Championship 2019 and winner of 11 international tournaments in British Parliamentary debating.   

The aim of the workshops was to equip both IDS students and staff with a foundation knowledge of debating skills such as a solid understanding of argumentation understood as the course of reasoning aimed at demonstrating a truth or falsehood; the methodical process of logical reasoning. Other skills such as the confidence to speak in public, eloquently articulating your opinion, building a logical argument, learning how to read an audience and, the ability to hear and respond to what others are saying were all skills taught in the workshops.  

During the process, it became evident how important it was to include only the most relevant examples and evidence to make a case, taking into account what formats would have greatest resonance with a target audience.  The importance of considering the audience also stretches to taking time to acknowledge the strengths of the opposing side’s arguments, in order to know how to best engage with it and be comparative.  This enables the speaker to then rebut an opposing opinion while also be better prepared for criticism.   

The workshops were followed by the IDS Winter Debate 2020 which gave students a chance to put their news skills into practise.  Alongside Marcela, Rubén Sánchez, a competitive debater with a background in development and sub-champion of the World Universities Debating Championship in the English as Foreign Language category 2020, gave feedback to students on how they debated during this event and what skills they need to develop further as development practitioners.  

The first IDS debating series made clear that in reality it is rare for people to feel immediately confident speaking in public. This includes feeling able, without preparation to clearly express complex or abstract ideas then connect with an audience and withstand criticism to their arguments.  

This makes it vital that development practitioners invest in their debating skills. It is important both to sharing knowledge and informing others, but also to countering the potential for prejudice where those who have less debating experience or are less used to arguing their case, may feel unable to make their voices heard. 

Five lessons on expert debating:

  1. Information needs to be strategically prioritized and chosen. When debating in favour or against a topic there is multiple information that can be used to build a case. However, there are always time or length restrictions, so it is not possible to include everything with enough depth. Be sure to identify the best arguments, theories, evidence, or examples in order to be able to explain them thoroughly. 
  2. Cases need to be constructed in a comparative way. It is important to keep in mind that, when debating, there is always a comparison to be made. Debaters want to prove that their side is better than the other, has more benefits than the other, or is less damaging than the other. Thus, arguments, benefits, or consequences of a side cannot be explained and presented in isolation; they must be analysed in comparison to the other sides 
  3. Trade-offs need to be acknowledged. When debating, recognise that both sides have certain benefits and both sides have certain negative consequences. What debaters need to prove is that their side of the argument presents more or greater benefits and less serious consequences, while the other side presents less benefits and more significant consequences. Presenting one’s case as flawless and the opposing side’s as completely problematic, is less persuasive that acknowledging benefits and consequences in both sides and weighing them.  
  4. It is important to analyse the other side’s best-case scenario. It can be tempting to exclusively engage with the other side’s worst-scenario, addressing the most consequences or the most of their case and presenting it in a catastrophic way. The most persuasive thing to do may in fact be to engage with the best scenario of the other side. 
  5. Analysis to prove why one’s arguments are the most important for a debate is necessary. In good debates, both sides of the house tend to demonstrate that there are benefits on their side as well as consequences on the other side.