Negotiated learning: Simulating an international environment convention

- April 10, 2013

Casting votes at the student convention. (Sher Scott photo)
Casting votes at the student convention. (Sher Scott photo)

For three days last month, the University’s Club Great Hall was home to an international negotiation of sorts between the Students of SUST 2001 - Environment, Sustainability and Governance: A Global Perspective.

Their goal: pass six articles on Access and Benefit Sharing within the Convention on Biological Diversity, a document which they collaborated to prepare over the last few months.

The project was a semester-long initiative, where students acted as international stakeholders to edit an online document of resolutions to be negotiated and passed at the Convention. Others played media outlets covering the convention. According to faculty members Elizabeth De Santo and Matthew Schnurr, who designed and facilitated the course, the students thrived on the project, greatly enjoying the freedom to contribute to the course.

The practical insight into international relations, complex sustainability issues and stakeholder negotiations has certainly been eye-opening for many students.  

“I don’t know if I would want to do it as part of a career - maybe,” said Sustainability student Hadrian Laing. “We learned tons, and got to meet and interact with new people but the practicalities of negotiation can be frustrating.”

Working through conflict

Ultimately, about half of the proposed resolutions were passed by the parties, which the professors say reflects the students’ understanding of the complexity of international negotiation.

“There is a lot of idealism at the start, before the realization of how complex international negotiations are sets in,” said Dr. Schnurr. “As more research goes into the interests of the stakeholders, the class learns why it is so hard to come to a consensus on even small things.”

Dr. Schnurr stressed that each of the three ways to vote — in favour, opposed or abstaining — can have an impact. “Each has power – even an abstention may stop those opposed from obtaining the necessary majority.”
The facilitators were impressed with the commitment students showed to their task, often meeting in small groups to form alliances or work through stakeholder conflict.

“This exercise is a great way to bring the real world into the classroom,” said Dr. De Santo. “I’ve participated in actual convention meetings and this helps students get a feel for what it’s really like.”

Practical applications

For Laing, who represented an NGO in the negotiations, the key lesson of the experiential learning model was clear. “You can’t expect to benefit unless you stand up, apply yourself, and really strive towards the results you want. You really get what you put into it, so the experience is unlimited.”


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