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By Ellie Kemp, Translators without Borders.

Communicating with crisis-affected people in a language and format they speak and understand is essential for effective humanitarian action. Providing language support as a common service to aid organizations across an emergency response is the efficient way to achieve that.

Whenever I talk to a fellow humanitarian about the importance of communicating with people affected by crises in their own language, I invariably get two reactions.

The first is: “I’d never thought of it like that. But now you mention it, of course: it’s absolutely essential.”

The second is: “But how are we going to find funds and time for it?”

The “of course” reaction is borne out by Translators without Borders’ findings on three continents over the two years of Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) grant through their Journey to Scale initiative. In every multilingual emergency context, language matters:

  • Because in northeast Nigeria, 77 percent of internally displaced people surveyed don’t understand simple written messages in the main languages used by responders.
  • Because Rohingya women use euphemisms to talk about sensitive and taboo subjects such as sexual violence. Aid workers need to know what those are to discuss what support the women might need.
  • Because people in the 39 countries experiencing humanitarian crises speak over 3,000 languages and the international aid system is not set up to communicate effectively with affected people.

The other reaction – “How will we pay for it?” – only makes sense if communicating in the right language is an optional extra. In fact, it affects everything from our analysis of need to uptake of services and program accountability. In terms of aid effectiveness, language is about as optional as electricity.

Our Common Service Approach

Yet, scaling up our language support at a time of shrinking aid budgets and spiraling need, we realize that efficiency is important too. That’s why Translators without Borders (TWB) takes a common service approach to language support wherever possible.

Where we provide a common service, a donor funds us to provide language support for any organization in a given sector or response.

In Bangladesh, TWB offers language services as part of a consortium with BBC Media Action and Internews. The consortium supports communication with communities across the Rohingya refugee response. In northeast Nigeria, we support humanitarian sectors in their communication with communities in local languages. By transcribing and translating recordings of verbal feedback, we open complaints mechanisms to community members who are less literate or speak marginalized languages. In each case, the common service approach promotes consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness:

  • Translation of common messaging and response- or sector-wide guidance ensures everyone receives the same information.
  • Translation of data collection tools ensures the whole response is informed by more reliable information.
  • Common terminology resources in local languages enable translators, interpreters, and field workers to translate key concepts accurately and consistently.
  • All responding organizations are able to communicate in local languages, including smaller and national NGOs without dedicated budgets for translation and interpreting.
  • Cross-sectoral support avoids duplication of effort and enables more efficient use of resources.

Ultimately, affected people benefit from the resulting increase in the volume and consistency of communication in their own languages. Parents taking their children for oral cholera vaccinations or preparing for cyclone season can be more confident they understand what to do. Forcibly displaced people can be more confident their needs and concerns are heard.

A few far-sighted donors like Elrha, DFID, and ECHO are beginning to see both the value and the value-for-money case for common language support services. How do we pay for it? By spreading the cost and the benefits across the response to leave no one behind.

What’s next?

Establishing common language services in other emergencies is a key aim as we move on from our HIF-funded ‘Journey to Scale’. We also continue to gather evidence of the need for and impact of humanitarian language support in other emergencies – most recently in the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are extending our research, training, translation, and terminology services to a growing range of partner organizations. And we draw on learning from all of that to advocate for two-way communication in the right languages and formats across the humanitarian sector. Ultimately, we aim to make that the default setting for humanitarian action.

Watch a wrap-up of the project so far and the latest vlog from Translators without Borders:

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Want to see their complete Journey to Scale?

Throughout their journey the team have kept video blogs about the things they have a achieved and the challenges they have faced. Watch their whole journey here.

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