038 - Technology's role in the global displacement crisis with Pietro Galli and Lindsey Kneuven

July 21, 2020

Pietro Galli (CIO of Norwegian Refugee Council) and Lindsey Kneuven (Chief Impact Officer of Pluralsight) discuss the global displacement crisis, the impact of COVID-19 on those who are forced to flee their homes and the important role of technology in the response.

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00:00:00.0 Daniel Blaser

Hello and welcome to All Hands on Tech, where today's leaders talk tomorrow's technology. I'm Daniel Blaser. 

Today's episode features the CIO of Norwegian Refugee Council Pietro Galli and Chief Impact Officer of Pluralsight Lindsey Kneuven. They had a discussion about the global displacement crisis, the impact of COVID-19 on those who are forced to flee their homes and the role of technology in the response.

00:00:35.3 Lindsey Kneuven

Well, thank you so much for joining me today. We have Pietro Galli, the CIO of Norwegian Refugee Council here. Pietro, thank you so much for joining and for taking time out of your day over there in Berlin.

00:00:49.4 Pietro Galli

You're welcome. It's always a pleasure to join you guys.

00:00:52.2 Lindsey Kneuven

I know Pietro has worked over the last 20 years in different roles from the field to the headquarters of humanitarian organizations operating in countries affected by conflict and mass displacement. You joined Norwegian Refugee Council in 2011, in the field, and is now the CIO leading the organization's Global Digital Transformation. 

Pietro, I'd love for you to connect us to that work that you did in the field. You have expressed your love of humanity to me many times and I think that love is stressed and is in such dire need right now in the face of this pandemic. So, if you could talk to us about what you're seeing happening in the field and the transition that you've made from working in-country to the HQ. We'd love to hear about your journey.

00:01:46.1 Pietro Galli

Sure. So, I started working in this field in 1999 when I was very lucky to be given an opportunity to go to Northern Uganda as a volunteer. So my first time in the field was really as a volunteer. And then I think an hour after having landed in a small town in Northern Uganda I was hooked. I knew that was it. I ended up staying there 10 years, between Northern Uganda and South Sudan. I worked on the massive displacement caused by the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda first, and then I worked cross-border to South Sudan at the time of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South. And then I saw basically almost two wars ending. Then I had a family, I came back to Europe and then some years later I went back to the field. I worked in the Middle East and again in Central Africa. 

Over the years, yes, I've got in touch with a lot of situations, a lot of very huge and difficult to deal with situations, lots of displacement, lots of suffering. But also a lot of resilience, a lot of happiness and joy of life. So definitely, it's been a journey and now I am also very privileged to live in Berlin with my family and I am the CIO of pretty large organization - the Norwegian Refugee Council - and I have a great leader and a great management team that supports us and trust us in what we do.

00:03:28.3 Lindsey Kneuven

Thank you. How is COVID exaggerating these crises? You know war doesn't stop in the face of a pandemic and we see displacement numbers rising globally. We see conflict and xenophobia on the rise. What are you seeing taking shape across the 30-plus countries that NRC operates in as it relates to the pandemic?

00:03:53.2 Pietro Galli

Well, the displacement crisis worldwide has continued growing since the Second World War and has reached a peak that is unprecedented. Last year close to 71 million people around the world were displaced because of conflict. Then came COVID and it really increased the challenges that we face to provide assistance to these 71 million people. We work in some of the most difficult environments be it because of conflict, like in Yemen or Libya, South Sudan, Somalia and so on, Afghanistan. We also live in countries that are currently being put under enormous economic pressure, like Lebanon. So, I think COVID has really escalated the plight of displaced people, especially in countries where they are hosted and so they are foreigners. Then also it has created enormous constraints for the humanitarian sector and workers like us because of lockdowns and because of lost access. So we had to really change the way we work and technology has come in, to some extent, to help us do that.

