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ACTIVITY 2: Grappling with Trade-Offs

Learning Goal
Students will explore thorny decisions about balancing the supply of resources with humanitarian demands, and the needs for short-term relief versus long-term development. In Cuny's words, "When you've got a disaster, by God, use it." As for the U.S. domestic agenda, financial availability is limited and choices clearly reflect values and priorities.


  1. Explain that students will be representing key ministries within the government of Zanastan, a poor fictitious country in West Africa. This strife-ridden state has just emerged from a civil war and needs to invest in its future as the ministries prepare a consolidated appeal for potential donors under the auspices of the United Nations.

  2. Assign students randomly to one of five groups representing the departments of agriculture, health, justice, education and public works.

  3. Each group needs to identify the goals, needs, and interests of their ministry and should be prepared to make a presentation to the class. They should also consider the likely interests and possible reactions by major donor governments like the United States, UN organizations, and NGOs, and be prepared to defend their position.

  4. Bring the class together and have each group make a presentation.

  5. Facilitate a discussion about the relative importance of each ministry's presentation. Questions might include the following:

    What is more or less important, and why? What are immediate versus longer-term considerations? Are there any investments, once made, that might reduce other demands? Must some sectors precede chronologically before others? How should money be proportioned to each ministry? Could additional funds be mobilized, and from whom?

A variation of this exercise for U.S. history classes could focus on the American delegation's response to Zanastan's woes. As such, students will explore differing perspectives of the American government and body politic about the pluses and minuses of reactions to this hypothetical humanitarian crisis (or to a past real one if additional research is possible). Questions given to the class might include:

Why should the United States care? What will be the reaction of the American public and why? What are the possible domestic and international repercussions from action and inaction? What are Western allies and Zanastan's neighbors doing? What role has the media played in this crisis?


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