Technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. The pros and cons of this are well documented. At its worst, technology can distract and isolate us. At its best, though, technology can bring us together and engage us with the world in profound ways. This blog post is about a competition, but it’s also about a technological simulation and the revelations it inspired.
Last month a team of four students from the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs - Hadir Ali, Israa Nouredine, Tamara Friedman, and myself—travelled to Austin, Texas to represent UBC at the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition. The competition is jointly hosted each year by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. NASPAA has 300 member schools hailing from 25 countries around the world, and this network enables it to host a truly remarkable event. On February 23rd hundreds of students congregated at 11 competition sites, from Mexico City to Cairo, to flex classroom concepts in a dynamic software simulation.
The theme for this year’s competition was Global Migration Challenges. Each student team played the part of a government, with individuals assuming roles like Home Office Secretary and Minister of Labour. The goal of the exercise was to model government reactions to an influx of asylum seekers. The theme was an apt choice for 2019, as the world continues to grapple with an increasing number of refugees. Today, more than 65 million people are displaced from their homes—the greatest number since WWII. As mentioned above, our team was assigned to the competition site in Austin, Texas—a state where migration policy is especially topical. Texas shares over 2000 kilometres of border with Mexico, which makes it a common entry-point for asylum seekers venturing north from Latin American countries in times of crisis. President Donald Trump’s evocative comments on this issue (including a recent threat to close the US/Mexico border entirely) have ignited fierce debate on refugee and migration policy, and the need for a comprehensive solution that prioritizes human rights is greater than ever.
While these connections underscored the importance of the exercise, the scenario that was presented to us in Austin was much more abstract. The simulation was set in ‘Altrippa’, a fictional region in crisis. We gathered in a small auditorium as the day began for a briefing on the state of affairs. A neighbouring state, ‘Kyapera’, had collapsed, and millions of its citizens had been forced to flee. Our task was to determine, and then test, a policy response on behalf of our country. Our UBC team had been assigned to represent an emerging coastal economy called ‘Durrit’.
We filed out to our breakout rooms, and quickly became absorbed in this virtual world. An extensive list of policy decisions lay before us:
How many refugees would we accept into Durrit? How strict would the vetting process be?
Where would those refugees live? Would they be able to work? Would we help them find work?
Would refugees have access to our healthcare and education systems?
Would our three tiers of protection Refugee, Subsidiary, or Humanitarian - be eligible for the same services, or differentiated versions?
And, at the root of it all, how would we pay for it?
We discussed these decisions as a cabinet, and in concert with representatives of the other states at the ‘Altrippa Treaty Group’ (a regional organization akin to the European Union). When an approach was agreed to, we would key our policy choices into our online interface. The simulation software developed for the event by the Center for Leadership Simulation & Gaming was an amazing tool. At the conclusion of each round of negotiations, it instantly calculated the consequences of our choices—both on their domestic merits, and in regard to their interaction with the policies chosen by other states in the simulation during that round. Our dashboard would then display a summary of our key metrics:
Policy Costs and % over/under Budget
% GDP Change
% of Refugees Employed
Human Rights Index Score
Domestic Public Opinion Score
Keeping these metrics within certain target ranges was key to succeeding in the competition, although a policy memo and presentation prepared on the spot after several rounds of the game were also factored into each team’s final score.
Writing this memo—a summary of our insights from the day—was a formidable task. Each of us had jumped at this opportunity because of a personal passion for refugee policy, and we all brought some degree of experience in the field to the table. The nature of the simulation, however, offered a completely new perspective on the scope of the challenge and the ways it intertwines diverse policy portfolios. We started the day making morally-driven decisions, but as we watched our country take economic hits in real time we found ourselves compromising our positions faster than we could ever have anticipated. That is not to say that our moral stance shifted—if anything, our resolve to be of service to this vulnerable population was strengthened. However, we gained an appreciation for the ripple effects of each decision, and the balancing act facing politicians and policymakers.
The day’s events ended where they had begun: with all the teams congregated in the auditorium. Presentations were made and prizes were awarded, in typical conference fashion. The organizers had saved the most impactful announcement for last, though. Each team had been struck by the seemingly impossible task the game had laid out for us: addressing gross human rights violations, on tight budgets, whilst also managing the volatile public opinion of our fictional countries. But the last slides of the day revealed that this fiction had been fact all along: each of our countries was directly modelled on a real member of the European Union. The state in collapse, ‘Kyapera’, had in fact been Syria, and all statistics came from actual 2017 migrant and refugee flows.
I have engaged with refugee policy from many angles: I’ve debated its political implications in class. I’ve read about its successes and inadequacies in the news. I’ve met with newcomers, and listened to their perspectives on their journeys and the services they were provided. Yet I’ve never had an experience that gave me as holistic an appreciation of the challenge as the NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition did. I think this kind of simulated learning is integral to the study of policy and I hope it continues to expand into classrooms. This experience gave me a visceral understanding of this policy challenge, and I know I’ll be drawing on it for years to come.
Claire Casher is a first-year student in the Masters of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia and a Research Analyst specializing in gender and politics in Southeast Asia. She has worked with nonprofits in Canada, Cambodia, and South Korea.