00:05:20.9 Lindsey Kneuven

Our partnership was founded on a compound principle. We wanted to support your vision for digital transformation across the organization and really power the NRC staff with the skills that they need to better serve those who are displaced and forced to flee, and at the same time we see this as a great opportunity for us to fulfil our mission to democratize technology skills and do that both among the non-profit professionals operating globally through NRC, but also the communities that you all support. 

I think this has introduced whole new complex challenges for learning, earning, disruptions to learning that have been really exaggerated by school closures or by movement. So let's talk about your vision for digital transformation. I think it's a really interesting and comprehensive vision. And also how that vision has evolved in the last few months as you've seen this new future take shape.

00:06:26.8 Pietro Galli

So yeah, if I go back a few years, in 2018 we drafted this very high-level ambition as NRC to really become a leader in the use of data and technology to do what we do better. And so we had ideas or wishes of efficiency and effectiveness and impact. We started like everybody, I guess, does. We have our in-house assessments, we had external consultants, we had a long road map with very high-level objectives and we started creating a team and so on. We started investing resources and time in creating solutions for our back-end processes, we seek partnerships like the one with you. And then COVD came and it threw the script book out of the room and we had to really pivot fast and focus. 

And I think... For one thing I would say that COVID has accelerated a lot of the conversations and a lot of the decision making around implementing technology that would have probably taken much longer before. We have taken bolder decisions in experimenting, new solutions, in building things that are good enough and not perfect. I think that kind of focus also helped us to do less of the things that were nice-to-haves. One of the things we did over the last couple of years is we invested in creating a team in Berlin, actually. A team which we call the D-Team (the digital transformation team) and they have been working on multiple projects and multiple products at the same time. 

When COVID came and we had to start understanding very quickly the impact of COVID on our programs, on our staff, on our funding and so on we decided to leave everything that we were doing on the side and really create a... we call it the SITREP - a situation report - application that we built ourselves and now everybody across the NRC world uses and we get monthly reports. Now we've gone to monthly cadence, but we have a very quick pulse on access restrictions, on program adaptation and on issues of donor compliance because of these changes. 

So that's one example. Another important example is the acceleration of using technology to have remote contact with communities that we can no longer access. It was really a nice-to-have and it was because we had continued to maintain access throughout, even the most dangerous war zones, we would have intermittent access but we would maintain this over time, we would negotiate access and so on. All of a sudden when governments closed down entire countries, starting from the airports for international flights and so we had lots of our management staff that was stranded across the world. Then we had districts closing borders between each other in countries like Iraq, where we visited as well. Our staff could no longer visit refugees, could no longer be close to them and serve them. And so one of the important issues that we saw was how do we maintain this information line and this connection to them. And so we started operating a fairly basic technology, which is based on phone calls and SMS and so on, but in countries like these where the infrastructure is very poor or not everybody necessarily has access to a mobile phone or mobile technology or doesn't have access to connectivity, these were really important tools. 

So what we're seeing is that technology is starting to become more and more recognized as an asset that we have to have in our tool set, as opposed to as a commodity or a nice-to-have on top of what we have done for the last 70 years.

00:10:35.3 Lindsey Kneuven

I think you touched on a number of really critical things in that summary but the way that you're providing human services has had to evolve, which also represents training your staff in new modes of service provision. How do you interact with and support very vulnerable individuals with mental health, with services, when you have to be disconnected and when you also want to ensure accessibility for people who may not be digital natives or may not be literate? It's a huge challenge, I'm curious to hear your thoughts. 

There's a lot of donor education that needs to go into this process, helping donors understand the evolving nature of needs in the context where you work and really be partners with you to help you be nimble and respond to things that are impacting human lives. How do you think the technology sector industry can be a better partner with you in that journey to make sure that you can scale resources quickly, that you can do your best work while also ensuring that no harm is created for those that you are working to serve?

