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FEATURE: Could bean-trading in Doha create a breakthrough?


Mairi Dupar, CDKN’s Global Public Affairs Co-ordinator, reports on an innovative approach to change that is taking place in Doha this weekend.

If I told you that climate negotiators were gathered in Doha, Qatar to trade beans with each other, you might think it was a figure of speech.

However, negotiators really are trading beans. These aren’t the official climate talks at UNFCCC CoP18, but an experiment a few kilometres down the road to find out whether games can revolutionise thinking on climate disaster risk.

Some delegates to CoP18 have taken time off to mingle with NGOs, researchers and game developers. At Development and Climate Days 2012, they are trialling a set of games that simulate the tough investment decisions and harsh consequences that decision-makers, development agencies and everyday people face under various climate scenarios. By spiriting players on a journey through these decisions and outcomes, the games aim to jolt players into a new mindset.

Today, participants were assigned to play the fictional roles of provincial governors in a small country and each governor was allotted several beans.  At the start of each round of the game – meant to signify a growing season –  governors could either invest a bean in disaster preparedness or take a risk and simply keep all their beans. At every turn, the governors had to roll a die to determine the weather that season.

Every time they rolled a ‘6’, it signified heavy rains and flooding. If they had decided not to pay a bean up-front for disaster preparedness, then they were forced to surrender four beans for recovery costs – a heavy price. Every time they rolled a ‘1’ it signified drought, and this also cost heavily if they were not prepared. In the face of dwindling assets (beans) and uncertain information about the coming weather, participants had to calculate their odds of failure.

New elements of real life simulation were introduced when fictional aid donors arrived to dole out ‘relief’ beans. Then, the normal six-sided dice were swapped for eight-sided dice to demonstrate the increased odds of extreme weather in changing climate.

Delegates took quickly to the role play: they rode a roller coaster of emotion as the dice either left them safe from climate damage, or caught them out. “The games leave you happy, angry, excited, sad,” said Pablo Suarez of the Climate Centre. “They are confusing…and designed to push your brain power to the edge of its absorptive capacity.”

Are you ready?

In another game, players were divided into small teams and assigned the role of officials in a fictional city. They were told that a dust storm was approaching and they had only four hours to prepare. They had to devise a list of emergency actions to protect the city’s assets and alert citizens to the danger; then, teams frantically allocated beans, or budget, to different activities as a way of prioritising them.

The game not only raised awareness of the status of civil preparedness for a weather emergency, it revealed plainly the kinds of systems that would have to be in place to make a response effective. “We realised that issuing a TV or SMS broadcast seemed like an easy action to take but it assumed that the government had an agreement lined up with the communications company in advance,” said one participant. If city officials undertook this exercise in real life, they might identify how a carers’ network or other social support system should be put in place to protect more vulnerable members of society.

A new form of dialogue

Development and Climate (D &C) Days are a long-established feature of the CoP, but this year’s format is a departure. The sessions were founded by Dr Saleemul Huq of IIED ten years ago as a way of introducing discussions about climate adaptation at a time when the official talks were heavily focused on mitigation. Times have changed since then: “The original purpose of this meeting has been achieved, we have people linking development and climate, especially in adaptation,” said Dr Huq.

Now, climate and development links are well understood, but action on tackling greenhouse gas emissions is moving perilously slowly. As a result, every year the risk increases that the world’s poorest people will suffer severe climate impacts. The new reality is that decision-makers must prepare for climate extremes and disasters on a wide scale, and integrate these plans into mainstream development.

This year, IIED has partnered with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and CDKN to introduce role-playing games and interactive discussions to the Development and Climate Days, in the hope that unconventional methods will spawn unconventional thinking. It’s exactly what the world needs.

Can games overturn ‘business as usual’?

Janot Mendler de Suarez, Pablo Suarez’ co-creator of several climate games, said: “Games can be a way [for players] to inhabit a dynamic system. It gives you an opportunity to test systems you wouldn’t in real life. We can’t have an experience of trying different strategies in any other way.”

Games are a way of starting a conversation,” said Mohini Dutta of the Parson School of Design in New York, where students have linked with the Red Cross and are now turning their creative talents to humanitarian ends.

So, has this unusual experiment in subverting roles and changing mindsets convinced any government delegates to do things differently? Cesar Aponte of the Government of Venezuela is convinced it’s the way forward: “I am sure I can do something with these games to get ministries across government to sit up and pay attention to climate change,” he said.

Paramesh Nandy of UNDP Bangladesh found that the game not only revealed the luck of the dice – representing real-life probabilities of extreme weather – but it also revealed the consequences of good and bad governance. He played a fictional donor in the game, and observed how some provincial governors misused their aid budget to advantage their own constituents. Participants laughed when the corruption was revealed, but again, players were forced to consider how real-life investments and misappropriation can mean gambling with poor people’s lives.

These games could be very useful, our staff, stakeholders and the community could learn through the games in a simple way,” said Hanadi Awadalla of Sudan’s national forestry extension service. “Games are a very sound communication method“, said her colleague Somaya Omer Abdoun. “We already use puppet shows, drama and environmental songs for forestry extension, the games would be a good way to integrate indigenous knowledge with   science and attract young people in the discussion about climate change.”

When delegates return to the official climate negotiations on Monday, they won’t literally be trading in beans. However, it’s just possible that the innovative, participatory methods they’ve experienced at  the Development and Climate Days will have changed their sense of possibility for what they can achieve at home.

Photo credit: IISD/ENB

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