Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Millennium and Peace Corps win €5,000 HIA grant for simulation project!

Snuggled under every coat I own last night as my bus lumbered through our first blizzard of the winter on the three hour trek home from the capital, big news flashed across my phone: a team I've been coordinating just won a €5,000 grant from Humanity In Action to implement a project that will develop Moldova-specific simulation games for civic education!  With just four months to implement, it looks like I know what I'll be doing this spring in my spare time.

So what is this project all about?  From our application, the short version:
Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, setting its course towards democracy.  After 50 years of Soviet rule, Moldova’s politicians struggled ministering a seemingly alien form of government as did its citizens in figuring out their role within it.  As markets opened, the cultural and ethnic diversity previously suppressed by Soviet culture came to the forefront of the political discourse, with formerly persecuted and silenced minority groups (such as the Roma and Gagauz) demanding justice, respect, tolerance, and in some cases increased autonomy.  Predictably, there were xenophobic, racist, and discriminatory backlashes as Moldova marched toward full-fledged democracy.  Such backlashes still occur and this march is not complete.  Thus, our project aims to develop and run Moldova-tailored simulation games that will compel its participants to address all these contentious historical points typical to nascent democracies transitioning from authoritarian rule. 
This project has two objectives:
  • To create and run (24 times) a politically-oriented simulation game for Moldovan youth across the country 
  • To create and incorporate a culturally-oriented simulation game in the trainings of newly-arrived Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to speed their adjustment to the oftentimes confusing historical and cultural idiosyncrasies of Moldova.
Led by HIA Senior Fellows (SFs) and staff, who are experienced simulation facilitators, we will write the simulations during a five-day workshop that will bring together historians, civil society leaders and PCVs to design, test and translate them into Romanian and Russian. The project team will then travel throughout Moldova to administer the games.  Peace Corps Moldova has 120 volunteers, living in both cities and villages, both Russian and Romanian speaking, making it easy to identify seminar sites across Moldova’s disparate demographics.

This project is designed as a collaboration between three organizations: HIA, the U.S. Peace Corps, and the local NGO Millennium. With the network and expertise of Millennium, Peace Corps, and HIA, this project will promote deeper understanding of history’s legacy on democratic processes and civic leadership among its participants, a small but vital grassroots step along the slow path towards full liberal democracy.
Needless to say, I'm extremely excited about this project for a number of reasons.  As a national project and a collaboration between three organizations (a governmental agency, and international NGO, and a local NGO), this is undoubtedly the most far-reaching project I've found myself supporting yet.  At the same time, with its simultaneous objective of developing a simulation for Peace Corps trainees, this initiative also puts me smack in the middle of improving internal training and support. The implementation team is incredibly diverse, including people from all levels of the respective organizations: from MillenniuM and Peace Corps both staff and volunteers, from HIA both staff and Senior Fellows. Finally, the core project team includes some of the most talented PCVs I've ever had the pleasure to work with this past year and a half.  I may be the link between the funders and implementers, but none of this would have happened without those great PCVs pushing me all the way.

For those unfamiliar, a bit of background on the simulation games, courtesy of PlanPolitik, the German NGO that facilitated the HIA training I attended a few years ago that first introduced me to the methodology.
Politics is a matter of negotiation. Who gets what? And how much? The aim is to unite conflicting interests and to reach decisions concerning the distribution of money, power, security, autonomy etc. Usually, negotiations consist of tough and lengthy wrangling about what appear to be small steps of progress and minor compromises. Outside observers often find it difficult to understand why negotiations or attempts to settle conflicts succeed or fail. Which concessions have made an agreement possible or which demands have prevented it? Which strategic considerations are the actors led by? What scope are they given within institutional, domestic and other constraints? Which negotiation strategies are successful?
What can be learned through simulation games? The participants are asked to play a role. In order to do so as realistically and successfully as possible, they will aim to acquire the information they need about the given crisis or negotiation situation. Participants also gain analytic insight into the conflict or negotiation situation. On one hand, this involves analysing the conflict’s basic scenario, its relevant players and their interests. On the other hand, participants learn to contemplate the political options: which option is desirable, which one is realistic? They realize that there is a big difference between policy and politics, i.e. the actual implementation of policies is rarely congruent with the initial idea. Too conflictive are the interests of the relevant actors.

Secondly, the game inspires in participants a more reflective way of viewing the chosen conflict and indeed political decision-making processes in general. Players of the game gain concrete experience of how, in interaction with others, interests develop and how, depending on the other players’ conduct as the game progresses, these interests are subject to change. Moreover, participants learn just how difficult negotiating is: not all targets can be met and compromises are inevitable. One can gain insight into possible strategies for resolving conflicts in the “real” world. 
Finally, participants are confronted with a rigid time frame for making decisions, establishing priorities and implementing strategies. Being forced to cooperate with others, for example in a negotiation groups, is conducive to enhancing team work, negotiation skills, willingness to compromise as well as a culture of discussion.

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