February 6, 2017

“As a humanitarian actor, you are dealing with a menu of bad options and you have to pick one,” said Susannah Friedman. “Your decision will keep you up at night for years.”

Friedman, a lecturer at SIPA who directs the Humanitarian Policy Focus Area, was speaking to a group of 30 students participating in a two-day program as a part of a new course called Humanitarian Response Simulation. The simulation exercise, held January 28 and 29, was designed to give students an opportunity to put what they learn at SIPA into practice—and a glimpse at the complexities and challenges that await them in the humanitarian field.

Helping to facilitate the simulation were faculty members Roy Williams and Dirk Salomons. The former opened the exercise with a challenge to the students.

“Today you will be forced to make the same decision that NGOs responding to the outpouring of Rwandan refugees into Goma in 1994 had to after realizing that the aid they were providing was helping genocidaires to perpetuate further violence,” Williams said. “Do you fulfill the humanitarian imperative to save lives or do you let the demands of your conscience dominate and leave? By the end of the exercise, I want your answer.”

Students were divided into teams representing the various humanitarian actors who would respond to local communities affected by a major flood in a fictional country, Paradoxia, and the surrounding region. Students returned on the second day to find that the catastrophic flood has exacerbated long-simmering political tension, causing conflict to break out.

Each team was charged with successfully completing their group objectives while reacting quickly and decisively to challenges that are normally encountered in the field—among them lack of reliable information and having to negotiate with groups pursuing their own agendas.

Students who participated said the experience was a valuable one. 

“I learned that we often have to make important decisions based on limited or sketchy information, which can be quite stressful,” said Akiko Kobayashi MIA ’17, who played the part of the International Red Crescent Society during the exercise. “Though it was a fictitious setting, it was nice to take a chunk of time, not just an hour in the class, to immerse ourselves in it and experience making decisions under pressure. I think we learned what we need to think about in the field.”

Williams and Friedman echoed these sentiments in explaining why it’s important for SIPA to offer such a course.

“The learning environment during a simulation is necessarily an interactive one, and being open to inputs, from wherever they come, is an essential element in forming a mindset appropriate to a service environment,” Williams said.

“While the simulation at SIPA is not able to fully replicate a humanitarian emergency, it’s a chance for students to feel the stress, understand the importance of working with different actors and get a sense of how an emergency folds out in its early days,” Friedman said.

“I hope the simulation allows students to better appreciate and understand the complexities of working in a humanitarian response,” she added, “and supports them to be more effective, more empathetic humanitarian aid workers in the years to come.”

— Serina Bellamy MIA ’17