Listen and learn: The link between language and accountability for the future of the Grand Bargain

Five years ago, the Grand Bargain’s Participation Revolution vowed to reform the humanitarian sector to better listen to people affected by crises. Today, lots is still ongoing to make humanitarian organizations more accountable to the people they aim to serve and respond to their feedback. The outgoing Emergency Relief Coordinator’s new proposal for an Independent Commission for Voices in Crises is the latest of several such initiatives. Across the sector, listening to people’s voices and including them in humanitarian decision making are acknowledged as essential. With a proliferation of tools like hotlines and other accountability-focused activities, never before have people had so many opportunities for making their voices heard. Yet too often, these opportunities don’t materialize and humanitarians remain heavily in control of making decisions, independent of people’s needs and priorities. 

Photo shows signage with text in English in camps for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.
Photo shows signage with text in English in camps for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.

There are systemic weaknesses in our sector’s approach to accountability, rendering whole groups voiceless within the system, simply because their voices are in another language. As the humanitarian sector deliberates on a future Grand Bargain, we must base all accountability efforts on lessons about listening to crisis-affected people in their languages.

Listening is essential but not always the reality

Many aid organizations do not have the tools needed to really listen to affected people, especially in linguistically diverse contexts. The 2020 Humanitarian Accountability Report shows that organizations are far from meeting Core Humanitarian Standard commitments on communication, participation, feedback, and complaints. Attention to language minorities has also been low, with little consideration for how language, often coupled with other factors such as gender and displacement, leads to exclusion from humanitarian assistance and protection. Right now, the onus for listening to affected people is mostly placed on a small group of people whose job titles include the words “accountability” or “community engagement.” Their efforts provide the building blocks of accountability, but they cannot systematically ensure implementation of language-aware programs.  Nor can they ensure that entire organizations change their ways sufficiently to make the system more accountable.

This has serious, unintended consequences

In Burkina Faso, communities that speak multiple languages remain unable to engage with responders because translation and interpretation are not prioritized. 

In South Sudan, women in particular report language as a barrier to accessing information on vouchers and services they can use to obtain food and other essentials. 

In DRC’s Equateur Province, a lack of language support leaves women unable to access reporting mechanisms and make complaints due to the fear of not being listened to. 

In northeast Nigeria, people who don’t speak Hausa or Kanuri sometimes have to rely on a neighbor or relative (sometimes a child) to act as an informal interpreter and relay their needs to enumerators. 

In Afghanistan, community radio stations struggle to access information about COVID-19 in plain language and in the languages their staff and audiences speak. 

Across the board, language barriers are a symptom of wider issues of culture and power. These examples demonstrate how people who don’t understand or speak the languages used by humanitarians in a given context are disadvantaged and exposed to greater risks. They also point to the unfair, unrealistic reliance on national responders to carry the burden of multilingual communication untrained and unsupported.   

Focus group discussion with internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.
Focus group discussion with internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.

Practical changes are needed to make language a routine consideration in listening to affected people

Listening to people’s voices depends on understanding – and to understand, we need to consider language. Without language, listening becomes irrelevant. You can’t communicate your priorities to a hotline operator who doesn’t speak your language. There is no point in having a feedback box if you cannot write. People affected by crises must be able to communicate in their own language to feel heard, seen, and recognized for who they are and the rights and needs they have. To achieve the Grand Bargain’s Participation Revolution and put affected people’s voices at the center of humanitarian action, humanitarians need to change their standard approach to language. Learning from evidence and practice to date, we need to: 

  • Assess what languages people speak and understand. If we stick to the official or dominant language in a crisis-affected area, we won’t reach large sections of the population, including non-literate women, older people, and people with disabilities, many of them vulnerable in other ways. And unless we can track the outcomes of our programs against the languages of individuals, we can’t say that we are leaving no one behind. With language data, we can have an evidence base for effective two-way communication. For example, when REACH collected language data in the 2019 multi-sector needs assessment, for the first time responders in northeast Nigeria could adapt their communication to the needs of different groups.  
  • Pool resources. Without appropriate resourcing, we default to communicating only in official or dominant languages. And we address language barriers one piece of content at a time; often a task taken on by local colleagues with little or no support. This is resource-intensive, creates delays in information relay, and increases the chances of information getting lost in translation. Overcoming this means budgeting for and mobilizing professional linguists wherever possible. Training and support programs can build capacity in languages where support is unavailable or unaffordable. The Common Service for Community Engagement and Accountability project in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, exemplifies this. Evidence shows that the proportion of Rohingya refugees saying they have the information they need jumped from 23% to 92%. Through training on language and accountability, operational organizations also reported being able to better communicate with Rohingya refugees and respond to their needs.  
  • Use available language technology. As the COVID-19 response has highlighted, people respond best to information that they feel they can trust and that answers their actual concerns. Some new tools have been introduced to help with providing people with better targeted information, including chatbots. But these are mostly focused on information dissemination, through rather standardized menu-based options. As such, we are missing critical engagement opportunities and not taking advantage of available technology. That is why TWB is working with IFRC, Mercy Corps, and others to pilot more interactive chatbots, allowing for natural language input, currently in French and Congolese Swahili in DRC and English, Hausa, and Kanuri in northeast Nigeria. In time, this can help build the automated translation technology that will enable crisis-affected people to have the conversations and access the information that they want. 

We’ve learned these lessons in our own evolution as an organization. We know that paying more attention to language alone isn’t the way to systematically listen to and act on the voices of those most in need. But done right, it would provide the sector a better means to value, and act on, the input, views, and agency of crisis-affected people, in the languages they know best.

Written by Mia Marzotto, Senior Advocacy Officer at TWB / CLEAR Global. 

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