Words of Relief takes flight

During and immediately following a sudden-onset crisis, one of the most critical priorities for both relief workers and affected populations is sending and receiving information. Yet language barriers frequently complicate this effort. Most recently, aid workers assisting survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines had to manage communications with and among populations that spoke three indigenous languages: Filipino (Tagalog), Waray-Waray, and Cebuano.

Linguistic barriers are a longstanding, if unresolved, problem in humanitarian operations. In fact, a 2011 report from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Disaster Relief 2.0, cites lack of translation support as a “perennial hidden issue…delaying critical communications and disenfranchising affected populations.” It was the 2010 Haiti earthquake that was the catalyst for establishing Translators without Borders to bridge this communication gap by providing humanitarian NGOs around the world with pro-bono professional translation services. 

And now with our Words of Relief translation crisis relief pilot in Kenya, funded by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and Microsoft, we are tackling this issue head on. It is exciting—and frankly a luxury—to have the opportunity to explore the very real language and translation needs of crisis-response aid workers in a non-crisis environment. That allows us to take the time to get the various elements of the network just right.

Words of Relief is a translation crisis relief network intended to improve communications when the crisis-response aid workers and affected populations do not speak the same language. It is a tool to be used prior to a crisis (when there is a warning of impending crisis), during the first 72 hours, and then in the three months following the initial crisis. The network focuses on three key components:

  • translating key crisis and disaster messages into 15 world languages before crises occur (the pilot will focus on Swahili and Somali);
  • building a spider network of diaspora who can translate from one of the 15 world languages into regional languages and who are trained to assist right away; and,
  • creating a crowdsourced, online (and mobile) application that connects the translation team with aid workers and data aggregators who need immediate help.

With the New Year, Words of Relief is truly taking flight.  We spent the first month of the project interviewing for and securing the perfect team to implement the pilot. As a pilot of a worldwide system, it was important for us to find a global coordinator who could not only oversee the pilot, but also envision its scale-up to a global system. We have done that with Grace Tang, the Words of Relief Global Coordinator, who started this month and who brings with her 10 years leading and managing international teams in complex humanitarian emergencies with international NGOs such as Doctors without Borders (MSF) and Action Against Hunger (ACF). 

Additionally we have hired a dynamite project manager who will focus specifically on making the Words of Relief pilot successful. Phoebe Maina is our new Words of Relief Project Manager, We are very excited to have Grace and Phoebe on board!

Recently we took the first step to piloting Words of Relief: Getting input from aid organizations operating in Kenya (and Somalia), as well as from the Kenyan government. Late in February we began meeting with an array of organizations that are involved in some way with sudden onset crisis. We asked a series of questions, including what types of devices first responders use, the ways that they communicate with affected populations and the type of content or information that they provide to the community. We also presented the Words of Relief network to the organizations and received feedback on the overall concept.

We were fortunate to receive a wide range of feedback from a large group of organizations. We met with Internews, the Inter-agency Working Group in Nairobi, Medecins sans Frontieres (Espana), Frontline SMS, Ushahidi, RedR, Oxfam, IFRC, Info4Disasters, UNHCR, The Sphere Project, East Africa Regional Communications Group, UNICEF, WFP and CARE. Additionally, on 4th March we held a launch meeting with UN OCHA, IAWG, Humanity Road, BBC Media Action and the National Disaster Operations Center of the Kenyan government.

The most important feedback we received was that the issue of communicating with affected populations is truly a problem. Admittedly, first responders will often sweep the problem aside, but that is because they do not have a useful solution that they can deploy quickly. That is our job; that is why we are creating Words of Relief.

There will be much more to come about Words of Relief in the coming months. We have a page on the website dedicated to the project, and we will send out frequent blogs and social media updates. Stay tuned for more news as Words of Relief builds momentum.

Rebecca Petras

Program Director, Translators without Borders