Remarks by Ambassador Michael Raynor at the First Ethiopia Debates! Final Competition and Closing Ceremony

Michael Raynor 
U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia
at the First Ethiopia Debates! Final Competition and Closing Ceremony
Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa
August 21, 2019

(As prepared for delivery)  

Your Excellencies,

Good afternoon, and thank you all for being here for the first-ever Ethiopia Debates! final competition and closing ceremony.

I’m very pleased and honored to be a part of this wonderful occasion, and to recognize the hard work and achievements of the university students who are with us here today.

Let’s start by giving them all an enthusiastic round of applause.

This competition has involved more than 350 participants from 14 universities throughout Ethiopia.

These student leaders are some of the brightest stars in Ethiopia, from some of the finest higher education institutions in the country.

And they’ve accomplished amazing things.

It’s not easy to debate a controversial topic in front of an audience – especially in English – but these students have done a fantastic job, and I’m so proud of them.

To help Ethiopia’s young people secure the future they envision for themselves and their communities, we partnered with the Center for Community Development and with coaches from each university to build top-notch speaking and debating skills through rigorous workshops and competitions.

Today, after months of honing their public speaking and critical thinking skills, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to recognize the participants and to celebrate their achievements.

But allow me to take a step back and address a broader question:  why is the United States sponsoring this program in the first place?

In part, it’s because we believe that debates teach young people critical intellectual, interpersonal, and life skills.

But even more importantly, we strongly believe that the skills of principled debate are foundational to a thriving and robust democracy.

Debates allow participants to develop what some have called the “4Cs” of 21st century skills:  communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.

And I would add a fifth “C” to that list:  civic participation, which I’ll save for last, because in many ways it’s the most important “C” for the extraordinary moment in which Ethiopia now finds itself.

Let’s start by talking about the first ‘C’: Communication.

Debates teach participants how to communicate their positions clearly and effectively to a diverse audience.

And because English is the global language of communication, it was important that this competition highlight the effective use of English language skills, which also can expand students’ employment and leadership opportunities in the future.

Debates also encourage both the competitors and their audiences to think critically, the second ‘C.’

Critical thinking skills are in high demand in the workplace today, and are more essential than ever in political and social life as well, as we’re all bombarded with different and sometimes conflicting messages from the internet, social media platforms, traditional news outlets, friends, and families.

In a democracy, we want and need to hear a range of views and voices, and those views and voices that challenge our own beliefs and preconceptions are especially important.

At the same time, however, we need strong critical thinking skills to evaluate all of that information wisely, and to separate fact from fiction.

Debates require participants to gather facts and evidence to support their arguments; to consider different points of view to determine how valid they are; to identify weaknesses or omissions in the opposing side’s arguments; and to make the most rational and persuasive case possible to win the debate.

At the same time, debates also ask the audience members to weigh both sides of each issue, and to exercise their critical thinking skills to decide which argument is the most convincing.

As for the third ‘C’, debates foster creativity.

To succeed in any debate, you need to be a creative thinker.

You have to think on your feet.

You need to identify the gaps in your opponent’s argument even as your opponent is making that argument, and you need to quickly think of ways to highlight and exploit those gaps.

You have to be able to offer ideas and proposals that have not been considered before, and you need to be creative in discussing complex political, economic, or social issues in ways that audiences find engaging, persuasive, and easy to follow.

The fourth ‘C’ – collaboration – is also critically important.

Collaboration provides everyone with equal opportunities to contribute and communicate their ideas.

No one of us has all the good ideas.

And while competitions like today’s can be fun and highly motivating, in the long run we all achieve so much more when we work together to achieve a common goal.

By collaborating, we can use everyone’s knowledge, experience, feedback, and skills, and through this process, we will always achieve more thoughtful, relevant, inclusive, and ultimately better outcomes.

I mentioned earlier that I’m adding a fifth ‘C’ to the list, because debates are also about civic awareness and engagement, which are particularly relevant in Ethiopia and the world today.

Debates offers us a model for how we can effectively engage in our society and democracy more broadly.

By encouraging young leaders to discuss challenging public policy questions, and to do so in ways that are not only persuasive but also tolerant and respectful, we hope to nurture a new generation of civic-minded citizens who will lead their great country forward.

Ethiopia currently finds itself at a unique moment in time, and in history.

This country is in the midst of a reform program that is unlike anything the world has seen before, in terms of its speed, scope, and ambition to improve just about every facet of Ethiopia’s economic, political, and social life.