00:11:50.5 Pietro Galli

It's a tough question and I'm afraid I'm going to have to say things that may be controversial but our tech teams, our program teams are already overworked and we are constrained in terms of numbers and funding and resources. So we're always on a very tight schedule, especially in the field people work way past 10 hours a day. And so whenever we have an offer of collaboration or even implementing some free solution. Well, first of all, it's never free. You have to have implement it, you have to maintain it, you have to understand that you have to set it up and configure it to fit your settings and your workflows and your culture, I would say. And this takes time and I think one of the things that I've been hearing a lot, especially during the COVID crisis, was let's shift from the proof of concept idea to proof of value. Is this something that is valuable to us, to our beneficiaries? Does it actually bring value to the impact that we want to bring to the community that we serve. Because yeah, technology can work and proof of concept can definitely show that but it may not actually bring the value in the context where you are implementing it. And therefore I think we need to have this shift and it cannot be the tech people alone to evaluate a piece of technology. It to be the program people, it has to be the people that are closest to the communities that we serve because we love... especially... I'm not a technologist by origin, let's say by nature. I come from the program side but I can definitely see the incentive and the motivation when you have a piece of technology that you want to put out there that you're going to try to put it into any context because you have probably spent a lot of time and a lot of effort and you put yourself into it. So I think really value and start measuring impact and the value as impact as opposed to just that it works. I think that's one big learning, I think, for everybody.

00:14:02.6 Lindsey Kneuven

I'd add to that, from the donor side, I think we need to see a move from the expectation of linear impact measurement - always wanting to see a hockey puck of growth - because in instances like this you have disruptions to learning, you have setbacks, you have whole new challenges that are urgent and that have inserted themselves. And need to revise your vision for impact in order to create that sustainable solution (as NRC calls it: the durable solutions) that will help create pathways out of vulnerability, out of poverty, out of reliance. So I think there's a great opportunity to really be listening and looking to the NGO space as experts in the work that you do and come alongside to see how we can infuse technology as a piece of your toolkit, but certainly not a as a silver bullet, because we want to make sure that ethics and that the true impact is really at the core of everything you do.

00:15:09.0 Pietro Galli

Sure. I think you mentioned the word ethics at the end, I think that's extremely important when we think about some of the communities that we serve who have fled conflict, who have fled, possibly, an armed group or government. And so, before using biometrics as a solution for identity, we need to think many more times than we would in our normal context because should that data, should that information be leaked and be exposed there's no way of changing your identity. There's no change of... there's no way to change your biometrics. And so we have a huge responsibility. We refer to it as "Do no harm" in the humanitarian sector. I think there's a lot of work around the digital “do no harm” and ethics around implementation of technology. Yes, we have that responsibility and we have to carry that throughout our work.

00:16:08.2 Lindsey Kneuven

Tell us... One of the things that drew me to NRC as a partner for our work was your stance on consent. I think NRC is really a leader in the humanitarian field and how you approach consent and how you think about the relationship between the services you provide and the power that is held by being a service provider in these urgent contexts. So I know there are many others working in the space. It's a critical issue and there's a lot of partnership happening between you and other organizations, but for our tech audience, for those who are technologists, if you could really connect us to what consent means in the work that you do and why it matters, I'd love to expand on that.

00:16:54.1 Pietro Galli

That's definitely a whole other conversation. Consent is a lot about respect, is a lot about power. So when you are... when you have fled a war and you have nothing and then somebody comes and shows up with a big truck or a white vehicle and has things to offer, that relationship is already skewed. You need assistance and so it's likely that you will say yes to many things. We have improved and we have... we're definitely on a journey to improve our approach to consent in terms of collecting information, in terms of sharing this information further and the respect of the people that we serve has to come first. 

It is tough though, because we are accountable to our donors. We need to be able to prove that we have distributed items or given a particular service. And we are faced with enormous compliance issues. There are many. There are different tiers and we need to be able to prove that the money that we receive from donors (both institutional and private) has actually been used in the right way. So that tension always exists and so it's tough and we I would say that we haven't solved it fully, but definitely NRC takes that approach. It is also helped by the fact that we are a European organization and GDPR does provide a framework and guidelines for that too. So, I think that also helped to bring that in very fast.

