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Set up your own General Assembly

Not joining Kyoto makes sense to me. It would be a lot larger sacrifice for the United States than for many others signed up to it. We would be doing all the work of reducing emissions. The repercussions on the world economy would be drastic."

The argument is worthy of the Bush administration but comes from Alessandro Capozzi, 16, of Skinners school, in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He played the role of the US in a recent Model United Nations General Assembly (MUNGA), which brought together more than a dozen schools in Tunbridge Wells.

Participants adopt the role of ambassadors from member countries. That involves knowing the countries' culture and standing up for "national" interests.

Jane Flynn, 18, of Tunbridge Wells girls' grammar school represented Afghanistan. She had to get to grips with the attitudes of a Muslim country and overcome the prejudice and ignorance of others.

"People don't realise how poor we are, and that we just can't implement a lot of the things on environment that they want. The government's task is first and foremost to run this crippled country and try to give it stability," she says, unconsciously slipping back into her diplomat's role.

Like other participants, she realises how difficult it is to solve the world's problems. The Tunbridge Wells MUNGA plenaries are formal affairs held in the town hall and involve up to 250 pupils from various schools who draw up and debate resolutions.

The purpose is the same as the real UN. Representatives try to get their own positions accepted by the other countries of the world through forceful and convincing arguments.

"It requires a lot of research to really know the country and to be in role," says Beverly Johnstone, an English teacher at Tunbridge Wells girls'

grammar who has been co-ordinating the model UN for many years.

The United Nations Association provides country information and briefing documents to schools and helps to organise speakers. Ms Johnstone has her own list of speakers, including local MPs and retired UN diplomats.

Climate change, refugees and water resources are among the most popular topics, but others include women's rights, child labour, the relationship between poverty and lack of education, and any political disputes before the real UN. Planning can start months in advance, but some topics are left to the last minute and there is always an almost improptu emergency debate on a hot topic of the moment.

Not all pupils take on the mantel of a country. Lorna Buky-Webster, 18, was head of the committee on climate change at the model UN and moderated the debate.

"I learned a lot about countries you never hear about in the news," she says.

Alessandro admits that he paid little attention to politics, but says the UN experience "catalysed something in me". He still turns to the sports pages first, but reads about politics now. He finds international news "fruity, larger-scale, somehow more appealing" than national politics.

Yojana Sharma For help in setting up a Model UN General Assembly or Security Council see: www.una-uk.org; email: education@una-uk.org

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