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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, 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 with Communities (CwC) activities 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. Jane Nduta Mwangi, the new Words of Relief Project Manager, holds a degree in International Relations/Political Science, sociology and law and brings to the table experience in establishing and managing teams and establishing structures. We are very excited to have Grace and Jane on board!

One of the first tasks of our team is to develop a monitoring and evaluation plan that will inform the pilot and, importantly, the eventual global scale-up. We are beginning that process this month, working with Nicki Bailey of the CDAC-Network(link is external), who is an MEL expert. More to come on our monitoring and evaluation plan in the coming months…

The team is also preparing for our first big pilot activity: A workshop with Nairobi-based aid workers that will focus on the type of disaster and crisis messaging that should be available in local languages before, during and after a crisis, and the way in which they would like to work with our translation crisis relief network. This workshop, to take place the beginning of March, will include professionals from a wide array of aid organisations, and we are currently sending invitations and encouraging involvement. Our March blog will report results from the workshop.

Stay tuned for more news as the Words of Relief build momentum.

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Words of Relief Global Coordinator, Grace Tang

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Words of Relief Project Manager, Jane Nduta Mwangi

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Kim Scriven, HIF Programme Manager with the TWB team at the TWB-Kenya Training Center in Nairobi

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