Language issues in humanitarian response seem like a “no-brainer” to me. A lot of others in the humanitarian world feel the same way – “why didn’t I think of that before” is a common refrain. Still, we sometimes struggle to convince humanitarians that if people don’t understand the message, they aren’t likely to follow it. When I worked in South Sudan for another organisation, in one village, I spoke English, one of our team interpreted to Dinka or Nuer, and then a local teacher translated to the local language (I don’t even know what it was). I asked a question about how women save money; the response had something to do with the local school not having textbooks. It was clear that there was no communication happening. At the time, I didn’t know what to do to fix it. Now I do – and it’s not difficult or particularly expensive.
That’s the interesting part. TWB works in 300 languages, most of which I’d never heard of, and this is a very small percentage of the over 1,300 languages spoken in the 15 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises. There’s also no reliable data on where exactly each language is spoken. I’ve learned so much about language technology that my dog can almost talk about the importance of maintaining translation memories and clean parallel datasets.
Communicating with conflict-affected people
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative have just published a report about communicating with conflict-affected people that mentions language issues and flags challenges with digital communications. (Yay!) Here are some highlights:
Language is a consistent challenge in situations of conflict or other violence, but often overlooked amid other more tangible factors.
Humanitarians need to ‘consider how to build “virtual proximity” and “digital trust” to complement their physical proximity.’
Sensitive issues relating to sexual and gender-based violence are largely “lost in translation.” At the same time, key documents on this topic are rarely translated and usually exclusively available in English.
Translation is often poor, particularly in local languages. Some technology-based solutions have been attempted, for example, to provide multilingual information support to migrants in Europe. However, there is still a striking inability to communicate directly with most people affected by crises.
TWB’s work, focusing on comprehension and technology, has found that humanitarians are simply unaware of the language issues they face.
- In north-east Nigeria, TWB research at five sites last year found that 79% of people wanted to receive information in their own language; less than 9% of the sample were mother-tongue Hausa speakers. Only 23% were able to understand simple written messages in Hausa or Kanuri; that went down to just 9% among less educated women who were second-language speakers of Hausa or Kanuri, yet 94% of internally displaced persons receive information chiefly in one of these languages.
In Greece, TWB found that migrants relied on informal channels, such as smugglers, as their trusted sources of information in the absence of any other information they could understand.
TWB research in Turkey in 2017 found that organizations working with refugees were often assuming they could communicate with them in Arabic. That ignores the over 300,000 people who are Kurds or from other countries.
- In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, aid organizations supporting the Rohingya refugees were working on the assumption that the local Chittagonian language was mutually intelligible with Rohingya, to which it is related. Refugees interviewed by TWB estimate there is a 70-80% convergence; words such as ‘safe’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘storm’ fall into the other 20-30%.
What can we do?
Humanitarian response is becoming increasingly digital. How do we build trust, even when remote from people affected by crises?
‘They only hire Iranians to speak to us. They often can’t understand what I’m saying and I don’t trust them to say what I say.’ – Dari-speaking Afghan man in Chios, Greece.
Speak to people in their language and use a format they understand: communicating digitally – or any other way – will mean being even more sensitive to what makes people feel comfortable and builds trust. The right language is key to that. Communicating in the right language and format is key to encouraging participation and ensuring impact, especially if the relevant information is culturally or politically sensitive. The right language is the language spoken or understood and trusted by crisis-affected communities; the right format means information is accessible and comprehensible. Providing only written information can hamper communication and engagement efforts with all sectors of the community from the start – especially women, who are more likely to be illiterate.
Lack of data is the first problem: humanitarians do not routinely collect information about the languages people speak and understand, or whether they can read them. It is thus easy to make unsafe assumptions about how far humanitarian communication ‘with communities’ is reaching, and to imagine that national or international lingua francas are sufficient. This can be done safely without harming the individuals or putting the community at risk.
Budgets: Language remains below the humanitarian radar and often absent from humanitarian budgets. Budgeting for and mobilizing trained and impartial translators, interpreters and cultural mediators can ensure aid providers can listen and provide information to affected people in a language they understand.
Language tools: Language information fact-sheets and multilingual glossaries can help organizations better understand key characteristics of the languages affected people speak and ensure use of the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with them. TWB’s latest glossary for Nigeria provides terminology in English/Hausa/Kanuri on general protection issues and housing, land and property rights.
A global dataset on language
TWB is exploring ways of fast-tracking the development and dissemination of a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries, as a basis for planning effective communication and engagement in the early stages of a response. We plan to complement this with data mining and mapping of new humanitarian language data.
TWB has seen some organizations take this on – The World Health Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have both won awards for their approaches to communicating in the right language. Oxfam and Save the Children regularly prioritize language and the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are starting to routinely include language and translation in their programs. A few donors are beginning to champion the issue, too.
TWB has only really been able to demonstrate the possibilities for two or three years – and it’s really taking off. It’s such a no-brainer, so cost-effective, it’s not surprising that so many organizations are taking it on. Our next step is to ensure that language and two-way communication are routinely considered, information is collected on the languages that crisis-affected people speak, accountability mechanisms support it, and we make the overall response accessible for those who need protection and assistance.