Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 26/06/2011

Yarrrr, MMOWGLI Turn 2

This past week, the Naval Postgraduate School ran a prelaunch playtest of Turn 2 of the MMOWGLI crowd-sourcing platform. Building on the earlier Turn 1 anti-piracy scenario, this time they advanced the clock to 2014 when a “Yemeni-Somali Union” had emerged to sponsor piracy in the area.

But now, in 2014, the situation has changed. The Yemen-Somalia-Union (YSU) is a powerful, ambiguous new alliance in the Gulf of Aden–needed economic revenue say some; to others, an amplified form of illegal piracy. The YSU militia has leapt beyond skiffs: fast vessels, geo-mapping tech, even automatic IDs to collect their tolls.

Unlike the quick 120 character tweets that characterized Turn 1, in Turn 2 participants could collaboratively author longer and more sophisticated “action plans,” which others could then rate.

While my own participation was limited by intermittent internet access, I did have a few quick impressions to offer.

  1. I’m not sure how the relationship between Idea Cards and Action Plans is supposed to work. Why (other than generating a higher score) would one post an action card, when it often seems easier and more useful to comment on a plan directly? Moreover, as the discussion becomes more detailed and sophisticated, the character restrictions of the Idea Cards seems ever more limiting. As old Idea Cards are pushed to the bottom of stacks and forgotten, many of the new ones seem repetitive.
  2. I’m not sure the gamification/scoring system contributes anything—indeed, I think it may actually be counterproductive at a couple of levels. First, it may encourage gaming-the-game, rather than placing emphasis on quality inputs and discussion. Second, confusion as to how scores are generated might actually demobilize participants. As we’ve noted before, there is some scientific literature that suggests that extrinsic in-game rewards might actually be inversely related to the quality of participation. For professional purposes of the sorts that MMOWGLI is directed towards, I would have thought that creativity and substance would be sufficient rewards in and of themselves.
  3. In terms of the pirate scenario, there was inadequate information available upon which to base any serious action. This was especially true with regard to the political character of the YSU, which was merely described as “ambiguous.” Was it an alliance of non-state groups—and if so, what was the domestic political situation in the two countries that allowed this? Was the YSU an interstate group? Was it a credible claimant to state authority, or have ambitions to secure international recognition? Did it have any ideological goals or character? What are its relationships with key regional actors? If it is “powerful,” what is the source of its power? Who might oppose it within Somalia and Yemen? How had the Middle East, the Horn, and East Africa changed by 2014? Etc, etc. Too many participants seemed willing to propose a military-based solution without any clear information on who they were fighting.

The first and second of these points are fairly substantial conceptual challenges to MMOWGLI as it is currently designed. The third, by contrast, is a content issue that would easily vary from game to game. In a current, real-life scenario players can do outside research to inform their game ideas and proposed actions. In a future scenario, however, it is often necessary to provide substantial detail. In the case of non-state armed groups, failed states, and piracy such background material is absolutely essential, since context is everything. (In the fictional Carana simulation I have just finished observing, which also included a small piracy dimension, participants are provided with between 19 and 42 pages of background material depending on their role—plus an initial video.)

That having been said, the whole point of MMOWGLI is to explore crowd-sourcing in a structured way. It continues to be a very interesting experiment, with considerable potential.


Postcard from Carana

This past week I’ve been in Nairobi taking part in the World Bank’s core course on fragility and conflict, and observing their Carana training simulation in action. Originally borrowed from the United Nations and then modified for World Bank purposes, this Carana is designed to explore the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and continued fragility. It therefore differs from the original UN Carana, as well as the one developed for the African Union’s AMANI AFRICA EURORECAMP exercises by the Pearson Peacekeeping Training Centre.

This year the World Bank has been adapting its core course to integrate the many lessons and insights generated by the 2011 World Development Report on conflict, security, and development (full text available at the link).

Overall I thought it went very well. While I’m reluctant to give away too much on the details lest I spoil Carana for future participants, I did think that the simulation highlighted several key issues for the development community.

Politics is not a dirty word.

At times there is a tendency among development specialists to treat processes of development as technical economic puzzles to be resolved with technocratic solutions—and to therefore treat any interjection of politics as an unwanted external distraction and source of inefficeincy. Politics, however, is the process whereby social groups signal and pursue their hopes, dreams, fears, insecurity, and aspirations. Certainly it can interfere with good economic policy-making, narrowly understood. Certainly it can generate dysfunctional levels of tension and policy immobilism. The real art, however, is to work to align economic and political interests. Ignoring or trying to marginalize the latter is often a recipe for failure.

WDR 2011 could address this issue more fully, although perhaps it does so indirectly in its emphasis on “inclusive-enough” coalitions:

Inclusion is important to restore confidence, but coalitions need not be “all- inclusive.” Inclusive-enough coalitions work in two ways. At a broad level, they build national support for change and by bringing in the relevant international stakeholders whose support is needed. At a local level, they work with community leaders and structures to identify priorities and deliver programs.

