AP Literature Service Learning 2020/21

A token for your thoughts: foreign aid and the token experiment

by Alan D, Sumin J, Iffany Z and Athena R

AP Lit students

(This group conducted a simulation where high school students were allocated tokens. Some students were given more tokens and some less, with the goal of trading/giving tokens to create an equal distribution among high school students in a 24-hour period. They had investigated foreign aid and inequity in relation to how aid dollars are often allocated and handled. Here is their group reflection.)

Whether you hoarded 112 tokens or gave them all to Marc and Theo, you probably felt daunted by the seemingly impossible goal of equally allocating tokens among the high school student body. You aren’t alone. On a global scale, this is a challenge that every country must extensively ponder prior to making decisions that fundamentally alter the economic fabric of our planet.

Here’s a question that might make this more clear: If you started with multiple tokens, were you more inclined to donate or keep them? It’s the classic prisoner’s dilemma: either maximize your individual resources or prioritize the needs of the collective good. Unsurprisingly, we tend to act in our own self-interests at the expense of others.

“Once I heard everyone in my grade was giving their tokens to Marc, I knew I had to hustle.”

Our goal in this project was to uncover the truth behind this dilemma on a local and global scale. We had settled on this research question: How, and to what extent, has foreign aid impacted economies on the African continent, and what role -- if any -- does aid have to play in a more stable future for African nations?

Our MISO (media, interview, survey, observation) research consisted of online sources, interviews with members of the Concordia community, a survey of the high school student body, and observations from people’s responses to our topic. We are excited to share our findings with you. 

The main barrier to effective foreign aid is the misallocation of resources. Corruption, failure to improve education, and systemic racism have altogether resulted in “dead aid”. In other words, chucking money at Africa is unsustainable in the long run. As Zambian economist and author of Dead Aid Dambisa Moyo notes, “has more than $1 trillion in development assistance over the last several decades made African people better off? No.” Moyo argues that in many circumstances, aid has actually led to dependency, corruption, market distortion, and an increase in poverty. The alternative, she proposes, are free-market solutions in a more regulated way. With 60% of the population under 24, job creation is crucial.

African economies abound with consequences of foreign aid. A 2014 report by Dr. Tim Street, Associate Fellow of Oxford Research Group, revealed that countries in Africa receive about $133.7 billion each year from official aid and grants, yet over $218 billion is extracted from the continent in the form of debt repayments and multinational company profits. Similar statistics from a variety of sources have all pointed to the notion that African countries pay more than they receive.

But the pitfalls of foreign aid are not merely financial. According to American political scientist Nicolas van de Walle in his book Foreign Aid in Africa: Learning from Country Experiences, large amounts of aid produce what’s called a ‘Dutch Disease’ in the domestic economy, or aid that is said to lessen the autonomy and resilience of national institutions by devaluing indigenous capacities, technologies, and cultures. Foreign aid has stunted the growth of domestic sectors and eroded local traditions and cultures.

That isn’t to say foreign aid is only harmful. In 2005, the United Nations recognized the growing gap of inequality and made it a goal to double the aid to the world’s poorest countries through the UN Millennium Project. Fifteen years later, they remain dedicated to providing aid, working with peacekeeping operations and fostering regional cooperation. Goal #10 of the current Sustainable Development Goals (specifically target 10:B) encourages development assistance and investment in the least developed countries and addresses inequality and the need to direct foreign investment. While foreign aid can be positive, as discussed, it tends to engender a sense of dependency and helplessness on the recipient country. Thus, the way to truly benefit African nations is through intentional, accountable, and transparent practices.

In the context of the Concordia community, students are only somewhat aware of foreign aid. When asked “where would you give foreign aid”, countries in Africa received the most support: 36.7% selected an African country. 

Surprisingly, not many considered it an obligation for world leaders to provide aid to any struggling African nation. In fact, 32.5% of respondents to our survey chose “no” when asked whether they would be interested in receiving information about ways to contribute to a more stable future for African nations. This indicates a pervasive sense of apathy within the Concordia community.

Since change can start on a small scale, we aimed to educate the Concordia community about foreign aid in Africa as well as deepen awareness and empathy. Thus, the Token Experiment was born.

The Token Experiment depicts the reality of our world today: an intensifying gap between developing and developed nations. In the simulation, 30% of our high school students represented developed countries while the other 70% represented developing countries. The “rich” countries started with 12 tokens each while the “poor” countries started with 2 tokens each. The objective was for everyone to engage in a sharing system so that each individual in the high school ended up with the same number of tokens. 

We incentivized the rich to keep their tokens to themselves by offering chocolate treats that could be exchanged for 10 tokens after 24 hours. With 310 students in the High School (excluding the four of us), we distributed a total of 1550 tokens (1116 to the rich, 434 to the poor). Ideally, everyone would end up with 5 tokens if the rich were willing to give to the poor. Of course, the students didn’t know this magic number. They were forced to communicate with one another, to devise plans to best allocate the tokens, and to deal with people like Marc and Theo (and Sam, apparently)…

Without further ado, below are the results of our experiment:

The histogram (top) shows the number of tokens each student ended up with after 24 hours. The distribution is right skewed. The center (median) is 4 tokens. The IQR is 2 tokens (the range of the middle 50% of the data). There are two outliers at 16 and 112 tokens.







Median (Center)



Standard Deviation







Both distributions are right skewed. The center (median) of rich students is 6.50 tokens, which is greater than that of poor students (3 tokens). The range of the middle 50% of rich student data is 5, which is the same as that of poor students. There are three outliers in the poor students data and one outlier in the rich students data. Overall, rich students who started out with 12 tokens tended to give away some tokens while the poor students who started with 2 tokens tended to gain a few tokens.

About 25.4% ended up with 0 tokens while 0.4% (1 student) amassed 112 tokens. 19.4% achieved the goal of 5 tokens. 

The high school body would have won if the standard deviation was within 1.50. The observed standard deviation is 7.45, which means the number of tokens each student had at the end of 24 hours typically varied from the mean (4.687) by about 7.45 tokens. This high standard deviation is largely due to the extreme outlier at 112 tokens. 

FINAL RESULT: The high school student body failed.

Throughout the day, we watched students like Robert and Allison calculate their predicted averages and create spreadsheets; students like John who just gave all his tokens away 5 minutes in; and students like Aiyan distributing her extra tokens to others (interrogating them first to ensure they represented a developing nation). By D Block, Casey announced that Marc had collected over 50 tokens.

Of course, some rich were willing to give to the poor but others weren’t. The high school body was a microcosm of what happens on a global scale. Global leaders and individuals must decide how to allocate their resources to benefit themselves or the collective good. While there aren’t any significant consequences for us, the disputes and deceit over the tokens symbolizes the actions and motives that endanger millions of people all over the world. 

“How many tokens do you have? I only have 2.”

(The person in question had way more than 2 tokens)

As globally active citizens, we must decide where to put our money. And foreign aid -- although flawed today -- helps the development of African countries when directed to sustainable causes such as entrepreneurship and micro-lending (i.e. offering aid to specific needs). Specifically, we may consider funding surgeries for kids, establishing relationships with local schools, and donating to reliable organizations such as UNICEF and the Red Cross (here’s a list of trustworthy organizations made by Network for Good). On the other hand, we must be more careful with macro-lending, the lending of large sums of money to infrastructure; it is less likely to be effective and more likely to lead to corruption.

As Barbara Kingsolver notes in her book The Poisonwood Bible, “Everyone is complicit.” It is our job to walk forward into the light: to support those in need.