An engaging way to train negotiation skills is simulations with role play. We developed this simulation based on experience in diplomacy and working with local leaders, human rights experts and military. This was done for the International Relations Department of Webster University, Campus Leiden. Read this report with participants’ feedback:

“The improvisation was the best part”, said Evaris, who played the role of Sahel leader. In our Politics of Peace course, students learn about the practice of negotiating peace. Lecturer Marije Balt designed this simulation based on her 12-year experience as a diplomat: “Things rarely go as planned, so this is what I prepare students for”.

In Mali, leaders can suddenly shift sides or flat-out refuse to work with diplomats and military. This means the teams had to find alternatives to ascertain local ownership. Or come up with creative solutions to continue collaboration, such as the ‘Kidal group’ under the guidance of Sina: “I loved being chair, because I had never done it before”.

Fragile as the Sahel region is, it was the human rights experts who were the ‘watchdogs’ of the diplomats and military. Isa kept on asking: “Is it responsible what we are doing?”. Although this added another level of complexity to the negotiations, it produced carefully balanced plans to keep everyone on board. It was as if the students were actually ‘in the field’ trying to make things work.

This was because Ms Balt had introduced the group to diplomats, human rights experts and military, the week before the simulation. In the Frederikkazerne, students learned how to manage a crisis from the military. Furthermore, they got tips and tricks on how to broker peace and prevent further conflict from former Ambassador & human rights expert Laetitia van den Assum and Diplomat Martin van Vliet, specialised in the Sahel.

The feedback of students on the simulation was overwhelmingly positive, in terms of learning experience. Some felt lost because they did not fully grasp the issues, and could not solve them in 3,5 hours. This offered another useful reality check: “My take away is that it is easy to criticise the actions of people but the experience is different when you are on the ground”, according to Rita, chair of the Gao group.

Andrea admitted: “I won’t lie – I was very nervous (initially) about the simulation […] and the purpose. But […] I enjoyed the two-level negotiation”. The chair of the day, Joseph concluded: “I had an amazing experience”.