00:18:49.7 Lindsey Kneuven

We talked about NRC's scope of work and how that's really evolving in light of COVID, we dug into that with Jan and Aaron (our CEO) in a previous podcast for World Refugee Day, but I know you worked in the field for many years and you saw a range of people's experiences, when they were forced to flee and come seek help from NRC. Can you give us some insight into... across just the variability of the countries that you work in? Let's look at Iraq or Colombia because we've been there together. What are you seeing as a possible path to recovery for individuals who have seen disruption to learning or disruption to livelihoods? I know that these can be very long paths to rebuilding those things. The average stay in refugee camps is quite long these days. But how do you see that changing or evolving as we move to a different future of work, to a more digitally enabled workforce, to open up opportunities or change the landscape of opportunities for people in terms of education and livelihoods?

00:20:08.9 Pietro Galli

First of all, I would start with saying if all wars would end tomorrow we would be on the right path, even without a lot of technology. I would say I would start there. That's of course wishful thinking. You're right, displacement is prolonged. Displacement can be repetitive, over time. So when I worked in Congo, families would be displaced many, many times over even the course of one year. And that becomes a complete disruptor to any stability. If we're thinking of children and youth, not just in terms of disruption to the stability that is required to attend a school and so on but the stability of one's own self, as a human being. 

So if you're always on the run and you cannot settle, you cannot create a sense of community. It's very difficult, also, to develop yourself and your future and your wishes. And so that's one of the things that we do, we try to support children, youth both in formal schooling but also in informal schooling. Especially when, in some countries, after a certain age or after so many years that you've been out of school you cannot re-enter formal education. 

Technology is starting to come in. I would say creep in, in a way. It is true that technology can be made available across borders more easily and so on, but we do face barriers. We face barriers in terms of connectivity. We face barriers in terms of accessibility. We face barriers in terms of language. A lot of the courses that are existing today are in English or in some of the other major languages. But if you haven't gone to school for most of your life, you won't really understand English. So very often we have to start with basic English lessons so that people can actually then maybe follow very basic online training on even just how to open a computer and how to use Office and some basic things. 

Of course, the future, if we look 10 years from now, that will change probably very rapidly. And I think we will see, in some places in the world where maybe there's a bit more stability and less conflict, that these opportunities will be more available. They will probably grow at scale. There's also the issues of legal constraints. So I may be a refugee in a certain country, but I may have no right to work. I may have no access to a saving account because of my status. So one of the things that we do (that actually NRC is a leader in) is what we refer to as information counseling and legal assistance. Having access to your civil documentation as a conduit to having access to basic services (education, health) but also, for example, having the possibility to have a savings account. If you have an identity, then it's more likely to happen. I've heard many say that in the future you may not need that. You may be able to store your credentials and your experience and your certificates and so on in the cloud and through blockchain and so on. I think it's very much the beginning. I think there's a lot of good intent and visionary people working at this but I haven't seen this implemented at scale. And so that is definitely a challenge. 

And if I think back to some of the locations that I've worked in, especially in Africa, you will lose your phone. It will be taken away from you during a checkpoint, as you're fleeing one area to the rest, through to another one. So we assume a lot of things, we make a lot of assumptions when we talk about and think about technology and use of technology in these countries, but it's very much more complicated. So in our work, it's a lot about seeing the possibilities and trying to go over the sentiment of "It's not going to work" or "It's never worked before". So I think yeah, it is also a change in mindset, including myself. I mean, the way I was in the field 15 years ago is very different from how I think about these things today.

