Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: January 2009

country X

In a few weeks I will be traveling to Canberra to work with AusAID.  There I will be running a group of up to twenty participants through two days of Carana.  The idea is to not only introduce them to this teaching tool we have developed, but to get their creative juices flowing – AusAID would like to develop their own fictional country for use in their training course.  I really can’t think of a better way to get people energized and motivated about writing their own simulation exercise than running them through one.  At the end of every run of Carana, we get lots of comments, emails and even stopped in the halls to chat about the simulation – all resulting in lots of suggestions for how to improve it.  I’m pretty sure that the AusAID folks will be itching to come up with their own fictional country after two days of Carana.  I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with for what is tentatively being called “Country X”.

bringing the 8th continent to Africa and the Middle-East

Next week I will be helping to teach our core operations course on working in fragile and conflict-affected states at a regional training in Tunis for the Middle-East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa regions of the Bank.  In the course we will be running Carana for the sixth time for an expected 28 participants, meaning we’ll have another three teams of Carana spinning off into their own universes.  I will update here with some brief observations on the experience and outcomes. 


Sample of a badge given to participants in the Carana simulation

Sample of a badge given to participants in the Carana simulation

Carana is a fictional country on the 8th continent developed originally by the UNDP for their training exercises and now the country used in our simulation exercise for post-conflict recovery planning.  We use the simulation in our core course on working in fragile and conflict-affected states and have enjoyed great success with it.

In the Carana simulation, 7 to 10 participants take on the roles of President, Prime Minister, Special Representative of the Secretary General, World Bank Country Manager, Union Leader and other ministers and international organization representatives.  With fewer than 10 participants, we drop the Prime Minister, Union Leader and Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (DSRSG) successively.

Each role is given different information about the condition and needs of Carana and the participants must work together to create an action plan for Carana’s recovery, including choosing from among more than 50 actions, determining what the size and composition of the combined army will look like, setting priorities when everything seems important and getting all this within their aid envelope.   All of this happens in about 16 hours over the four day course.  We challenge the participants with incomplete information, every one starts with a piece of the puzzle, but we never given them incentives to lie or withhold information from each other – it turns out it is difficult enough communicating and prioritizing in the limited time they have without us pitting the participants against each other (no matter how much more realistic it might be).

The simulation is used to teach the basic risks associated with post-conflict recovery planning, to give the course participants an opportunity to employ their knowledge gained from the operations course and to provide a sandbox where participants can safely experiment and discuss hypotheticals about what would and wouldn’t work in post-conflict recovery.

It is very engaging for the participants and great fun to run, we usually have three concurrent Caranas running simultaneously during the course – accommodating up to 30 participants.  To me, one of the most fascinating elements of the exercise is seeing how differently each Carana turns out after starting at essentially identical starting points.  There is no better reminder that we work in a social science than seeing how who is involved determines what happens.

simple sims

Sometimes even very simple simulations can sometimes be quite effective at getting a point across. In my introductory development course, I use an hour-long simulation-cum-game show to illustrate the ways in which the shift from subsistence to cash crop agriculture can have effects on everything from land distribution to gender relations to the contours of social and political power. In my upper-level peacebuilding course, I use a very short version of the ultimatum game to highlight how negotiations are rarely a simple case of (material) utility maximization, but are also shaped by normative perceptions of “fairness” and “justice.”

Surfing the web for content for this website, I came across something very simple that also gets a key point across: the Silent Majority development simulation. On the face of it, it is a very short (25 minute) role-playing exercise in which participants representing an NGO, a funding agency, the local mayor, an urban woman, and a rural woman are asking to discuss possible drinking water projects. The “rural woman” is given secret instructions, however, to only answer direct questions, and to only speak when spoken to. The purpose is to highlight some of the challenges of stakeholder consultation with disadvantaged and subaltern communities. I can see this kind of simulation “trick” being used in a variety of educational and training settings.

The simulation/class exercise is apparently based on one developed at the MIT D-Lab appropriate technologies program entitled “Wheelchairs for the World.” You’ll find the instructions and role assignments for that on the D-Lab resources and case studies page.

Hat-tip: AIDG blog.

simulating resource development, environmental sustainability, and conflict

oilgarchy OK, so Oilgarchy is in no way a serious development simulation. Still, I found it amusing—and a good example of how simulations can be used to get a message across, whether educational or political.

