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Interview with UN Human Rights Expert Amit Sen

Interview with UN Human Rights Expert Amit Sen

All Blog Posts
Interview with UN Human Rights Expert Amit Sen

Interview with UN Human Rights Expert Amit Sen

How do you design for an inclusive and equitable world? What does it mean to ensure digital equity?

Howard Pyle explores the idea of digital equity with Amit Sen, a human rights expert at the United Nations and board member. In this interview, Amit and Howard focus on how technology and design can come together to help create a better experience for people, especially those who are vulnerable.

Amit describes the importance of designing for inclusion and equity - not just equality - as well as what he learned about this challenge while working with humanitarian organizations on some of the world's most pressing problems: human rights, statelessness, food insecurity, and more.

Full transcript of the interview:

Amit Sen  0:05  
My name is Amit Sen. And I'm really thrilled to be working with experience futures as a member of the board of directors. my current role is at the headquarters of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Geneva, Switzerland. And that comes after about 15 years with the UN working on human rights issues, and humanitarian protection for people in crisis, people affected by armed conflict, persecution, human rights violations, and large huge level insecurity. my current role at our headquarters is actually on humanitarian system reform. So it's I'm trying to make the entire thing work better. It's taking a massive step back and saying, what are we doing, that we might not even have anticipated that may be causing more problems than they alleviate, that may be doing more harm than good. And once you start digging in that do no harm line of inquiry, you find that there's so much to be done.

Howard Pyle  1:02  
You know, when we talked a couple of months ago, one of the things that you described really, in vivid detail was some of the ways that refugees and stateless individuals use mobile and digital tools to access, you know, everything from financial support to legal aid. Could you describe that a little bit because I was very moved by that?

Amit Sen  1:27  
No, I find that I am, too, because what I find is that people in crisis, I mean, we used to talk just about refugees as the UN refugee agency. But of course, there's there's a much broader spectrum of people in humanitarian crises, there are people that are internally displaced within their own countries, there are people who are legally stateless, they don't have the protection or the citizenship of any country in the world. That means there's no state that says, you know, it's my legal responsibility to protect and safeguard this person, as a national as a citizen. Well, what we found long story short, is that a lot of people displaced by that crisis, were using it on their own to do family tracing. And we're unification like digital, digital tools that they that they had access to exactly. I mean, they were using social media, they were using communication apps. Yeah. But they, they were doing it in a way where they could kind of do checking on people's, you know, latest location, try to verify with multiple family members or other sources, where a family member was verified that person's identity. And essentially, they were more effective on their own on their own. Right, using, essentially the smartphones and the the tech that they had access to that through that platform to both track trace and reunify family members. So it's just really interesting, because I think we were sitting there saying, how do we do this? Yeah. And here you have a community that's in crisis.

Howard Pyle  2:54  
That's super interesting. And I think that the, you'd also talked a little bit about this moment were tools that were given to people that were needing financial assistance or legal assistance, where they didn't know how to navigate or use those tools that had been provided by NGOs or government organizations, or even the UN itself.

Amit Sen  3:16  
I mean, I think that one of the huge shifts, and I think it's a, it's a moment of recognition, probably for the private and public spheres, is that within very short notice, we may need to move towards remote operation. And remote in inclusively increasingly means digital, right? So if we have lockdown measures, if we have movement restrictions, if we have quarantines all of which we've had, if we have trouble restrictions between it within countries, right, then the way that we reach one another, whether it's to provide or or to, to, you know, sell a good or a service or to provide a critical humanitarian intervention, it just needs to change and it needs to change very quickly. So what's the experience? what's the what's the UI of that tool? And how navigable is it? And how not only fit for purpose, but fit to person? And I think that's one of the complexities that I want to get to where I think the set of questions you're asking, and the set of solutions you're exploring are so rich. So one of the things that I think we all realize, and we realize this through if you don't mind my jumping a bit back to consumer experience, yes, is that we're not identical by a longshot in terms of our race, or identity, or nationality, or sexuality, or class experience or our education, any of it right, our physical abilities or disabilities, when you have 80 billion human beings from myriad countries. And the thing that's the same about them, is that they're all in crisis, and they need least life saving assistance. One thing that I think we struggle with is how do we get to an equitable experience of delivery rather than an equal? I think there's a move already to tailor private sector Consumer experiences to individual needs. And one of the ways we can do that is by better harnessing, I think, data and honestly and machine learning. But the ethics around that set of questions are complex as well. And if you don't mind my saying, I think that there's, we're we're in a place now where we have two kind of competing interests. And we need to find a way to really reconcile them meaningfully and not see the proposition and one is the need to be data driven and evidence based. Yeah, so the most dangerous thing to do is to say, Well, we know what 80 million people need, and we're going to give them one package and one square shape of what that humanitarian assistance looks like. Right. And the only way to not do that is to have a better read on who they are, where they're coming from, what they want critically, and what they don't, what we really need is a dialogue, what we really need is to listen, and to collaborate and not ghost, I think those two, use your experience, because that dialogue, if we're talking about doing it, whether through tech, it's not going to happen unless the user experience is accessible. A lot of the the UI is is completely opaque, and downright, you know, dysfunctional. So I really wonder what kind of, you know, what's missing in terms of maybe we do need a little bit more of, it could be healthy to be informed a little bit by this kind of consumer ethics of like, we're developing product, right, and this person is our client, and we want their experience to be functional, and if not enjoyable, at least a functional one. And I don't know, perhaps if the private sector is a bit ahead, I think

