[lg policy] Many NGO workers on the ground don’t speak the local language – new research

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Aug 9 13:44:52 EDT 2018

* Many NGO workers on the ground don’t speak the local language –
new research *
August 8, 2018 8.48am EDT
Roi and Roi/Shutterstock.com

   1. Angela Crack <http://theconversation.com/profiles/angela-crack-443978>

   Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Portsmouth
   2. Hilary Footitt

   Research Professor in Modern Languages, University of Reading
   3. Wine Tesseur <http://theconversation.com/profiles/wine-tesseur-526477>

   Postdoctoral Research Assistant in Modern Languages, University of

Disclosure statement

Angela Crack receives funding from AHRC.

Hilary Footitt receives funding from AHRC.

Wine Tesseur receives funding from AHRC.

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[image: University of Portsmouth]

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After the Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal
<https://theconversation.com/uk/topics/oxfam-scandal-49793> in Haiti hit
the headlines
earlier this year, 22 aid agencies published an open letter
<https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43167746> declaring that they would “take
every step to right our wrongs and eradicate abuse in our industry”. They
made a commitment to “listen and take action”.

There is nothing new about NGOs claiming that they “listen” to communities
and act on their feedback. A cursory glance at NGO publicity materials
reveals that they typically claim that they empower communities by
listening and involving them in decisions about aid projects.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that aid workers share the same
language as local communities (or at least that they use good
interpreters). Otherwise, how could aid providers and aid recipients
communicate with one another effectively? You might also assume that it is
relatively easy to translate basic development terms into local languages.
Development NGOs promote common goals, such as gender equality and human
rights. Surely organisations must use common interpretations of these words
when interacting with the people that they aim to help?

But our research
suggests that this is typically not the case. We conducted a three-year
project to explore the role of languages in international development, in
conjunction with UK-based NGO INTRAC. We interviewed dozens of NGOs,
officials from the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID), and
conducted field research in developing countries. Our data led us to arrive
at three startling conclusions.
Three language problems

First, we found that languages generally have a low priority in
development. DFID officials generally assume that NGOs have sufficient
language capacity to communicate with aid recipients. But few NGOs have
language policies and language needs tend to be underfunded, even though
aid workers are keenly aware of the importance of languages in their work.
Many NGOs rely on multilingual staff members on the ground to come up with
ad hoc solutions. The problem is that staff are not always fluent in the
languages and dialects of the communities that they work with, and so
interpretations can be sub par. Communities can become confused about the
objectives of aid projects, or even misunderstand them entirely.

Second, many development concepts that are essential to NGO work are not
directly translatable into other languages. Examples include
accountability, resilience and sustainability. Aid workers often have to
invent their own interpretations of these concepts with minimal guidance
from management. The interpretations can vary widely, which exacerbates the
confusion of the communities about the purpose of aid projects.

Third, these language problems have negative effects on community
participation, and the trust that communities have in NGOs. Certain groups,
especially those speaking an indigenous language that does not have
official status, end up being effectively excluded from participating in
project design, and providing feedback on the performance of the NGO. This
is an impediment to establishing relationships of mutual respect.
Change needed

This needs to change if the aid sector is serious about dealing with the
issues raised by the Oxfam scandal. The International Development
Committee’s recent report
on sexual violence in aid called for the inclusion of the voices of victims
and survivors in policy-making. Our research suggests that NGOs should
ensure that safeguarding policies and procedures are extremely sensitive to
the linguistic and cultural context of the areas where abuse may occur.

In fact, in all areas of their work, it is clear that NGOs need to include
language as a key consideration when designing development projects. They
should use local interpreters wherever possible, who will have a deep
understanding of the culture. They need to make more effort to translate
development jargon, and better support multilingual staff who undertake the
informal work of language mediation outside of their agreed job
descriptions. NGOs should also conduct regular assessments to determine
whether communities and fieldworkers understand one another well.

It’s not just NGOs that are problematic. We found that DfID also has a
blind spot about the importance of languages. For example, it only accepts
funding proposals in English. This prevents thousands of excellent local
organisations in developing countries that are unable to speak or write
English, but are worthy of financial support, from applying for funding. If
they cannot enlist the support of a fluent English speaker, they are unable
to access money that might help them to make positive changes in their

DfID claims
that it is committed to “putting the last first”, and that “every person
counts and will be counted”. But if development is to be truly inclusive,
then it needs to cater for the languages spoken by the recipients of aid,
who often tend to be the poorest and most marginalised in society. DfID
should open up opportunities for non-English speaking organisations to
apply for funds. This would promote a bottom-up approach to development
that empowers the grassroots: a radical, much-needed change in the way that
development is practised.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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