00:24:52.7 Lindsey Kneuven

I think there's a level of tenacity that you really have to apply to this work and, when you look at challenges that are just so complex and surrounding a situation, it can be really frustrating and overwhelming when the hope is that there would be a very clear path to applying a technology solution and helping to create a more efficient and positive experience for people along the way. But the reality is much different and if we don't design for the reality, I think we've seen a lot of things fail. One of the things we were talking about there speaks to some of the misconceptions I hear quite a bit in my role where we have a feeling that there's so much open opportunity in the tech space today. There are jobs that we're looking to fill, we need talent, we need top talent. Couldn't we just open up pathways to employment through virtual work or otherwise? And it's a really interesting both opportunity and challenge I think... there's... you mentioned you're often dealing with very immediate, basic needs but at the same time you're working on that resilience and that agency. So often times the need for basic services, for legal rights, for all of these core, fundamental needs are happening in concert as the more agency driven needs. What are some of the top misconceptions that you face today in your work and how could we help debunk them?

00:26:30.3 Pietro Galli

You and I went to Mosul about a year ago and we traveled to Erbil and then we took the road down to Mosul and when we got there half of the city was pretty much in ruins. And then we saw, I would say, almost like a beautiful flower, a beautiful example of what could be. I think it was 16 or 20 young girls that had been taking coding classes and were eager to learn more, and some of them have dreams of becoming the first female coders in Mosul or maybe even in Iraq. But then as we were driving back, we were passing endless encampments of hundreds of thousands of people that had fled Isis, that had lost all their property and that still didn't really know when and if they could go back to their homes and restart their livelihood and so on. 

So, even in that trip, we saw something that was extremely promising and very, I would say, heart-feeling for people like us also who have maybe a passion for technology and education and so on. But at the same time, massive needs at scale that you cannot just take that small example and model and replicate for hundreds of thousands of people in those conditions. So that is one of the things that I always feel that there's a tension and also within our programs and within talking to our teams, and I think we did when we were there, the first reaction may just be but look we have millions of displaced people that we have to look after. Why would we think about that technology? Why would we invest in a lab that can only cover 20 people? 

I wish we can come to a point when it's not either-or but where the two things can live side by side and develop, and we can both contribute to the reconstruction or the construction of something new, like in that lab. But very often these things are a great event on its own and then close down, they die, funding ends. Whoever had that visionary idea to set up this lab may have left and therefore that continuity is lost. And that is a big risk also, because we create expectation that we cannot fulfill. So with Pluralsight and your vision to democratize technology I think we have a great chance to change that. But again, we'll have to start from the current reality, which is that today we are structured and we are set up to assist the millions of people that flee. Last year NRC assisted an estimate of 9 million people and yet, in 2021... in COVID-times we are having constraints in reaching the same number of people. We'll see at the end of the year where we have landed. 

And I am very concerned for 2021 because NRC is greatly funded by institutional donors. And as we know countries are spending enormous amounts of money for their own citizens and own companies and bailouts and we foresee, probably, a drop in foreign aid money. And that's going to have definitely an impact on the lives of millions of people. Especially I think the ones in the worst off situations in the world. 

00:30:19.7 Lindsey Kneuven

And the work you do is so critical to rebuilding peace and stability in regions. You spoke about Iraq and I think what we saw there is these interesting opportunities to really infuse technology as a part of your solution set, along that whole spectrum of need. We saw the innovation happening in the coding camp. We saw girls learning and the really magical thing there was these girls wanted to learn so they could rebuild Iraq. They wanted to create a new future. They wanted to overcome cultural barriers and become creators rather than consumers of tech. They wanted to build mobile apps that would help other young women be more safe. I mean, the incredible ripple effect of that small incubation of a program was really just promising and an oasis, like you said. 

