Should the youth in Armenia emigrate to find greater opportunities? Should the government regulate social media to protect citizens online? Are connections more important than education and experience for youth to succeed? These are just a few of the pressing issues that Armenian youth debated as part of NDI Armenia’s Debathon youth debate program.
In recent years, as political polarization deepened and a series of crises tested the resilience of Armenia’s democracy, NDI introduced a youth debate program that participants named “Debathon.” Youth from all ten regions of Armenia without any political affiliation participated, supplementing NDI Armenia’s extensive work with party youth. NDI public opinion research shows that among Armenians 18 to 29 years old, only 25% of Armenian youth are interested in politics, but 67% believed they could influence decisions that are made in the country and 40% of youth want to be civically active in other ways. In other words, although Armenia’s young people do not view formal politics as a path through which change can be achieved, they do believe they can influence decision-making and that solutions can be achieved informally, locally and through activism.
Debathon provides the ideal platform to build the necessary skills for non-affiliated youth to better advocate for political needs as activists. An assessment conducted after the program found that 75% of Debathon Alumni reported that they had increased their participation in informal politics since participating in the program and a majority of Debathon alumni, 54%, indicated that their involvement with political parties had also increased. A Debathon participant from the Ararat region said, “Debathon is by far the best experience I had, and I will use my debate skills when raising youth issues in my community.”
Debathon also represents a rare opportunity to strengthen the culture of respectful and fact-based political dialogue in Armenia, which is often missing from national political debates. Debathon highlighted the importance and benefit of having policy-driven conversations and showcased that disagreement is possible without using heated political rhetoric. Topics were identified based on the findings of the Armenian youth survey and included immigration, nepotism, social media regulation, education, and youth political inclusion.
The debates were conducted both online and in person and were live-streamed through social media. To date, the live streams and associated videos have accrued over 6,000 views. The participants worked with online international experts from the US, Taiwan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Sweden, and Albania to learn more about their debate topics. The experts were able to share their extensive professional experiences in their respective fields, reference data and source materials, gave international and national examples and provided a broad introduction to the debate topics.
Participants were able to practice the skills needed to bolster their ability to advance their social activism and political engagement in local communities. These skills include public speaking, conducting and incorporating research, teamwork and strategy, advocacy, message development and anticipating, countering and cross-examining opponents. After lively online debates, the top three scoring teams advanced to the in-person semi-finals and finals, which took place on November 29-30, 2022 at the American University of Armenia. The judges included the USAID Armenia deputy mission director, the Ambassador of Sweden to Armenia and a well-known TV anchor from the Public TV of Armenia. The Ambassador of Sweden, Patrik Svensson, commented that “The diversity of sources and research the teams used was very impressive.”
This was the program's second iteration with the third Debathon set to take place in 2023. With more than 50 alumni to date, Debathon will continue and expand its network throughout Armenia - including through the organization of a series of regional debates.
Author: NDI Armenia Political parties team: Vardam Partamyan, Senior Program Manager; Milena Babaeva, Program Officer; Irina Yesayan, Program Officer
NDI’s engagement with this program is implemented with support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) program.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.