The INEE website has moved to You are currently viewing the static archive of the former INEE website, established in May 2019.

Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Confronting the Complexities of Equity and Equality in Emergency Aid, aka the Chocolate Cake Lecture

by Andrew Epstein, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

In June of 2010, UNICEF’s new executive director, Anthony Lake, tasked the agency with adopting an equity focus in all its programs and sectors. Each office was given the challenge of drafting policies and procedures that reflected this focus, and for most, this was not a difficult task: the notion of equal access to basic services already formed the core of their missions. We already knew, for example, that while many developing countries were making great strides toward the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, large populations within these countries were being left out, particularly in places prone to war and natural disasters, rural areas far from the capitals, and women and youth. So these places and populations became a high priority. Disasters, since they most often strike and/or take the largest toll in these contexts, have come to be seen as opportunities to “build back better,” as in the case of post-earthquake Haiti for example.

But the task of developing an equity focus for the office of emergency programs was not so straightforward. The nature of emergencies, whether natural disasters, severe disease outbreaks, or war, presents not only challenging conditions under which aid could be delivered, but also raises complex ethical and political questions. In an environment where there are more people in dire need than there are resources to help them (the reality of most emergency response efforts), how can an equity focus help prioritize the delivery of aid? Does this mean that some populations should be turned away if they don’t fit the characteristics of those who have been targeted, an issue that refugee camps and feeding centers have confronted for decades. Should hard-to-reach areas—where historically marginalized populations tend to live—be served instead of easier to reach places where less vulnerable communities are located? The higher cost of reaching these areas however, would be done at the expense of reaching larger numbers of people, who while not the most marginalized, may nonetheless have plenty of legitimate needs in an emergency. Might a focus on marginalized populations jeopardize the relationship between aid institutions and their government hosts, such as the case in Darfur? Will aiding one population or region instead of another inadvertently fan the flames of conflict, such as the case in the former Yugoslavia?

Most aid institutions confront these questions daily and have for quite some time, and so it is important for students and teachers of humanitarian aid—and especially those working in the education sector—to understand some basic policy issues around equity and equality. I mention the importance of the education context because Western ideals about education and schooling are deeply rooted in the idea that equal access to a quality education is one of the most important ingredients to establishing social, economic, and political equality. It may be the single most powerful and oft used justification for the inclusion of education in emergency humanitarian response, but seldom are the very real challenges of implementing an equity policy under the conditions of an emergency fully confronted. I have used the following lecture/discussion and classroom activity to outline the complexities of equity and equality in emergency aid policy numerous times with both undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grinnell College, and Cornell College. It is adapted from Chapter 2 of the book, Policy Paradox and Political Reason, by Deborah A. Stone (2002). I highly recommend that this chapter be read and the attached cheat-sheet/handout be reviewed prior to teaching this lesson.

Supplies for the lesson:
A medium size, preferably round, chocolate cake.
Plates, napkins, forks, and serving knife, the latter of which I admittedly always forget.

1. The Chocolate Cake
Present the chocolate cake to the class, place at the head or center of the room, and tell the class you have a conundrum: What is the most EQUITABLE way of distributing this cake to the class? Once all the oohs and ahs have quieted (and that faint sense that your teacher evaluation scores have just inched up), tell them you’re serious, and ask for ideas. If the class can’t get beyond the typical “count the number of students” response, use the following questions/prompts to generate additional ideas:

  • What if not everyone wants cake?
  • Should we save some for those who are absent?
  • What about those who would have signed up for this class had they known there would be chocolate cake?
  • Anyone allergic to chocolate?
  • Should 6-4, 225lb George get a bigger piece than 5-4, 125lb Sally?
  • What if a few of you already had dessert today?
  • Has anyone not eaten yet today? Perhaps they should have at least a larger piece?
  • What if we had a student with a disability and she/he couldn’t feed her/himself?
  • Don’t you think seniors/graduate students should get a larger piece then freshmen/undergrads?
  • Since women dominate the College of Education, and have for a long time, perhaps we should split the cake into equal halves, and then give one half to the men and the other half to the women, no matter the disparate numbers?
  • Should a larger share of the cake go to Susan, who is a single mom and sometimes struggles to feed her own children at home—she is likely to give the cake to her children whose own concentration and learning at school may be improved if their bellies were full.

