Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulations and their use in the humanitarian sector


This guest post has been written for PAXsims by David Hockaday of the Emergency Capacity Building Project.

Simulations and their use in the humanitarian sector

The Emergency Capacity Building Project (The ECB Project) [1] is a collaboration among six of the world’s largest International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and is specifically designed to improve the skills and competencies of the national staff of the six participating agencies and other stakeholders at the national level. This skills improvement process is called “capacity building”. The ECB Project has been working over the past six years to build the capacity of national staff to carry out faster and more effective emergency responses.

There are many approaches to capacity building national staff which the ECB Project has used. This includes training on a specific standard or tool, hosting learning workshops or learning events, and organising real time evaluations, after action reviews and simulations.

Simulations and drills are used in all walks of life to test and prepare specific skills and competencies – whether it is for the emergency services, health professionals, military or airline pilots – and the humanitarian sector is no different. Simulations provide an excellent opportunity to build relationships, test individual competencies and provide a safe learning space for participants to try out new behaviours or approaches.

ECB-Project-case-study-simualting-the-worst--front-cover_cropped89118The ECB Project recently finalised a collaborative simulation case study with other key stakeholders in the humanitarian sector, which yielded some interesting conclusions.

Perhaps of most significance was the implicit finding that simulations are increasingly recognized by NGOs, the United Nations (UN), donors, governments and the broader humanitarian community as a highly effective and engaging way of increasing disaster preparedness and building staff capacity.

As a result significant progress has been made in the humanitarian community in the way that simulations have been resourced, prioritized and used as a preparedness tool – from the creation of the ECB Project’s Simulation Administrators Guide, to the development of the United Nations Inter-Agency Emergency Simulation guidebook (UN-IAES) and the more recently drafted Local Government simulation piloted by the Philippine National Disaster Management Agency with assistance from the World Food Programme.

In addition, the United Nations Inter Agency Standing Committee (UN-IASC) developed a roster of trained simulation experts which is available for use by others within the humanitarian community.

These are all good examples of how the sector is increasingly professionalising, codifying and sharing resources and guidance on simulation design and implementation.

The most interesting finding from a human resource perspective was that across the board and without fail, simulations present an excellent opportunity for relationship and trust building. Relationships and trust are so critical in humanitarian responses and can be the difference between failed and successful coordination, and in turn can determine the ultimate success or otherwise of the overall response. The fundamental objective of the simulation in a humanitarian context is to ultimately pre-position relationships, in the same way that I/NGOs might try to pre-position vital stocks of mosquito nets, water purification equipment or sanitation kits.

The study found that there were four common reasons or objectives for holding a simulation:

  1. To identify the skills of an individual staff member that need to be strengthened before an actual disaster occurs.
  2. To develop and practice preparedness and contingency plans.
  3. To develop and practice organisational preparedness and relationships.
  4. To build organisational capacity.


While the stakeholders and organisations involved across the six simulations varied greatly (for example from a simulation held in Madagascar at the national level involving national government officials, UN officials and other key stakeholders, to a simulation held in a disaster vulnerable community in the Philippines, with community members and local NGO staff) the study revealed that successful simulation designs shared four common key elements:

  1. Trained and skilled facilitators.
  2. Injects [2] to help move the fictional scenario along and to test different components of planning, preparation, and coordination.
  3. A debriefing session held after completing the simulation where the key lessons from the event are captured.
  4. The development of an action plan, (individual, organisational or institutional) that outlines how the capacity or skills gaps identified during the simulation and debrief, will be addressed.

The study also revealed four common lessons about implementing successful simulations.

  1. Choosing the right simulation for the context (i.e. simulating a cyclone response in a cyclone vulnerable location helped to provide realism),
  2. Ensuring the right people and stakeholders are in the room,
  3. That good planning improves a simulation
  4. And that management commitment and appropriate budgetary support are also key factors in a successful simulation

kenyasimFor managers within the humanitarian community there are valid concerns about increasing frequency of disasters [3] and growing impact on human life and economic systems [4]. This means that being well prepared for an emergency response in a timely and effective manner is even more critical for reducing the impact of the disaster, saving lives, and ensuring a smoother recovery.

In this respect simulations offer humanitarian managers an excellent tool to develop staff skills and capacity, test procedures and contingency plans, build relationships and trust and bring a greater degree of predictability into humanitarian planning and response.

To see the full case study in detail, please click this link ECB Project Simulation Case Study: simulating the worst to prepare the best. For more information and resources on ECB Project simulations please visit

[1] The Emergency Capacity Building Project is a collaboration, now nearing the end of its second phase (2008 – 2013), between six of the world’s largest International Non-Governmental organisations CARE, CRS, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision. The purpose is to improve the speed, quality and effectiveness of emergency response through targeted staff capacity building initiatives.

[2] A “direct inject” is a stimulus or catalyst provided by the simulation administrator to provoke a response or reaction from simulation participants. Direct injects can come from e-mails, telephone calls, situation reports, disaster data, role players and actors. An “indirect inject” is catalysed by participants following their preparedness plans, contingency plans or standard operating procedures

[3] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Session Concept Paper “World Conference on Disaster Reduction.” January 2005. Pg 1.

[4] Guha-Sapir D, Vos F, Below R, with Ponserre S. Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2011: The Numbers and Trends. Brussels: CRED; 2012


UPDATE: The report is now also available in French and Spanish.

3 responses to “Simulations and their use in the humanitarian sector

  1. David Hockaday 03/06/2013 at 9:11 am

    Thanks both for your comments.

    Gary – I totally agree regarding the practical application of new skills. Case study 3.4 (The ECB project / INGO simulations) is a perfect example of this. Participants learn about conceptual leadership models and behaviours during their residential / classroom based learning and then have an opportunity to try out those leadership styles during the simulation. The debrief is then a focussed opportunity to discuss what they learnt through the application of that skill. Our independent evaluations have shown us that that is a particularly powerful capacity building process. We involve the participants managers in the review process too, and they can independently verify whether the participants individual behaviour changes witnessed or discussed during the simulation, then translate into day to day, on the job behaviour changes.

  2. Gary Milante 21/05/2013 at 5:04 am

    Great piece, thanks! I think the humanitarian and security communities are both far ahead of the devleopment community in the application of simulations for learning – we have a lot to learn from you.

    I think the four main elements are spot on. I would also add that well designed, informative learning materials, provided to participants before the simulation or through instruction will increase uptake on capacity building and application of new skills. I’ve found that when I teach a concept or a skill before a simulation, then ask about it after the simulation (or, occasionally, carefully during the simulation), it has much more impact on learning.

    I very much appreciate the value of pre-positioning relationships before a crisis as valuable or more valuable than pre-positioning vital stocks – really well said and I’ll definitely invoke the study to convey that principle.

  3. Dr Chunge 18/05/2013 at 12:50 pm

    Interesting piece! Thanks. Living in a cyclone prone country as I do, I hope the relevant ministry undertake such simulations!

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