State of the Planet

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Students Compete in Food Security Simulation

By Catalina Villegas

Never before has there existed a global community—or economy—as interconnected as ours. Never before have such a diversity of cultures, ideas and histories been able to communicate with each other and depend on each other like our society does today. The global nature of our world brings innumerable benefits. At the same time, due to this  interconnectedness, every country has a shared responsibility to work towards global prosperity. But each region of the world, and each country, faces a unique set of problems, and local and regional concerns have to be balanced when cooperating on a large scale.

So, how do multiple stakeholders compromise their competing needs and develop a global coordinated strategy that is politically palatable, possible and comprehensive enough to have an impact? NASPAA-Batten’s annual Student Simulation Competition challenges students to do just this.

NASPAA competition to come up with a solution to solve World Hunger by 2030, held at Sipa
Students work to craft their food security strategy. Photo: Barbara Alper

On Feb. 25, masters students from universities all over the U.S. Northeast gathered at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) for the 2017 competition hosted by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA). 47 graduate students spent the day competing and collaborating with each other to address this year’s topic: food security and the worldwide effort to address UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 (end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030).

“We were joined by nearly 50 students from dozens of public policy programs throughout the Northeast. Schools represented included John Jay and Baruch Colleges in New York City, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, UMass Amherst, Harvard and Princeton. We even had one participant from the University of North Dakota,” said site leader Dan McIntyre, associate dean for academic affairs at SIPA. “Students were a wonderfully diverse group, including both current government employees and full-time students from diverse backgrounds in the U.S. and abroad.”

NASPAA competition to come up with a solution to solve World Hunger by 2030, held at Sipa
Students work on the computer simulation model in teams. Photo: Barbara Alper

Columbia’s SIPA, along with the Earth Institute, hosted one of eight sites that held simultaneous student competitions across the globe. Nearly 400 students participated in total. On competition day, students gathered at SIPA in teams to represent fictional non-governmental organizations split into three parallel “worlds” that competed with each other. In each world, four regional sub-groups (South America, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and Southern Asia) were tasked with addressing the challenges of food security for countries within their region. Throughout the day the students worked in a state-of-the-art computer simulation, programmed by The Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy at the University of Virginia, to assess impacts of possible policy projects to improve food security.

“I was impressed by the level of engagement, thoughtful approach, and commitment to identifying workable solutions that resulted in a high-spirited and truly rewarding event,” said SIPA Dean Merit Janow. “We look forward to undertaking future collaborations of this kind as we prepare the next generation of leaders.”

In each regional team, students played roles of NGO staff: an environment program officer, health program officer, agricultural program officer and a regional director. Each program officer had to pitch and advocate for projects that would improve indicators relative to their sector. The regional director decided on projects based on their merits and the constraints of their budgets, trying to optimize their overall score in the model simulation—based on a set of 30 indicators. The regions faced different problems ranging from malnutrition to low crop diversity to persistent drought.

Program officers could choose projects such as sustainable family farming modernization; improvement to access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene; improved cook stoves; school feeding programs; waste to energy for rice milling; promoting climate-resilient livelihoods for small-scale famers; and a golden-rice initiative, among many others. Each project ranged in cost and had different effects on various relevant indicators.

“Although most students’ were new to the field of food security, I was impressed by their ability to quickly adapt to their roles, consider the problems using a multi-sectoral approach, and successfully utilize a complex simulation model to inform policy decisions. Their ability to speak truth to power is a source of hope and inspiration,” said Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and one of the global judges who observed the students at the Columbia site.

NASPAA competition to come up with a solution to solve World Hunger by 2030, held at Sipa
The winning team from the SIPA/New York site. Photo: Barbara Alper

The computer simulation allowed the players to test which projects could best influence indicators to improve overall food security. The simulation ran for four rounds covering the years 2017-2030. Students were provided historical data on their region including GDP, population size, environmental concerns and infrastructure development. Additionally, each of the potential projects included detailed description of its scope and purpose as well as expected impacts to the region. Of course, players had to make judgment calls based on the limited information they were provided. Not all problems a region faced could be solved with their available budgets, and occasionally, an environmental disaster (i.e. a flooding event) would hit a region that would offset some of the progress of the countries in that region.

