By Vicky Mancuso Brehm.

We live in a noisy world. For NGOs, listening to the competing voices of multiple actors and organisations presents major challenges. How do we ensure that language is not a barrier to effective communication? And crucially, how can multi-cultural, international organisations in which English is the dominant language choose the most appropriate languages in which to work at different levels?

These were some of the questions discussed at a recent workshop ‘Listening, Power and Inclusion: Languages in Development NGOs’ in London on 2nd November. The workshop was jointly organised by INTRAC, the University of Reading and the University of Portsmouth, as part of the three-year research project ‘The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and Cultural Knowledge in Development Programmes’. The three questions guiding the research project are:

  1. How do languages influence relationships between NGO workers and the people and communities with whom they work?
  2. What challenges do languages represent for NGOs in their work?
  3. What are the problems and opportunities in having English as the dominant language?

So far, in the first year of the project the researchers have consulted the archives of three major UK-based NGOs, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and DFID’s predecessors (the Overseas Development Ministry and the Overseas Development Administration). The aim being to understand how language policies and practices have evolved over time, and influenced relationships on the ground.

The workshop, attended by a range of UK-based NGOs, drew on material from the archives and provided participants with an opportunity to hear more about the initial stages of the research, contribute from their own organisational experiences, and shape the next steps of the project.

We had participatory sessions, in which participants heard examples of issues organisations have faced around languages and power relations; reflected on their own experiences; and considered what the development sector can learn from the examples for current practice and to influence policy.

A recurring theme from the discussions that stood out for me was the complexity of language layers, both within the participants’ organisations and with their partners, but also in the local and country contexts. In these complex interactions, translators and interpreters act as gatekeepers, and may also end up filtering information. Often the role of language intermediaries is poorly defined with many underlying assumptions, placing them under pressure.

The workshop ended with a discussion around the next steps of the research process, during which researchers plan to conduct semi-structured interviews with NGO staff in the UK as well as case studies in three countries: Malawi, Peru and Kyrgyzstan. Based on the findings and recommendations from participants, at the end of the project, a toolkit on managing languages will be produced for NGO staff and partners.

To find out more about the workshop findings, look out for the workshop report.

Further details of ‘The Listening Zones’ research project can also be found here:

To join the project mailing list, email Wine Tesseur at