These reforms offer the prospect of achieving what so many Ethiopians tell us they have always wanted for their country:  the scope for greater political engagement and economic opportunity, and the chance to build their country’s long-term peace and stability.

But for these reforms to succeed as quickly and fully as possible, all Ethiopians – and especially young Ethiopians like the ones we will see debate today – must take their country forward in a thoughtful and inclusive way.

Toward that end, I’d like to highlight three messages that I hope Ethiopians throughout the country, as well as the Ethiopian diaspora worldwide, will draw from this debate competition.

The first lesson is to speak up and offer constructive comments to help shape your country’s future.

The students we’ll see today will show us how to present different points of view; how to respectfully hear others’ arguments; and how to respond calmly and constructively.

Debates expand our minds, increase our understanding of multiple sides of important issues, and enable us to relate better to others.

They teach us not only to promote our own points of view, but to understand and respect other points of view as well.

And that’s what we need today, not only in Ethiopia, but in the United States and throughout the world.

As all of us tackle our countries’ challenges in the days ahead, a winner-take-all approach will never be the best or the most durable answer.

It’s fine for us to peacefully and constructively advocate for our own interests.

In fact, in a democracy it’s essential that we advocate for our interests, and it’s equally essential that we be guaranteed the freedom to do so.

But at the same time, democracies require give-and-take, accepting compromises, and recognizing that prioritizing our common interests will also, over time, maximize our individual interests as well.

Being in a democracy doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone about everything; in fact, it means accepting and appreciating that we won’t agree on everything.

But it also means taking the time to understand each other’s perspectives and priorities, and working hard to find common ground.

In this new era of opportunity, everyone must take personal responsibility for their words and actions.

Freedom of speech – freedom to debate – is one of the most cherished of universal rights, but it comes with a solemn obligation to use that freedom constructively, without inciting violence or hatred.

Focusing on narrow self-interest or short-term gain won’t benefit any of us in the long run, and it certainly won’t benefit our countries or our world.

The second message I hope you draw from this debate competition is to make informed decisions.

As we look ahead to Ethiopia’s upcoming elections and democratic future, voters must take the time to understand the issues their country faces, and the policy platforms of the different candidates and political parties, so that they can make informed decisions about which candidates and positions to support.

In a democracy, the people themselves decide which issues matter the most, and they have both the power and the obligation to hold those running for office accountable for explaining how they’ll address those issues.

So I encourage all Ethiopians, and Americans for that matter, to follow the example set by our talented and persuasive debaters here today: gather information; see what positions candidates take on important issues; ask them to lay out their vision for your country; and make an educated decision on who you think is best suited to lead your country forward.

And the third message is to stay engaged and do your part to ensure Ethiopia succeeds.

Be an active part of the positive change you want to bring to your country.

The debate participants here today embody the future of Ethiopia:  young people who are socially aware, community-minded, and exchanging ideas to lead their country forward.

Each of us is responsible for creating the society we want to live in.

It’s hard work, and it’s never-ending work.

So I urge you to get started:  get involved and participate in efforts to promote progress and prosperity in your communities and across your country.

That’s what Ethiopia needs now more than ever: Ethiopians of all ages who are working together to solve problems, make improvements, and bring about real and lasting change.

The young leaders here with us today demonstrate everything that’s needed for Ethiopia to succeed.

They show us how discussing issues constructively; thinking critically; respectfully considering all sides of an issue; and remaining civically engaged will lead this country to a more inclusive, prosperous, and secure future.

They’re showing their willingness to do the hard work of building the bright future that all Ethiopians deserve.

And as Ethiopians build that bright future, the United States remains their committed partner.

Indeed, the United States is committed to supporting all Ethiopians who share a vision of a democratic, stable, and prosperous future for this country.

We share that vision because a democratic, stable, and prosperous Ethiopia is not only in the best interests of 110 million Ethiopians, but also because it makes Ethiopia an even stronger partner for the United States; an anchor of democracy, prosperity, and stability in a volatile region; and an example of the opportunities awaiting any country anywhere, when it commits itself to promoting and defending the best interests of its people.

Thank you all again for being here this afternoon.

My sincerest congratulations to all of the wonderful participants in this first-ever Ethiopia Debates! competition.

And my sincerest admiration and gratitude to them and to every Ethiopian who recognizes that they are living in a moment of unprecedented and unsurpassed opportunity for their country, and who are committed to using this opportunity to ensure Ethiopia’s success — for themselves and for all Ethiopians.

Thank you.

###