For example, a cook stove program would involve the creation, production and distribution of improved cooking stoves in the region; it cost $20 million and would improve undernourishment by 12 percent and protein supply by 9 percent. Shortages of fuel for cooking are one of the problems faced by the developing world. Gathering fuel is generally women’s work but is fraught with dangers where women expose themselves and their children to potentially deadly smoke fumes while cooking. In selecting to fund this project, a regional team compared the costs and benefits of this project to roughly a dozen other projects available in a given round, using only the available funding for that round, which typically enabled selection of only a handful of projects.

Complicating the process further, not unlike the real world, while each region in each of the three worlds developed their own project plans independently, they were ultimately judged on how each world performed collectively. The NASPAA competition stresses collaboration. Team members had to combine their varied knowledge of the issues in order to come up with comprehensive policy to maximize the benefit of all regions and all sectors (agriculture, health and environment).

Some teams decided to focus on small incremental improvements throughout the simulation period, while other teams chose a single category—nutrition or food supply, for example—to continuously improve. One team took a heavily quantitative approach to deciding which projects would have the most impact in improving their region’s ranking; they created an Excel spreadsheet to track their historical project selections and their impacts on indicators as well as any proposed project and its impact. Teams were judged throughout the day on their analysis of the issues, teamwork and participation.

In the afternoon, after completing the simulation, each world had to devise an overall global strategy for improving food security. Using the guidelines of UN Sustainable Development Goal 2, and the lessons they learned using the model simulation, each world determined how they would achieve the objectives. The three worlds had only an hour to design a final presentation and plan. In this stage of the competition, all four regions in each world worked together on their final materials. They shared insight they had gained throughout the simulation phase and formulated them into a comprehensive policy. Each world wrote memos with rationales for their proposed projects and developed PowerPoint presentations outlining their overall approach.

NASPAA competition to come up with a solution to solve World Hunger by 2030, held at Sipa
Students present their final strategy to the judges panel and peers. Photo: Barbara Alper.

The students were judged on all of these tasks by members of the Columbia community with expertise in food systems. The three judges were Isabelle Tsakok, adjunct professor at SIPA; Anouch Missirian, PhD candidate in sustainable development at SIPA; and SIPA alumna Suzanne Lipton, project manager at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. At the end of the day, following final presentations, a winning team from the Columbia site was announced. They identified three key current priorities, reducing climate information gaps, agricultural innovation, and a focus on women’s and children’s nutrition, while also laying out a clear strategy for the long-term that included capital innovation, market security and access, water management infrastructure and nutritional support education.

“It was inspiring to be with and interact with so many sharp MPA students, young development practitioners/ tomorrow’s leaders committed to promoting a zero hunger world,” said Taskok. “It gives me hope in the future despite this prevailing anti-government, anti-foreign/immigrant political environment, not only here at home but abroad.”

Each of the eight sites selected one winning team, and the top team at each site advanced to the final global round for an electronic judging of presentation videos and final competition memos. Columbia’s winning team (“World 2”) ultimately won second place internationally. A team of graduate students from South American universities won first place.

Students from the global first-place team will be eligible for summer internships at partner organizations working on food security like the World Food Programme. The judges that made the final selection commended the New York team for an “…outstanding grasp of the big picture” and its interest in “…taking an innovative approach,” with an exciting “embrace of new ideas” distributed through their presentation and memos.

More details about the competition can be found on NASPAA’s website:

Catalina Villegas is a student in the undergraduate major in sustainable development, and an intern in the executive director’s office at the Earth Institute.




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