Politics of Poverty

Can a board game reach policy makers on US foreign assistance?

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Attendees of USAID's 2014 Frontiers in Development's Innovation Marketplace took their turn trying to successfully complete a water and sanitation project with Oxfam. Photo: Jennifer Lentfer / Oxfam America

Oxfam pilots an interactive game on aid effectiveness based on actual scenarios on the ground.

People have been playing more games these days in Washington DC. And I don’t mean the strategies of the Secret Service or Veteran Affairs spin teams.

Over 100 development practitioners and USAID staff took their turn trying to successfully complete a water and sanitation project during USAID’s 2014 Frontiers in Development’s Innovation Marketplace last month. (Even Raj Shah stopped by the booth and learned about the game, but unfortunately didn’t have time to play.)

Built from real-world scenarios, I developed the board game as an opportunity for Oxfam America to engage policymakers and our peers on the role of stakeholder dialogue, transparency, ownership, and feedback in making aid work for everyday citizens in developing countries. 

To begin, each player chooses a profile: a village leader, a project manager, a local government official, a young mother, an NGO field officer, or a donor. Moving one square at a time, they must find the route to a successful completion of the project for all the stakeholders in just five minutes! (Because let’s be honest, aid projects are always working against a clock.) Of course, just like in the real world, players are faced with obstacles along the way, though some have more information than others, like:

  • Community X leaders express different priorities than what the funding is for.
  • The local partner that will be responsible for implementing the project on the ground was not included in the proposal phase of this project.
  • The assessment conducted did not include interviews with other non-profits and existing community groups.
  • The local district officer of the Ministry of Water Development stops construction after not being consulted.
  • Women were not sufficiently consulted. They have concerns about their safety near the site and have been using old, contaminated water sources.
  • A local journalist uncovers that money for a new borehole [well] was allocated by the Ministry of Water Development last year.

Will the project be completed? Who will win in the end? Players hopefully find that the key to winning is often the most obvious, but under-valued approaches.

Games have experienced growing popularity in DC aid circles over the last few years, as evidenced by these events hosted by the Society for International Development and the World Wildlife Fund a couple of years ago. Online and in-person games now abound in agriculture and disaster preparedness, let alone the endless hackathons to play with open data.

I wanted Oxfam to invite people to play a game at the Frontiers conference because:

1)  For all the talk of solutions or innovations in international development, a key problem we’ve not yet been able to crack is how the people who are most affected by global poverty and injustice can influence, guide, and direct donor aid policy and programs;

2)  Games are a step closer to putting people in the driver’s seat of change because they are built on an assumption of agency and rational choice;

3)  They are fun! (Not to diminish anyone’s suffering in the world, but we DC folks might stand to benefit from taking ourselves a little less seriously from time to time.)

Of course the question is whether these games can lead to a more complete understanding of the challenges of development, especially for those making decisions on foreign assistance from DC’s ivory towers. As a pedagogical approach, our game breaks down these walls to understanding far-removed and complex issues, by engaging people in easier-to-understand and tangible scenarios. At least the game attempts to serve as a thought and dialogue stimulator, in ways that policy papers and budget line items cannot.

We’d love to hear from you!


We’d love your feedback:

  • Did you play the game at the Frontiers conference? What did you take away from it? Any suggestions for us?
  • Are you interested in testing out the Oxfam aid effectiveness game? It continues to evolve, but please leave a comment and we’ll be in touch when it’s ready for sharing!
  • We still need a name for it. Any ideas? Alive and well? Well begun is half done? Mean well? All’s well that ends well?
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