Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

(more) wisdom at the Horse of Peas

Tim Wilkie, as usual, has some insightful comments on the practical contributions and limitations of simulations and gaming at his blog, A Horse of Peas. Specifically, he’s commenting on a WSJ op ed by Eliot Cohen on pundits and policy-making that was first flagged over at Opposed Systems Design, and to which he’s added some thoughts. (You’ve got to love the net for making this sort of virtual conversation possible.)

Tim comments:

If a game “clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered” or provides the opportunity for outside commentators to develop the empathy with decision-makers that Cohen describes, that could be a valuable contribution.

I couldn’t agree more. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I was involved in a  simulation of Palestinian refugee negotiations last summer with Chatham House (UK) which involved a range of participants: academic subject matter experts, current and former diplomats, mid-level negotiation advisors, and former senior negotiatiors and officials. The combination proved especially useful: officials and negotiators found themselves presented with technical challenges they hadn’t considered before, while the academic specialists (who tend to focus on best practices) confronted how theoretically ideal outcomes might be constrained by the give-and-take of negotiations. We were also able to put refugees and refugee advocates into the mix too, providing insights and feedback that was lacking from the actual refugee negotiations of 2000-01 at Camp David and Taba, and which were also missing from the most recent Annapolis round of negotiations in 2007-08.

There are some serious challenges with this kind of mix. Senior officials, even former ones, have little time to spare, especially for multi-day simulations. There are potential status issues when you mix retired senior folks and recent PhD graduates. The necessary abstractions from reality (for reasons of “playability”) can both bias the results and devalue it in the eyes of participants. Political sensitivities can make it difficult to get officials and ex-officials from warring sides in the same room. Finally, some folks will simply see the simulation as a rather silly game. We had one participant leave for political reasons, one carefully check that our Hamas players weren’t actual Hamas cadres before boarding their flight to the UK, and a third who decried it all as a “summer camp” and left.

Was it useful? Will it have an effect? It is hard to say—I’m a completely biased observer, since I ran the simulation. However, the UK Foreign Office clearly thought it was valuable enough to ask Chatham House to hold a follow-up workshop on the challenges of implementing a refugee deal a few months later, and feedback from participants has been good.

One response to “(more) wisdom at the Horse of Peas

  1. Tim Wilkie 11/03/2009 at 3:51 am

    Thank you , Rex, for the very kind words. Your experiences with the Palestinian refugee negotiation simulation are directly on point to what Cohen is talking about in his piece. On a nuts-and-bolts level, it’s especially interesting to hear you mention the status issues that can arise between retired senior officials and recent PhDs. That’s something I hadn’t considered before, and could certainly make any such exercise that much more difficult to manage. The simulation report makes for fascinating reading… I’ll have to post something about it sometime.

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