Comment Editor Marino Unger-Verna sits down with Gideon Tay to talk about his start-up, Munbank, a fully-online Model UN (MUN) platform designed to increase the accessibility of MUN resources and events.
Roar: Could you tell us something about Munbank and its mission?
Gideon: I started Munbank while in school in early 2018. Its mission is to basically democratise access to MUN and enhance the MUN experience. It sounds a bit fancy, but basically we want to ensure that youth, regardless of where they live geographically or regardless of their financial ability, are able to access Model United Nations and benefit from it.
R: Could you tell me a little something about your background? What did you do before Munbank and why did you start the project?
G: I am part of the Model United Nations community here in Singapore, or at least I was part of it while still in school, and I guess one aspect of me was a bit disappointed, the first time I went to a conference, to realise that a MUN conference is actually not that international. You’re just meeting people from your area who are debating on these international issues. It is my belief that if you are debating on these international issues it is important to have international perspectives of people from around the world. I wanted to be able to create an avenue for international discussion and create understanding among youth.
R: Looking through your website there are tons of resources there, but the general theme seems to be inclusivity and accessibility. Regarding, for example, your Model UN programme, you allow those who cannot pay attendance fees to participate for free. How do you fund that, and has it led to the effects you were hoping to see?
G: Because Munbank is mostly online, operating costs are quite low. We can definitely afford to waive the fees for anyone who is unable to afford a registration fee. Usually, if someone sends an email we will accept it. It would be good if they provided some documentation, but generally, we will accept it – we take their word for it.
R: And that’s fantastic – it provides the full Model UN experience to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it. How did your recent conference in July go?
G: It was quite great. The demand was surprisingly high, I think we had over 80 delegates at the conference, from 26 different countries. Actually, we had to turn away I think close to 40 delegates who wanted to join due to capacity issues. We didn’t want to have too large councils and compromise the debate quality, so we are organising another one in December and hoping that more people can benefit from it.
R: So you’d say the demographic you’re reaching now is actually quite large. Would you say that Covid-19 has helped you find a larger audience as the pandemic continues and more events begin to move online?
G: It’s actually quite interesting; when I started Munbank in early 2018, the concept of online Model UN was quite unheard of, and a lot of people were quite baffled by it. It’s an interesting turn of events, how a lot of conferences are now moving online, and in fact, we have seen quite a few school-based MUNs approaching us via email for some advice on how to conduct online MUN conferences. I think Covid has definitely accelerated this trend.
R: That’s great! One thing I was wondering while reading about your conferences was how you accommodate those participants who may not have the strongest Internet connections? Are your conferences reliant on that? I could envision that being a barrier to entry for some participants who come from a smaller town with less reliable broadband.
G: I think, definitely, that there are limitations to our model in terms of increasing accessibility. I think Munbank solves it to a certain extent, but not completely. There are still people in the world who lack access to a stable Internet connection and are unable to participate fully, but I think generally – what we do in our conferences is: everybody mutes when they’re not talking, nobody has a video feed, so the bandwidth required isn’t that great. There’s only so much you can do.
R: How do you feel your Model UN conferences improve on the standard offline format? What do you offer other than the obvious online component?
G: Besides convenience, another aspect is that it’s more comfortable. What we have realised is a lot of delegates joining us for our MUN – being online and them being able to participate from the comfort of their own homes encourages them and allows them to build
their confidence slowly, compared to having to wear a suit, going to a large hall, and standing in front of a hundred people. Another key element that I think enhances the experience is the diversity of the councils. We always try to ensure there are a lot of different people from different backgrounds, different nationalities in each council, and this enriches debate. If you do go to a traditional conference, you usually end up with people in your locality with similar educational backgrounds, and there is little room for radically different perspectives. I think Munbank provides the solution to this issue.
R: You have, as one of your services, a portal featuring Model UN documents and resources for prospective members or people who want to break into the Model UN scene. How do you source those documents?
G: To be honest, our resource page is not fully updated. Some of our resources are quite old, but we source them via people who come forward and contribute them. From there, we vet for quality. A small team looks through the documents – if they are good example for people to follow, or good guides, we put them up on our website.
R: And obviously, that furthers the accessibility mission championed by Munbank. You also have a network of more traditional, school-based Model UN providers. How many conferences are you affiliated with, and what have their responses been like?
G: MB Network is kind-of a new idea, so it hasn’t been fully implemented. We’re still working on quite an informal basis with many of these MUN clubs and organisations, so I wouldn’t say we’re officially affiliated with any conference yet, but it is our hope that, though MB Network, we will be able to support schools and further empower them to spread MUN and its benefits.
R: Continuing on from that, you grew from one council with 10 delegates from 6 nationalities in 2018 to, as you said, 4 councils with 80 delegates from 26 nationalities in 2020. What growth do you project, and then also what would you say your plan is for the future? What issues do you want to tackle, or what things do you want to bring to Munbank in the next 5-10 years?
G: In terms of growth, I’m hoping for our next conference in December to have 120 delegates, but I’m not sure if that is possible, given that – you know, usually more people around the world are free during the summer compared to the winter edition of the conference. But that’s our target. If you’re talking about 5-10 years, honestly, I’m not very sure. We’re sort-of going with the flow and seeing how things work out over time. One element we would definitely like to see grow is our connections and partnerships with more traditional organisations like clubs in schools. We’d like to work through them and more closely with them.
R: So you’d like to do more student outreach?
G: Yes, exactly.
R: One last question: What advice would you give to prospective student entrepreneurs or even just entrepreneurs in general?
G: I think the first piece of advice I’d give would be, no matter what your idea is, there will usually be a lot of people who will doubt it, such as, you know, this idea of a fully-fledged online conference. A lot of people in the MUN circle doubted it when I first threw out the idea in 2018, and it worked out beautifully. So one thing is if you believe that a model works, just go for it. A second thing would be: it is much harder than you would expect, especially publicity-wise. Honestly, I started Munbank sort-of by accident. I didn’t really intend it to grow so much, it was just a fun side project I started out of boredom and wanting to improve the MUN experience. I think as long as you are interested in what you are doing, your project can surprise you in terms of its success.
You can read more about Munbank and sign up for one of its upcoming conferences here.