Simulated conference teaches students about complexity of health aid negotiations

HSPH's Stephen Marks (center) played the role of the Malawi prime minister at a simulated conference on international health aid.

May 11, 2012

The prime minister of Malawi banged his fist on the table. “The government of Malawi must be in charge of its own destiny!” he said loudly.

Around the negotiating table, representatives from various organizations—each being solicited for aid for health improvements by the African country—exchanged nervous glances. What would the unpredictable prime minister say next?

Plenty, as it turned out. But his testiness was staged—the “prime minister” was really [[Stephen Marks]], professor of health and human rights at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). And the “representatives” from organizations such as the World Bank, UNICEF, and USAID were actually students from HSPH, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Extension School, Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Boston College, and Boston University.

Marks and about 25 students played their various roles April 6, 2012 as part of the third annual Harvard Aid for Health Simulation, an effort aimed at giving students hands-on experience, through dramatic immersion, in the complicated negotiations involved in funding international health aid.

A powerful educational experience

Inspired by the Model United Nations, the idea for the conference simulation was developed in 2009 by Cecil Haverkamp, former coordinator for strategic partnerships and global health practice in HSPH’s Office for Educational Programs, and brought to fruition by students. This sort of simulation is a “powerful educational experience because, in real life, these processes are highly dynamic and socially complex,” Haverkamp said.

This year’s conference organizers included HSPH master’s in public health students Kenny Chung (society, human development, and health), and Aparna Chandrasekhar (global health and population), and the Kennedy School’s Diego Solares, a public policy master’s student.

To prepare for their roles, students attended an intensive negotiation workshop a week before the simulation, led by MIT professor and negotiations expert Lawrence Susskind. Chung said each participant was coached to better understand their characters and was given both a public and a private agenda to keep in mind for the session.

In the case of “prime minister” Marks, he wanted aid—lots of it. During the conference simulation he mentioned it repeatedly to the delegates. They, in turn, spoke carefully about the importance of accountability, of receiving information about how donations would be spent. Often, the prime minister bristled at such comments. In the end, the group decided to form a commission for further discussion.

Unique perspective on negotiations

Susskind noted it’s often side conversations—either whispered during proceedings or conducted in hallways during breaks—that are particularly important in international aid negotiations. “In a multi-party negotiation, groups need to form coalitions to advance their organizations’ agendas in the context of all the other groups having their own interests,” he explained. Said Chung, “The idea is that everybody gets a little bit of what they want.”

Susskind added that a simulated conference provides students a unique perspective on what aid negotiations are really like. “There really is no way that sitting and listening about how things are supposed to happen is going to give you the same visceral sense that you get from this kind of event.”

Xiaoxiao Jiang, a master’s student in global health and population, who represented the non-governmental organization ActionAid during the simulation, said the experience taught her “that you need to maintain a good relationship with the people you negotiate with, because you might need to work with them in the future. You have to ‘nicely’ fight.”

Karen Feldscher

Photo courtesy Kenny Chung