Knowledge in debates: Motion Review Amsterdam Open

doorNederlandse Debatbond

Knowledge in debates: Motion Review Amsterdam Open

by Matt Hazell

Many motions in debating will have proper nouns in them, and examples are always useful in these cases. However, you can never win or lose in BP debating via example alone. The purpose of outside knowledge in debates is to illustrate the arguments you are making. Importantly this means that facts, without good logical analysis underpinning them, are of little merit. In this article we will look at one specific motion set at the Amsterdam Open 2018, and look at how to approach this seemingly technical debate without knowing much at all. The motion is as follows:

Info slide:

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) consist of loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to countries that experienced economic crises. The IMF requires borrowing countries to implement certain policies (e.g austerity measures, reducing trade tariffs etc) in order to receive these loans (or to lower interest rates on existing ones).


This House Believes that the IMF should pay reparations to countries that experienced severe economic hardship as a consequence of IMF restructuring programs

General Approach

Firstly – don’t panic! Remember that in debating, teams do not win or lose on the “truth” of their arguments. It is impossible to determine, within the confines of a BP debate at least, what the specific effect of a motion will be. Rather your aim as a speaker is to persuade the judges that it is plausible that a certain thing will happen. Whether or not that is true in real life, in debating anything you can construct sensible reasons for can be weighed in the debate. The average reasonable voter does not have a PhD in economics! You can say things that will have economic theorists like Keynes turning in their graves and still get an 87.

When approaching a motion you aren’t sure you know much about, the first thing to remember is that you probably know more than you think. You probably know that the IMF is an organisation that provides loans to countries that are undergoing severe economic crises. Often these loans are tied to specific conditions (this fact is given in the info slide as well as examples of such conditions). You also probably know (or can infer) that it is primarily backed by western countries, because those countries are the wealthiest.

From these basics, and a general understanding of the world in general , we can construct relatively compelling prop and opp cases.

Broad Clashes

As either team in the debate, it is always useful to work out what both sides are likely to agree upon. Namely that the IMF is in general a useful institution and we would like to preserve its capacity to act in future economic crises. Given that, we can predict that the two broad areas of clash in this debate are likely to be:

1) Countries that have experienced economic hardship as a result of IMF policies:

  • Moral culpability of IMF
    • Did they know hardship would result? Does it matter?
    • Did counties accept this risk when they agreed to the loan? Did they have a choice?
    • In the counterfactual (the world were the IMF did not give them the loan) would things have been better? Does this matter for assigning moral culpability?
  • Utility of reparations
    • Will they help the economy or cause further damage?
    • Will they go to the right people?

2) Effect this has on future IMF policy

  • Simple cost argument – these reparations will cost a lot of money!
  • Will the IMF be more hesitant to offer loans in the future?
    • Is greater scrutiny before loaning necessarily a bad thing?
    • Will this result in changing the nature of the loans given?
  • Donors and controlling powers of the IMF – does this affect their willingness to provide capital?

Importantly, these two themes of argumentation can work separately from each other. For example, prop could argue that the moral culpability of the IMF means that it does not matter if the organisation is bankrupted by this policy and unable to give loans in the future. Similarly, opp could agree that the IMF has harmed these countries but that its role as a stabilising influence on the world economy is too important to lose. If either side wants to win then they need to provide good reasons (i.e weighing) as to why we should care more about one set of arguments than the other. In reality, it is always a good tactic to engage in both areas of clash, as well as explaining why the one you are focussing on is the most important clash.

Now let’s look at what each individual team might want to argue, without using specialist knowledge.


If you are OG, you probably want to define the motion. If you know very little, it is better to be broader and vaguer than trying to be very specific and missing the point. In this case you need to define:

  • How you will decide which countries this applies to
  • What the nature of the reparations will be

An independent panel of economic experts is probably best suited to decide which countries deserve reparations. Reparations in the form of direct cash transfers to either governments or individual citizens works well here. The second part is probably more contentious: who do you give the money to?  Governments will give the advantage of you arguing this money will be used sensibly to develop the economy, e.g infrastructure projects etc; but are also at risk of corruption / vanity projects. Individual citizens may use the money in a manner that doesn’t help the economy, and could potentially lead to local inflation. In any case, you want this decided quickly so you can get on to arguments.

The first prop argument you will likely want to make is the principle of culpability. The IMF gave money to desperate countries and imposed specific economic conditions on them. As a result these countries experienced hardship. You can argue that A) the IMF did this with bad intentions, or without full diligence (e.g things like reduced tariffs were imposed to benefit the economies of the IMF’s international backers) or B) it doesn’t matter whether the IMF knew this would happen or not, because the end result is the same.

We might also want to argue that these conditions were imposed under pressure – the counties did not have a meaningful option to not accept these deals, due to their financial collapse. This means they did not fully consent to the conditions attached, and so were incapable of performing their own due diligence.