Howard Pyle  6:30  
that Yeah, well, I can I can speak to that part of it. And, unfortunately, that for the most part, it's not. And I think that when I go and talk to you, I mean, having come out of of two very large organizations with with roles that are literally to do what you're talking about this the same dialogue, you know, trying to convince people that human centric design and designing for the individual is important, and that should be resourced, and it should be you know, funded. It's interesting, because I think that, you know, having spent my entire career in the, in the private sector, the the flip side of that story that I would tell is that every individual commercial experience, seeks to capture that person and lock them into that experience, I'd say interesting creates barriers, by and large, to prevent people from moving between services or systems. That's your data is inoperable, you're right, you know, moving from one system to another, is very difficult. I mean, you do see things now, like the ability to log on across multiple sites using your Google ID, which I think that sort of thing is actually very important, especially for people who don't understand how digital ecosystems work, to be able to log in seamlessly across multiple sites is good. But by and large, every organization seeks to create what we describe as a walled garden, right? This is this thing where you capture an individual, right? And, and they're making make it very difficult for them to take the data or the experience or the tools and use it somewhere else. So that the burden is on the user to think about how to stitch all these things together and, you know, across different websites across different mobile apps. So I think that there's, um, you know, there's definitely not, it's there's definitely not some secret sauce in the private sector, that can be leveraged for government or for humanitarian efforts.

Amit Sen  8:31  
Each of these interfaces, just the user experience is really difficult, really unnavigable really unintuitive. And then when you when you look at the ecosystem between them under or across them, it's even harder. And I think what that what that tells me what's, what's interesting about this is that there's a certain level, we can talk about this in a relatively dry and analytical way. And we can probably help me break down what's wrong in that process. But there's another level of exhaustion, which is the emotional weight of having a special needs child and being worried that you're not going to get the services in place so that you might get to some role. If you don't reserve that that top spot, or you don't make the payment immediately don't get reimbursed in time. And I think that that emotional weight, that emotional energy, it's not something to minimize, because I think we think of these things as perhaps technical problems, and they are design problems, and they are, but when somebody is dealing with something that has that kind of consequence behind it, it's even harder.

Howard Pyle  9:30  
Yeah, I think that's very interesting. I mean, I think it's, um, and there's so many stories like this, and it will, I'm curious to hear, you know, examples from your work. I mean, like, like, you know, we talked at one point and you mentioned a few minutes ago, examples from displaced individuals or stateless individuals, you know, people seeking legal status. But are there any stories that you can share from your work about people like to help humanize it with with people who are trying to understand this question?

Amit Sen  10:00  
Yeah, I mean, I think there are a couple, one of the things that we really need to do is, you know, when people move across an international border, or even within their own country, and they're fleeing something like a war, you're dealing with people who have incredibly acute problems, you know, people may have lost family members, they may have lost limbs, they may need immediate and life saving medical interventions. One of the categories that I was working with as really, very moving and tragic, were expectant women, pregnant women, young mothers, who had were recently widowed by the war. I mean, these are people that are moving with, as you can imagine, some of them their children had congenital birth defects that needed life saving assistance birth, there are two things that come to mind. One is that when you're talking about the numbers, we're talking about, again, with Syria to 11 million, 6 million internally, and about five to 6 million displaced externally as refugees. You need robust, reliable data on these people on their needs. To manage what's going on with them. What had happened is that to be totally honest, we were in competition with each other. We all wanted to have the definitive data platform to collect and manage this sensitive, important protection data. Yeah, and because we didn't really coordinate, what entered it, what ended up happening was a proliferation of different systems that didn't have interoperability, yeah, into which this information is being recorded. So at the end of the day, it's incredibly difficult to say, with any confidence or any clarity, what is the total number of people who have this need? And how is that number shifting and changing over time? Is it more? Is it less? You know, is it different by age bracket? Is it different bite by genders different by disability? So it's interesting, because I even come to this thinking, Well, you know, looking to the private sector, I've been told my whole life, that competition drives excellence, it creates choice, it always delivers the best experience to the individual, right, the more that entities compete, the better the end product is. But here's an example where those kinds of market principles of competition didn't produce efficiencies, instead, we have fragmentation, we have interest, we have a lack of interoperability.