Click the image at right to go to the website.

simulating the Palestinian refugee issue

In June, I was fortunate to be invited by Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) to help organize and moderate a simulation of possible future Middle East peace negotiations on the Palestinian refugee issue. The meeting was  part of a broader three-year project (the “Minster Lovell process”) on the regional dimension of the Palestinian refugee issue, supported by the European Union and the International Development Research Centre (Canada).

shatijpgThe simulation was intended to explore the bilateral, regional, and international issues involved in reaching an agreement on the refugee issue, as well as the challenges of implementing such an agreement once it had been reached. More than thirty-five participants took part in the simulation, including researchers, journalists, activists, former officials, and officials (acting in non-official capacities) from the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The whole thing was held in the rather idyllic surroundings of Eynsham Hall, a stately home in the Oxfordshire countryside (with a very nice bar too, I must say). Needless to add, while this served to further enhance the experience, it was about as far as one can get from a Palestinian refugee camp (right: Shati refugee camp, Gaza).

The simulation final report can be found here. The purpose of the exercise was not to use simulation for teaching or training purposes per se in this case (although people certainly learned things), but rather to offer new perspectives on one of the most difficult dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to encourage participants to engage the complex and sensitive details of the issue in a way that polite seminar discussions don’t always achieve. In this, I think, we were modestly successful—to the point the the UK Foreign Office subsequently financed a one-day follow up meeting a few months later to examine some of these facets in greater detail.

Having previously run simulations in university settings (and having taken part in military exercises in the distant past), I had several observations from this rather different experience:

  • Students (and soldiers) typically can be told what to do—how the simulation will work, what the rules are, what the schedule is, and so forth. Very senior former officials and academic colleagues have to be handled more, well, diplomatically.
  • Momentum is critical. If the simulation starts off well, and everyone is immediately swept up in a flurry of urgent things to do, an enthusiasm soon develops for the process and it can acquire a life of its own.
  • The little touches—flags, delegation placards, and so forth—make a difference, helping participants “live” their roles.
  • Mixed groups—for example, academic experts and policymakers/officials—likely work better than more homogenous sets of participants. In this case, the mix was particularly useful in informing officials of complex technical issues that they may not have been fully aware of before, and illustrating political and negotiation constraints that academic experts may not have fully appreciated.
  • You know your simulation is realistic when some of your simulated negotiators want to call their capital for negotiating instructions.
  • Helpers make an enormous difference. We couldn’t have pulled it off without exceptional assistance from our small group of Chatham House staff and interns.
  • Have someone else facilitate the debrief and discussion session. In class, I’m always using the debrief session to link the simulation to the course content, illustrate key concepts and dynamics, and so forth. At the expert level, you need to be in listening mode, and that’s much easier when a skilled third party in chairing the session (thanks, Mike!).
  • When the entire IT infrastructure of a conference facility crashes the night before an IT-based simulation is about the start: curse loudly, order champagne, and reboot the ethernet router.

The simulation report can be found here.

simulation news

Peace game to help train disaster responders

Reuters, 12 Jan 2009 09:12:00 GMT

Video game technologies have long been used in simulation-based training for military operations, but thanks to researchers at Duke University they could soon come in handy in the world of disaster response. In collaboration with Virtual Heroes, a U.S.-based game developer, the team has developed ‘Virtual Peace’, a simulation game to train the next generation of emergency response and international negotiators.

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When college students reinvent the world

Christian Science Monitor, 12 January 2009

Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch’s ‘World Sim’ course – aka Anthropology 204 – helps students create new ‘cultures’ to get beyond the multiple choices to understanding the ‘why’ of global affairs.

More at the links…

APSA Teaching and Learning Conference


On February 6-8, I’ll be attending the American Political Science Association’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Baltimore. There I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “Simulating Civil War in the Classroom,” which will provide an overview of the large Brynania civil war/peacebuilding simulation that I’ve been using in my peacebuilding course at McGill University for a decade now.

The conference includes an entire track devoted to the use of simulations in teaching political science, including issues of student participation and measuring effectiveness. I’ll post the paper and presentation when its finished, and I’ll report back my thoughts while I’m there.

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