Comprehension matters! The Words of Relief impact study

From November 2014 through February 2015, Translators without Borders (TWB) deployed its Words of Relief crisis relief program to West Africa to combat the Ebola crisis. The extension from the Words of Relief pilot in Kenya was funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, a program managed by ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance), and the Indigo Trust. Following the intense four-month program, the organization took time in Kenya to answer a very important question: Does information in a local language actually improve understanding?

The resulting impact study on Ebola information, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and entitled Does Translated Health-Related Information Lead to Higher Comprehension? A Study of Rural and Urban Kenyans, was commissioned as part of TWB’s Words of Relief crisis program in Kenya, the first translation crisis relief network intended to improve communications with communities when crisis response aid workers and affected populations do not speak the same language. The objective of the study was to examine the level of comprehension of health-related information when presented in English and then the same information provided in Swahili. The results of this study demonstrate just how important it is to have crucial healthcare information widely available in the local language.

197 Kenyans in urban and rural areas who spoke Swahili plus some English were surveyed on what they knew about Ebola. Participants were asked questions about language competence and preferences and some pre-task questions on their knowledge of Ebola – only eight per cent of participants answered basic questions on the disease correctly. Participants were then given an English-language information poster on Ebola prevention and symptoms and the correct answers to questions rose to 16 percent. But when given this same poster in Swahili, respondents got 92 percent of the questions correct. The information was in the form of a simple poster created and translated by TWB and used throughout West Africa after the disease had fully taken root.

“The results of the Impact Study on Ebola Information demonstrate just how important it is to provide crucial healthcare information in the local language and in the right format,” said Grace Tang, Global Coordinator, TWB Words of Relief. “We will use the results of the survey to continue to raise awareness to aid organizations that language matters and true comprehension should be considered in all development and crisis programs.”

Summary of Key Findings:

  • 16 percent answered correctly when shown Ebola information in English
  • 92 percent answered correctly when shown Ebola information in Swahili
  • 82 percent of participants would prefer to receive health-related information in spoken format
  • Apart from information leaflets, public gatherings, church and radio were listed as preferred modes of communication for health-related information
  • Prior knowledge of Ebola was low among participants, regardless of age, gender, or abode
  • Reading of the English poster did not lead to any increased comprehension of Ebola
  • Reading of the Swahili poster led to a significant increase in comprehension of Ebola.

Translators without Borders has produced an infographic, showing the key findings from the study. To view the infographic in pdf format,click here.

As part of its ongoing advocacy work, TWB now uses the impact study with aid organizations to highlight the importance of comprehension in all communications with affected populations. Communications is aid – but it needs to be in the right language. #LanguageMatters.

Rebecca Petras

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