2. Lecture: Defining Equity and Equality
Although the terms equity and equality are used interchangeably in normal discourse, it is necessary here, in policy discussions, to make an important distinction. Very simply, equality refers to the SIZE of a distribution, while equity refers to its FAIRNESS. We can see this in the fact that: equity (fairness) does not always mean equality (sameness). Affirmative Action or food stamps are perhaps the most well known policies that illustrate this point. Use the solutions that the students came up with in the cake distribution discussion to illustrate this point further.

Here is where you can then present the 8 dimensions of equity policy, outlined in the attached cheat-sheet/handout. It will more definitively illustrate different equity policy approaches, the different relationships of equity to equality, and some modern policies that reflect each approach. You can hand the sheet out or write it up on the board, integrating the students’ ideas from discussion as well as drawing from current events. I like to do the latter and make them take notes because they remember the content more effectively this way, but I know writing on a board is so old school. I’ve been meaning to develop a fancy Power Point with pictures and pop music (and even more elevated teaching evaluations!). The following is a very brief summary discussion of the cheat-sheet (the best, however, is in the Stone chapter).

The first three approaches illustrate the different ways of (re)defining the recipients of a distribution: by nature of membership in a particular group such as being a member of the class (cake) or those born in a particular country (citizenship); by rank (undergrads get crumbs, grads get a slice without frosting, junior faculty get a slice with frosting, and senior faculty get the same plus a linen napkin and silver fork) or merit (merit-based university scholarships or government research grants), both of which are referred to as vertical equity; and by need such as food stamp recipients or past inequities such as under-represented men in the College of Education, minorities on campus, or government contracts to women-owned businesses (affirmative action), all of which is referred to as horizontal equity.

The next two, approaches 4 and 5, (re)define the thing that is being distributed. In this case, the cake is seen as part of a larger whole, such as in nutrition: assuming that everyone “needs” dessert, the size of the slice would be determined by how much dessert a healthy person of a certain size needs, plus how much dessert each person already has access to, and then the distribution would make up the difference. Need-based financial aid and progressive taxation are examples of this. In a similar case, the cake is seen as having large value to some people and little value to others. Our students who are allergic to cake, for example, do not need any cake, the average person like our imaginary Sally might need some cake, while Michael Phelps or Jackie Joyner-Kersee, or our imaginary George, would need a lot of cake. Public housing is an example, where family size is used to determine the amount of assistance needed and number of rooms provided. Both of these approaches hinge on an assessment of need and value, both requiring healthy helpings of judgment and often conflicting data, making these approaches politically volatile.

The last three approaches (re)define the process of distribution, using lottery/random selection, competition, and elections as methods for establishing equity. In these cases, one could say that if people felt that the chances of getting a distribution were fair, they would be willing to accept the outcome. Thus, if there simply was not enough cake to go around, students could put their names in a hat (lottery or random sampling); or everyone could be given a fork, lined up equidistant from the cake, and when the teacher yells GO!, it’s a matter of who gets to the cake first (one might raise the issue of our disabled student and propose equal access solutions, or question whether competition always serves the public interest, but we can’t ignore the fact that advances in fork technology might certainly be served in this case!); and finally the class might choose to elect a cake representative, in whom they will trust to find a reasonable solution to the chocolate cake conundrum.

3. Education in Emergencies Contexts
The last step is to ask students to get into small groups and imagine under what circumstances each of the 8 approaches might be appropriate to determine to whom and/or where emergency education resources should be distributed.  For each, they should describe both the benefits and challenges of such an approach. The instructor could instead present a set of cases, for which each group would need to argue which approach of the 8 would be the best.

4. Don’t forget to eat the cake!
Remind the students that the cake conundrum remains, and in order to eat it, they must propose a solution. And then, enjoy!


Dr. Andrew Epstein is an independent researcher and lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has worked for UNICEF, USAID, Education Development Center, Save the Children, and CARE International primarily in Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya. He specializes in research, monitoring, and performance and impact evaluation in conflict- and disaster-affected settings, as well as teacher training, school management, and government capacity building. He is also an INEE member. He has written recently about a USAID-funded gender equity in education project in South Sudan, education and refugees, and the culture of formal schooling in post-conflict communities. Prior to his international work, Dr. Epstein was a high school principal and English teacher in the US for 15 years.


Click here to read the latest articles in the Discussion Forum.

To respond or pose questions and comments about this article, please log in to the INEE website, access this article, and click on the Comment section below following the article. (If you forgot your password, click here; if you are not an INEE member yet, click here; for any other technical issues, please contact [email protected])