Humanitarian workers facing complex emergencies such as the volcanic destruction of Goma and famine in Afghanistan may in future be offered realistic training using computer simulations.
Researchers at the University of Oxford and Columbia University in New York have won £200,000 funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a two-year pilot study of the idea.
Aid workers have to make rapid decisions about shelter, healthcare, sanitation and food and water distribution. They must protect vulnerable groups such as children and the infirm. Though many have medical, engineering or other expertise, few have been trained for everything that they may encounter in the field.
Designed for use by international agency staff and local workers, the computer simulations will give aid workers a chance to learn and to make mistakes without harming anyone.
The project is being led by Marilyn Deegan at Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre, Jonathan Darby at the university's technology-assisted Lifelong Learning Unit, and Peter Sommer at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning.
The training will probably comprise scenarios involving conflict, disaster and forced migration. Conflict specialists and technical experts will be consulted to ensure that the simulations are authentic.
"Another aspect of this training has got to be security," said Sean Loughna, an Oxford researcher who formerly worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Aid workers have increasingly become the targets of violence. In September 2000, three UN refugee workers were murdered in West Timor. Charlotte Wilson, a British teacher with Voluntary Service Overseas, was killed on an off-duty trip to Burundi.
Computer simulations are increasingly recognised as useful training for life-and-death situations. The US marine corps trains troops on the realistic battle game Operation Flashpoint.