We may also want to argue that, if the countries had not taken IMF loans, they would be materially better than if they had done. This argument can be made to sound plausible even if you know nothing or that it is factually untrue in the real world. We can do this by claiming things like:

  • Often financial crises are temporary, and governments are pressured into accepting bailouts prematurely
  • Other parties would have eventually offered help, and with fewer conditions (e.g by wiping out/reducing debt obligations, direct bailouts etc)
  • A direct claim to fact that the result of these conditions led to irreparable damage to industries (for example  no protections meant multinational companies now own all the natural resource extraction rights)

Reparations are a proportionate and fair recompense for this because they will make the country richer. Governments can use this money to directly reimburse those who lost out due to the IMF programs, or to grow the economy presently. We can also argue that one of the biggest harms of the IMF program was that it stripped the countries of their own autonomy in decision making – hence giving them money with no strings attached is the only fair solution.

On the second set of arguments, about the future of the IMF, we may want to say things like:

  • This makes the IMF more accountable – it cannot simply offer loans and forget about the country afterwards. This means the IMF will offer better loans in the future.
  • Countries are increasingly turning to other sources of aid, e.g money from Russia/China, as they lose confidence in the IMF and the conditions attached to the aid they give. These alternatives might be bad as
    • The IMF has less influence over them.
    • The conditions attached are often political, rather than economic. This makes them seem good short term but are not long term, as China expects support at the UN or to place military bases in these countries (this may or may not be true, but can plausibly be said in the debate)

These arguments can all be made from first principles and very limited knowledge of the world, and cover many of the bases in this debate.


Opp have a tactical choice in what arguments they want to prioritise in this debate. I think a good approach is to think about which clashes are easier to win on, and prioritise them. For example, prop have reasonable fiat to exclude countries that were primarily harmed by other things (governmental policy, commodity price drops (e.g oil)). This means that it is probably true that the IMF definitely caused economic hardship to these countries. It will be hard to win on culpability.

However, this does not mean you should ignore this area of the debate. A good approach is to try and make parts of the debate you can’t win on sufficiently messy that the other side can’t win on them either. Hence, we want to claim things like:

  • The IMF acted in good faith and therefore aren’t accountable, even if harm resulted
  • Other actors would have stepped in and made it worse (e.g China, private organisations)
  • Even in the cases where harm was done, it is hard to pin it on the IMF alone – often a multitude of factors contributed to this.

Hence, even if the judge does not entirely believe you, there is sufficient doubt in their mind as to whether culpability is absolute and so they will be unlikely to award the debate on these grounds alone.

The next step in this analysis is to explain that, given you cannot definitively assign moral blame, the overriding concern should be the ability of the IMF to act in a useful capacity in the future. This is because, though harm was done in the past, the primary function of the IMF is to prevent future harms. If the IMF is unable to do this then a) more harm will accrue to more people as financial crashes spread more rapidly, or b) other worse actors will provide these loans.

Now it is incumbent on you to explain who these other actors are and why they are worse, and how exactly the IMF will lose the ability to fund things in future. For example:

  • Cost argument – this will cost trillions of dollars to have any meaningful effect
  • Some of the countries that were harmed by the IMF have since recovered, and so international donors will buy in less as the money doesn’t seem to be going where it is needed.
  • International donors to the IMF don’t want to expose themselves to future risk (maybe diplomatic as opposed to direct financial responsibility) for IMF projects that go sour.

Other arguments you could make are that these changes in the IMF (if the organisation continues to exist), are very damaging:

  • If the IMF becomes a lot more risk-averse, they could refuse loans to the countries who would need it the most. Those nations would have to have very big policy changes to make it viable for the IMF to loan to them, but the IMF no longer wants to loan to the riskiest cases because it could backfire a lot.
  • The reparations paid to the nations are going to backfire and create more corruption or other issues: making the problems to countries even worse than they were before.  

With this done, you have a solid two-pronged approach to the debate that will serve you well.


Of course examples and specific knowledge is useful in a debate, but their absence doesn’t mean you are automatically going to lose the debate! Most debates have a set of clashes that can be derived from logic alone, and the arguments can be made based on very limited information about the real world. A useful tactic against teams that know a lot is to claim the inverse of their arguments (with some analytic reasons as to why) and then side-step them by claiming their arguments are unimportant or less relevant than yours. The brunt of this work will be done not by factual arguments but by logical reasoning.

Some Case Studies

You might have got to the end of this and wondered, “that is all well and good but what if I do want some knowledge?” Well, here are some handy articles to get up to speed on the IMF and some of the examples that are most relevant to the debate:

The IMF in its own words:

Opinion piece/explainer on how Structural Adjustment Funds can cause poverty:

Simple explainer of criticism of IMF loans:

Short article explaining some negative consequences of IMF Policy:

Article on the Asian Financial Crisis and how the IMF contributed to it:

Website dedicated to critiques of IMF (and WB):

Article on the evaluation of the IMF about the policies in 1990’s in Argentina:

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Nederlandse Debatbond administrator

De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.