Roleplay Reflections

25 June 1999 | Report

Zoe Young

At noon on the second day of the Terschelling meeting, five of us were lured away from the peak of the discussions to ‘role-play’ a World Bank public consultation. With the minimum of preparation, we were to perform before lunch.

I for one was initially wary, never having been good at drama. However I was curious, and since our purpose in Terschelling was to learn more about the World Bank way of working, any new approach held potential. Our task was to imagine a typical project situation, and then play out the archetypal roles of people from different organisations involved: the World Bank, a transnational company consultant, the government, local communities and a Nothern NGO.

First off, we five holed up in one of the bedrooms – some got into the bunks. With guidance and encouragement from BothENDS’ Theo, we thrashed out a scenario: public consultation for a World Bank integrated conservation and development project created by foreign consultants in an unnamed African country, damaging coastal wetlands and local livelihoods, desired by national government and opposed by coalition of locals, NGOs and academics.

There was strong competition for the role of ‘Word Bank representative’ and ‘project consultant’: these prizes went to people from Urgewald and Friends of the Earth respectively. The job of ‘President of the Republic’ had to go to the representative of Oilwatch Africa; as the only academic present, I was landed with ‘local communities’. The least-desired job, which strangely enough was the ‘Northern NGO‘, ended up with someone from a Northern NGO.

The hectic and hilarious elaboration of the context and allocation of roles took up most of the time available, so we went into the meeting/dining room where our sudden audience was gathered with only the vaguest notion of what exactly was going to happen. Yet there were few nerves. It was as if we each felt that in the intensity of the preparation, we had created a shared vision out of our disparate experiences of one institution, and one process of ‘participatory disposession’ being played out globally.

As soon as the statements by the project backers started, and went on, and on, and seemed to be taking up the whole of the time available… when I realised I had too many warring interests to represent, and was unable to understand let alone express them all effectively…when the northern NGO was able only to make comments on policy… and the technocratic consultant dominated discussions with the agenda of his nodding paymasters… we knew where we were. With the vocal recognition of the audience, we had taken on characters and started to play out an archetypal scenario we all knew all too well.

Too soon (at least for me as ‘the locals’, hardly able to be heard among the eloquent techno-babble coming from the ‘podium’ – a dining table) the play was over, and it was time to face comments from the floor. As ever, they felt there could have been better co-ordination between key local community interests and the well-resourced but largely impotent Northern NGOs. More facts, figures and other resources could have been available to tackle the World Bank allies on their own ground. And perhaps most fundamentally, those opposing the project could have turned the meeting round, agreeing to participate only if it was held on their terms, on their ground, and according to a different vision of what development and conservation mean. How such a scenario might realistically be engineered is not something we got round to, but could perhaps usefully be explored through role-play given more time.

So while I had been reluctant to give up scarce meeting time for what seemed like a game, I think was not alone – among the participants at least – in finding the exercise both valuable and entertaining. With a mixture of (often unintentional) humour and bitter experience we five were able to draw out some of the personal, strategic and political issues arising from our diverse dealings with the World Bank’s way of thinking. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves and some may have learned something too. What long term effect the play may have is not yet known; but for the rest of the day at least a few of us actors had trouble abandoning our acting personalities.