Howard Pyle  12:10  
That's just maybe one. And I think one of the things you had talked about in a conversation early on where examples were. And I think it was, you know, an abstract versus specific individual that you were aware of, but you were talking about how, and you mentioned it earlier, two examples where, say, in a refugee situation, if a financial tools were given to someone via a mobile phone, to a woman, and they didn't understand how to use that device, often they would give it to a man. And that would create an a massive, massive, obvious issue.

Amit Sen  12:47  
I really want to say this, I think the only way to think through that is to be genuine conversation. And that's two way it's on silly. But it is two way for a long time, we said that communication with people in crisis is us telling you, this is where to get your rations. These are your rights, as you know, under international law, these are this is what human rights are, you should know your rights. That is itself incredibly limited and prescribed and arrogant, we really need to be doing is being in dialogue with people. And I think that's the paradigm shift that I'm hoping can happen with user experience. Yeah, is to is to engage in in a dialogic process that for us, whatever we're doing, whether providing a private service, like a monitoring service, or both. We we have a paradigm shift, where we embrace that dialogue as a necessity, and something that benefits us as practitioners. And that we start to work in different ways where when we develop, whether it's an individual user experience or an ecosystem, that we build those considerations into that design process.

Howard Pyle  13:48  
That I think that's I think that's super powerful. I think, if you could begin one effort, you know, in your work, what would it be? Would it be focused on creating like creating digital tools that literally created a dialogue? Would it be focused on a specific humanitarian crisis? Would it be focused on a specific population? Like if you could wave a magic wand and have a partner from the private sector? What would you partner with them

Amit Sen  14:14  
on? That that's a really, really good question. I think, I think one of the things that we've talked about, it's a little bit more on our side is harnessing potentially machine learning to to make better sense of these numbers that are just kind of crippling, and they're enormity, right, like 80 million, forcibly displaced 10 million stateless, I think, to do a humanizing job of meeting people's needs, that has to be more individuated. It can't be your one of 80 million or 10 million, because it's not going to be the right the right intervention. But I think that there's enormous promise within within machine learning and AI to sort through the data that have to deliver more accuracy and how we work from the UI side. I think It's really interesting. I think one thing that would be super interesting would be to take a step back and talk to people in crisis about how they use tech, how they use data, what what parts about it, they find empowering and promising parts about it they find, possibly dangerous and problematic. One thing that I think is really interesting with any tool is that it can introduce risks, as I was just saying that that can be easy to overlook, right? So giving a woman a date, a mobile phone sounds like a really empowering gesture, but it can create a set of risks we don't see. One of the things that I saw, you know, I saw different things with people having access to tech. So the issue of refugees and internally displaced people sorting out family tracing and reunification on their own using things like geolocation and GPS and messaging apps and social media, which they did. Yeah, you know, tremendous resourcefulness. I saw a footnote as well, I saw, you know, smartphones being used to expose children to pornography and harmful content. He said, I'm saying, Yeah, so I think and really vulnerable to children that maybe don't have parents or children that are sitting on the street, you know, that aren't going to have somebody to intervene and say, Stop this, this is this is really dangerous, this is really inappropriate. So I think what would be really interesting would be to start with some listening, and start with an analysis that's done as a partnership with people in different different social locations, different kind of specificities, and say, Well, what is this bringing to the table for you? What what risks potential introducing, what problems does it possibly solve? And what would you like to change? And I think we could start by asking really simple questions. Yeah. If you don't mind. One of your questions was kind of on personal experiences. Yeah, I've seen my work. And I kind of wanted to jump to that. Oh, sorry. Yes, please. No, no, no, because it kind of goes to this a little bit, if that's all right. Yeah. So back when I was doing, I was representing asylum seekers in federal court. You know, getting a current refugee status is supposed to be like winning the lottery. Because you get a package of benefits, you get legal status to reside in the country, you can get a green card, you can become a United States citizen, and you can do family reunification, you can petition for your nuclear family members to join you safely in the US, rather than, you know, the ones that essentially didn't get up still being it life and death risk in the country of origin. So it's supposed to be winning the lottery, one of my clients, we got a refugee status. But when she got her official documentation, her name was misspelled. And her last name and first name were inverted. So they put her last name first and first name last. So this meant that it was impossible for her to enroll to get her benefits and the amount of work we had to do together. It as you say, it was a full time job. And it was incredibly difficult. And that was at a time where just a few things were being moved online with enrollment. Right. And I just chucked just now before we talked, because you were kind enough to send me the question in advance. Yeah, that site that provides the opportunity to roll in those benefits is down. is done. Well, is down. I know. It's inoperable. I mean, there's there's newer. It's inoperable. Right, exactly. Okay, in the US. So I mean, I think one of those questions. I mean, I think there are a couple questions. And do you have access? What is your access, like? And what is your experience with platform a platform B and platform C, and I think it'd be really interesting to look at a spectrum between platforms that are supposed to be more consumer oriented, where the person the end user, we're envisioning is a client or a customer of sorts who we envisioned as having choice to go elsewhere, even though there is maybe an imperative to all the means to a degree, or a person who presses who's trying to enroll for, you know, housing subsidies, United States as a recently recognized refugee, or to get their, you know, to get a service and in a country that's affected by a crisis, you know, like what I was just working. But I think that listening could be really exciting.