What is “inclusive-enough” is, of course, fundamentally a political judgment based on a keen sense of the dynamics of local politics. Similarly, WDR 2011 places emphasis on the importance of building confidence:

Some early results are needed to build citizen confidence and create momentum for longer-term institutional transformation. When trust is low, people do not believe grand plans for reform will work. Some early results that demonstrate the potential for success can generate trust, restore confidence in the prospects of collective action, and build momentum for deeper institutional transformation. Transforming institutions takes a generation, but political cycles are short—early results can both meet political imperatives and generate the incentives for the longer- term project of institution-building.

Most of the Carana participants understood this, and worked to include elements in their national development plans that delivered tangible benefits quickly to key constituencies.

Institutions are meant to be constraining.

Aid donors and outside development agencies inherently understand institutions in terms of capacity and capability, seeing them as mechanism and channels that increase the ability to “do things.” They are on less comfortable ground, however, when institutions stand in the way of the sort of development initiatives that donors wish to pursue.

WDR 2011, however, highlights another fundamental aspect of institutions, placing fundamental emphasis on building a cycle of restoring confidence and transforming institutions so as to overcome conflict and fragility and meet the three fundamental challenges of citizen security, justice and jobs. In doing so, it defines institutions thusly:

The formal and informal “rules of the game.” They include formal rules, written laws, organizations, informal norms of behavior and shared beliefs—and the organizational forms that exist to implement and enforce these norms (both state and nonstate organizations). Institutions shape the interests, incentives, and behaviors that can facilitate violence. Unlike elite pacts, institutions are impersonal—they continue to function irrespective of the presence of particular leaders, and thus provide greater guarantees of sustained resilience to violence. Institutions operate at all levels of society—local, national, regional, and global.

Inherent in this definition of “rules” is that institutions are constraining, and ought to sometimes prevent certain type of actions. During some of the Carana simulations, however, it seemed as if some external actors found the emerging institution of Caranian democracy to be inconvenient, especially when the natural give-and-take politics of cabinet decision-making acted as an obstacle to pursuing donor preferences. That, however, is the way it is supposed to work, especially in a political setting where domestic tensions and policy debates were previously pursued through the barrel of a gun.

Carana wouldn’t be the first place, of course, where donors have prioritized their own interests over domestic institution-building. In Palestine donors put enormous effort into strengthening rule of law, constitutionalism, separation of powers, and constraining the presidency in the late 1990s, and even more so 2001-2006. The Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections, and which point donors supported efforts to ignore or override constitutional, legislative, and legal constraints.

Leadership matters.

I’ve often argued that for all the plethora of research on peacebuilding, we’ve devoted insufficient attention to issues of leadership and staffing. For all the attention to “best practices,” when you ask people why such-and-such programme worked well they’ll often identify the role of a few key personnel, whether from external agencies or host country institutions.

The importance of idiosyncratic factors was certainly underscored in the Carana simulation, where three groups of participants started with identical Caranas, but went in quite different directions. Of course, as with all simulations this may reflect a lack of anchoring in real-life institutional constraints. Roleplaying does tend to overemphasize idiosyncratic factors. However, who would doubt that war-to-peace transition in Mozambique could have gone terribly wrong with different key figures in place? Surely the post-apartheid history of South Africa and Zimbabwe might have been very different if Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe had switched places?

Always remember that it’s their country.

All development professionals know about the importance of host-country ownership. However, given a combination of resources, belief in superior technical knowledge, and lots of white Toyota Land Cruisers, it is far too easy for the donor community to slip into rather patronizing attitudes. Ironically, donor coordination can even exacerbate this through mutual self-reinforcement. Several of the Carana participants commented on how this happened within their own simulated countries too.

The limits of “best practices.”

The development community is full of recommendations on how to do things. While these can be extremely useful, they also hold the risk of implying that there are cookie-cutter solutions that apply across a range of political, economic, and social contexts. As the WDR 2011 stresses, “every country’s history and political context differ, and there are no one-size-fits- all solutions.” It also warns against excessive technical perfectionism:

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress—embrace pragmatic, best-fit options to address immediate challenges. In insecure situations, it is generally impossible to achieve technical perfection in approaches to security, justice, or development. There is a need to be pragmatic, to address immediate challenges within political realities, with approaches that can improve over time. Sometimes these approaches will have temporary second- best aspects associated with them.

In the Carana simulation too there are no right or perfect way of fostering the country’s transition from conflict to fragility to future stability and development, but rather many different approaches that each involves different sets of risks and trade-offs. Learning comes from identifying and discussing these. The opportunity to make mistakes and confront the second- and third- order effects of decisions is key to the process.


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At the end of the day, the Carana simulation (which took up about one-third of the four day course) seems to have been a very useful way of exploring issues of conflict and fragility. It provided a basis for both exploring key issues and for generating discussion. It also served to break up the pace of lectures—especially useful in that potentially lethargic post-lunch afternoon period common to all workshops—and to encourage social interaction among participants. As an educator, I was struck by how easily elements of the simulation could be adapted for use in university and senior high school courses on international development, with other development professionals, and even as an awareness and familiarity exercise for those such as diplomats and military personnel who aren’t involved in development, but who may have to cooperate with development actors in fragile and post-conflict settings.

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