Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Reflections on a humanitarian policy simulation


Earlier this year, my colleague Mick Dumper (University of Exeter) and I organized a policy simulation that explored potential near-term challenges to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the agency which deals with Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. As a brief account on the University of Exeter website notes, the exercise was set one year in the future, in a Middle East that looks much like the current one, only worse:

UN Agency Learns from Simulation at Exeter

It is March 2014, Syria has imploded, refugees are massing at the borders, the Palestinian Authority is bankrupt and its security services have been unpaid for 3 months.  How should the UN agency responsible for 5 million Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) react when it itself is adjusting to US Congress-inspired funding cuts of 20%?

This scenario was played out in a simulation organised by the Department of Politics, with senior management of UNRWA, including its Commissioner-General and Director of External Relations, leading academics in the field, some donor representatives and diplomats.

The exercise involved three “Policy Teams” (one of which was composed of three College PhD students) who were set the task of coming up with clear recommendations for UNRWA by interviewing a number of stakeholders representing the EU, US, Jordan, Lebanon, HAMAS, the PA and the refugees.  Should it increase its advocacy work at the risk of alienating its main donors?  Should it cut services and where? What would the impact of that be on the host countries?

“The fact that the scenario was uncomfortably close to reality gave real impetus to the task and also weight behind the recommendations that were finally presented” commented Professor Mick Dumper from the Department of Politics who convened the simulation with Professor Rex Brynen  from McGill University.

In designing the exercise we decided against the usual two-or-three-turn crisis simulation format wherein participants assume the role of actors with an ability to take actions that iteratively affect the course of events. Such an approach, we felt, would limit focus too much energy on move-countermove and too little on developing and assessing a broad range of contingencies and UNRWA policy options. On the other hand, we did want to use simulation-type mechanisms to generate participant engagement with the complex and dynamic operational environment in which the Agency finds itself.

In the end we decided to run the exercise as a sort of competitive brainstorming exercise, with a variety of simulation mechanisms added to this. Most of the participants were allocated to one of three policy teams. Each 5-6 person team was given the same near-future scenario, and was tasked with producing policy options for the Agency that would address “key challenges, short and medium-term policy initiatives to address these, risks and associated contingencies, and possible future challenges.”

139772-unrwa appeal 2013The simulation started with a 40 minute briefing from the UNRWA Commissioner General, who did a superb job of making the scenario come alive for participants and making it clear what he hoped to see from the teams. While UNRWA staff played themselves and were available for consultation throughout the exercise, we also had a small number of experts role-playing various Palestinian, regional, and international actors. Each of these held a brief (15 minute) “press conference,” to which each policy group sent at least one member. Groups could also schedule one or more meetings with UNRWA or the various stakeholders. By listening to and speaking with each stakeholder the policy teams were thus given a simulated taste of the complex operational environment and the associated issues facing the Agency. Additional scenario events were also announced during the exercise. These injects served both to underscore the dynamism of the regional setting and underscore the pressing urgency of the various challenges.

The teams were given a full day to consult, discuss, develop ideas, and prepare their presentations. The second day was devoted to fine-tuning these, presenting their analysis and recommendations, and discussion. We also asked all of the stakeholder players to write short papers on how they thought their actor would want the Agency to act in the scenario setting, and these papers were also briefed back to the full group for discussion on the final day.

Most effective simulation designs involve a certain degree of psychological manipulation-by-design of the participants, and this one was no different. In order to motivate the groups, we made the exercise deliberately competitive, with two winners (one chosen by UNRWA staff, the other by the stakeholder players) being selected at the end of the second day. While two of the three groups were made up of academic, NGO, and policy community experts, we formed one group of entirely of graduate students specializing in refugee issues, supported by a senior mentor/facilitator. We calculated—quite correctly—that the student group would throw themselves at the task with particular energy, enticed by the prospect of beating some of the senior figures in their fields in their own area of expertise. We also calculated—again, quite correctly—that fear of losing to students would equally motivate the more experienced participants!

So how did it all work? Overall, I think it was quite successful.

The policy option papers were all quite good. I did think that some of the recommendations didn’t give adequate consideration to the rather challenging  environment we had outlined in the scenario, and instead reflected more the prior political, academic, or technical inclinations of participants. Still, that is hardly unusual, and this effect was  less pronounced than had the meeting been held in the usual conference, workshop, or seminar format.

Some of the stakeholder players may have felt rather under-utilized during the exercise, since they didn’t get to directly participate in the policy group discussions and some had periods of “down time” when they weren’t engaged in either press conferences or bilateral meetings. From our point of view, however, they did a superb job and were an essential part of the exercise: the “press conferences” were remarkably lifelike (right down to avoidance of awkward questions), the stakeholders were generally in high demand for meetings, and the short  perspective papers they each wrote were themselves very useful too.

While there were perhaps a small number of participants who felt a little out-of-place in a simulation, but most took to it with considerable enthusiasm. Unlike a regular workshop we really made them work for their supper too, with considerable participant effort going into all three presentations.

Finally, I think people enjoyed themselves. I certainly did! One of the real advantages of the simulation methodology was to provide an opportunity for an intellectual cross-training of sorts, with participants able to got at familiar problems in new ways and from new perspectives.

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