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What’s in a word? A great deal, at times.

For one refugee in Greece, the words to describe her illness were lacking because there were no interpreters at the hospital she was taken to; she suffered the trauma of an unwanted hysterectomy as a result. For a group of women in Bangladesh, the written instructions they couldn’t read made sanitary towels received as part of disaster response efforts incomprehensible and useless. For a displaced man in northern Nigeria seeking advice on his rights, the lack of a common language with legal advisers denied him confidentiality, making him reliant on someone from the host community interpreting for him.

Woman and child sleeping after arriving on Lesvos by boat. © Karim Ani
Woman and child sleeping after arriving on Lesvos by boat. © Karim Ani

For people caught up in an emergency, a word in the right language, or a word spoken where writing is not understood, can open the door to care, dignity and human rights.

Yet in the humanitarian sector, we are often not well placed to ensure that we are communicating with affected people in a language and medium they understand. That is particularly the case in a new or rapidly evolving crisis or where those affected speak a range of languages or dialects.

Why language is a challenge in humanitarian response

One issue is a lack of information: in linguistically diverse contexts, basic data on language and communication issues for the affected population is not systematically collected and shared in the way that road access or the location of checkpoints might be. In the absence of specific data, we make assumptions: that people speaking different dialects understand each other, or that information is getting through to women as well as men.

The need for speed can hamper effective communication, especially in sudden-onset emergencies. Data aggregators such as Ushahidi and QCRI can capture and relay geotagged messages from people stranded by a natural disaster in near-real time to help coordinate response efforts – but if the messages are not in an ‘international’ language, they often can’t be processed.

The predominantly top-down management of aid doesn’t help. Humanitarian response is generally coordinated by international and national experts, and in international or national languages. It is easy to miss the language barriers that may exclude others from the conversation.

Men talking in Yabo district, northern Nigeria. © 2002 Center for Communication Programs, Courtesy of Photoshare
Men talking in Yabo district, northern Nigeria. © 2002 Center for Communication Programs, Courtesy of Photoshare

These difficulties compound a more structural issue with language: the people who speak the ‘minority’ languages tend to be marginalized in other ways too. If I don’t speak the official national language, I maybe didn’t get far in school. Perhaps I can’t read very well, and your leaflets on the help available are just colored paper to me; I’m also less likely to come forward to give my opinion or tell you what I need.

In some places, knowing my mother tongue will give you a fair idea of my family’s income, my nutritional status and how likely I am to be married by the age of 12. Language can be a proxy for vulnerability – for whether you can get away to safety when the fighting starts, whether your crops fail in dry years, or whether your house can withstand an earthquake.

In other words, the very people humanitarians most want to help are often those who are hardest to communicate with.

Meeting the challenge: communication in the right language

Translators without Borders provides language services to help with those challenges. We are scaling up crisis response capacity through our Words of Relief project over the next two years, in order to:

  • Generate wider awareness of language and communication issues in humanitarian action, to aid the design of services such as confidential advice. We will work with others to map the languages spoken, literacy levels and communication channels in specific emergency contexts, to help aid agencies plan. We will push for more systematic data collection on those issues, and support organizations to assess how far target populations understand existing materials.
  • Increase language support to humanitarian response in crisis-affected countries, so there is an interpreter on hand when a refugee needs one, for example. We will crowdsource translation services, train humanitarian translators and interpreters, and offer terminology support to improve consistency. We will establish rapid-response translation teams for urgent communication in emergencies, working with data aggregators to ensure information in local languages is not lost. For languages with a small pool of qualified linguists, we will invest in training, support and quality assurance to build capacity for the future.
  • Build language into preparedness, by pre-positioning resource materials in the languages of the most crisis-affected countries, to help ensure no aid is rendered useless for lack of understanding. We will use and promote the development of language technology such as machine translation, translation memories and mobile apps to increase the speed, accuracy and reach of communication in under-served languages.

The refugee, the IDP and the women whose crops were washed away all stand to gain from better provision for language in humanitarian response. We hope to help make that a reality.

Read this blog in 4 other languages on the TWB website!

Women doing washing in a river in Kustiya Bangladesh. © 2014 Momo Mustafa Courtesy of Photoshare.
Women doing washing in a river in Kustiya Bangladesh. © 2014 Momo Mustafa Courtesy of Photoshare.

 

 

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