Background Guides

Conference topics are introduced through background guides, documents that range in format from 3-4 page introductions to the discussion, to deeper analyses that better introduce the topic, give insight into the history or controversy, and give a sense of what has been done to try to solve the problem.

How to Use Background Guides

Background guides offer a great opportunity to hear from your committee director about the issues s/he thinks are important to the discussion.  While a topic might be titled “Economic Development”, in reality, the topic might focus around a certain region, population, or even a certain form of economic development.  Background guides or “briefs” are structured differently at different conferences, but they all provide the following basic information:

  • Introduction: The introduction or Policy Dilemma is the part of the brief that lays out the problem.  It explains what the issue is, why it needs to be addressed, and likely offers some sense of just how quickly it needs attention.  The introduction is probably the most important section of the brief, as it structures the conversation that will happen at the conference.
  • Discussion Questions:  Very often briefs will include discussion questions at the back to provide an even stronger framework for discussion.  The goal of this section is to make you think about the issue in the context of your delegation and to start formulating solutions.  Basic questions like “how has this issue affected your nation?” are not the most effective — instead, focus on the ones that ask deeper, more thought-provoking questions.  While your position paper should not merely be a set of answers to these questions, this is a good place to look when you start collecting your thoughts.  Better yet, read these immediately after you read the introduction so that you can use the questions as a reading guide.
  • Recent History or Chronology: This section should provide a brief history of the issue.  Is this something that has plagued society from the Middle Ages or is it a more recent phenomenon?  This are should also include important or relevant UN Resolutions and other international actions.
  • Possible Causes: Similar to the recent history section, this part of the brief helps to identify what caused the problem.  Is it because of ongoing famine in Sub-Saharan Africa?  Has regional political turmoil destabilized Southeast Asia?  Have migratory patters shifted placing a stronger burden on indigenous populations?  Stated simply, you cannot solve a problem without first knowing the cause.  Addressing symptoms might offer short-term benefits, but it will not solve the problem.

What the Background Guide Is Not

The background guide is the the most important place to start your research and preparation for a conference, however it cannot be your final stop.  Use the briefs as a springboard to begin your research.  Your director has written this brief as a means of explaining the topic, but not to solve it.  Look at the historical events they discuss and try to develop your own understanding of what caused the problem.  Reread the Policy Dilemma or introduction so that you can better grasp why your committee will even be talking about this topic in the first place.

Once you’ve gotten a handle around the issue, then start your own research, focusing on the experiences and needs of your own delegation.  This is the part of the process where you can start to make real connections and internalize the issues under deliberation.

Finally, contact your director and ask questions.  A good director is someone who presents issues in a well-organized, thought out structure — but also someone who will answer your questions and be proactive about offering new insight, updating new developments, and even helping you find the best place to conduct your research.