And then as we moved across the country, the town we saw these other opportunities. We saw opportunities to improve the logistics, to improve movement, security through technology and help your team be more efficient, so that they could spend more time on human services. And in the camps we saw, we heard of innovations. One thing that really sparked for both of us was we met with a social enterprise operating in Erbil that had created a youth innovation lab, where they were really deconstructing big systemic problems facing youth in the camp setting, around water and sanitation and hygiene. And those youth had created a glycerin soap that had a 3D printed toy embedded inside so that little kids would be incentivized to wash their hands and maintain cleanliness and hygiene in the camps. And those types of innovation, the human centered design happening there, had such an enormous potential. 

I think the call to action is really for us all to see that there are neglected crises happening around the world. There is a need for continued support, for amplified support. The needs that you are facing are growing, they're growing in complexity, and it's a time to rally in support of your work. So let's close out with just how can we rally our community to help you stay and deliver, to help your community better serve those across the countries you're operating in and scale to meet the magnitude of need? I know we have some simple calls to action, like they can join your Friends of NRC, follow along, follow NRC's work on social, donate. What else can they do to help you forward your work and also forward your vision for digital transformation?

00:33:21.4 Pietro Galli

I think it depends on who you are and who you represent. If you're an individual, I think there's lots of things you can do as an individual in your communities first, I would say. Look around you. Contributing to organizations like ours is always good. Take an interest in what is happening around the world and being aware of what is happening around the world. That's another big thing I think we're seeing, definitely at these times of great tensions and great extremes, awareness I think is an important aspect. If you are producing technology of course, producing technology for context where infrastructure is low, connectivity is intermittent and so on, it may not be on your priority list or on your top 10 features, but if you want to support our work and if you want to engage with us, that is the kind of setting and environment that we operate in. And so offline capability, multi-language... All these issues come into play, which would not be necessarily a concern in the First World where most technology is, I would say, created today.

00:34:43.0 Lindsey Kneuven

We learned significantly by doing some pilots and partnering with NRC in the field. We actually were able to evolve our language functionality as a company to create more accuracy in language translation, because of feedback we'd received from youth. And I think that's a really powerful learning, when you're able to solve in the most complex regions of the world. Those solutions are very durable and they are better equipped to scale. So it's a great way to really test the bounds of your products and your technology and your solutions, and to do that with ethics at the core, humanitarian principles at the core in ways that can really scale to create massive impact.

00:35:30.7 Pietro Galli

Then I would say we've had examples with Pluralsight staff who have contributed to small projects. We've had developers help us build integrations between our CRM system and some payment systems, things that we would not be able to necessarily afford or to have those resources in-house. However, these things are difficult to organize because there's also a lot of coordination involved as whatever you build, we need to maintain. So we need to have a degree of expertise and knowledge to be able to maintain these things, because if they die because we cannot support them and that is, I would say is, a wasted effort and it doesn't necessarily move the dial for all of us. 

Yeah, and then of course large tech companies that are becoming successful in these times of working from home and digital acceleration, invest part of your profits into this sector, into this world because, as I said, governments will have more and more problems in funding the humanitarian sector and the development sector. And what is lost needs to be found elsewhere. Otherwise, we will fall short of our goals and our impact objectives, absolutely.

00:36:56.4 Lindsey Kneuven

And NRC currently serves around 9 million individuals annually, but there are over 70 million who are displaced. And so there is a need not only to continue serving those nine million but to really scale exponentially. 

Well Pietro, I am just so appreciative for your work and for your time. Thank you for your partnership. We're really grateful and for anybody watching, please go and also check out the podcast that we did between Jan Egeland, Secretary General of Norwegian Refugee Council, and Aaron Skonnard, Pluralsight CEO. They had a great conversation also about the impact of the global displacement crisis and how tech and industry can get more involved in the solutions. 

So thank you so much and I hope you all have a great day.

00:37:42.1 Pietro Galli

Thank you.

00:37:49.7 Daniel Blaser

Thank you for listening to All Hands on Tech. We've included a link in the show notes to learn more about Norwegian Refugee Council's important mission. We've also included a link to our previous podcast episode with Jan Egeland, NRC's Secretary General, and Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight. 

Thanks again and have a great rest of your day.