Howard Pyle  19:00  
That's fascinating that that's, you know, it's interesting, I think that there's there's tools that in there are tools in the, in the private sector, that allow for corporations who are designing, to engage with customers on things like wide scale testing of interfaces, or, you know, allowing people to participate in online research that allows for organizations to make better choices. But I think what we're talking about here is industrializing that at a scale that that most companies just don't ever do. And I think that that dialogue is is technically feasible, but I'm not aware of anybody that's really pursuing that. Right because I think to a certain degree, with every organization, there is still this mentality of we're gonna listen to you but really, we're just gonna get enough input to tell the didn't tell you and give you the thing that you've told us in forgetting the fact that they've only asked a very, very, very small minority of the people who might use their services or tools. And I think when you bring that to humanity, issues are issues that affect people's legal status or their rights. That becomes a much larger, much more important question.

Amit Sen  20:09  
I mean, it's really interesting in a way, because the more we talk, the more I honestly see a convergence of these two worlds and a convergence of these two paradigms. And I think it's a curious how they've been bifurcated a lot. We think about people in the US, we don't tend to think of them as having humanitarian problems or having their human rights being tenuous or vulnerable. But if you're talking about getting a coat, or getting a vaccine, or getting into a hospital, yeah, we're talking about life and death. And healthcare is a human right, under international law, you're talking about kids being able to enroll in distance learning, education is a human right, it's part of child development. So human rights are on the table. I think, even in the first world, even in the United States, even within the boundaries of our, our, you know, our own home countries. And I think, you know, even for me, that's the privilege put up with a child with a disability while ensuring non discrimination against kids with disabilities, that they're in their inclusivity. And that they're, they're able to go to school, they're able to not be expelled and evicted. I don't want to say it's exactly the same of what somebody who's just fled a bombing is going through, but I think that it's a bit of an artificial separation sometimes. Right? Yeah. Because I think that really, really germane an exigent rights issues are at play for people who are struggling with some of these interfaces and experiences and ecosystems in the first world. And I think, conversely, there's been too much of this idea that work with people that are really apparent crisis, that this is somehow charitable, that they're not clients, they're not customers, they don't have this set of economic imperatives or rights that a traditional client or customer has, I think we need to start looking at them more as people who, you know, maybe in a situation of desperation, but they are people who do make decision who do have choices, and we should create an experience for them, that that meets, you know, that meets their needs and who they are. Yeah,

Howard Pyle  21:53  
that's great. Well, Amit. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions today. I really appreciate it.

Amit Sen  21:59  
It's been a pleasure. I love talking with you. Every time we talk. I feel like I've learned so much. And it's such a motivating issue. I think it's an area, you know, it's interesting, maybe just one last point, if you don't mind. So the work that I do now is under a new kind of a new framing for the humanitarian sector, and it's called accountability to affected people. It's kind of interesting. We, as the refugee agencies always say, refugee refugee refugee, we've moved away from that, because there's so many different kinds of people that are affected by humanitarian crises, and not all of them are refugees. So now we know we have this terminology. And it's an interesting idea, accountability to affected people. What it means at the end of the day, is that the primary person that has to measure our effectiveness and our performance is that person in crisis. It's not a government, not a donor. It's not a state. It's not a, you know, massive private foundation that's bankrolled as a significant amount of our work, our bosses such is that person, and that's the person to be more accountable of it. If that's the case. I mean, I think that that's a nice framing. But if that's the case, we really need to reimagine the process with that person and what they see as a user as especially as we move more towards digitization. Yeah.

Howard Pyle  23:10  
Yeah, no, I think that's really right. I think that's really right. All right. Well, thank you very much.


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