By Vicky Mancuso Brehm

Paying close attention to languages contributes to successful development programmes, according to both international NGO (INGO) staff in country offices and the staff of national NGOs. However, languages are not generally integrated into the development cycle, nor are they budgeted for in advance in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes.

Whilst INGOs recognise the importance of cultural awareness in recruiting staff, languages often have a low priority for both UK-based INGOs and for DFID. Furthermore, the default position of English in many organisations presents problems for those INGO staff outside the UK whose first language is not English. Language mediation is largely seen as an add-on extra within UK NGOs.

These were some of the key research findings of ‘The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and Cultural Understanding in Development Programmes’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), this inter-disciplinary study was conducted between June 2015 and June 2018 by the Universities of Reading and Portsmouth in partnership with INTRAC.

The study, which focused on the work of UK-based INGOs, included interviews with INGO staff in the UK and in-country, with DFID officials, and with staff of INGOs and national NGOs in Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Peru. It also included feedback workshops with UK INGO practitioners, interpreters and translators, as well as drawing on archival and current policy documents.

The research addressed three key questions:

  • What is the role of languages in power relations in development work?
  • How much organisational awareness is there of languages and language policy?
  • What is the provision of language and cultural mediation including translators and interpreters?

Staff outside the UK consistently describe being able to communicate in the local language as vital in establishing relationships of mutual trust and respect. However, they contrasted this with the actual invisibility of languages in the development cycle. They perceived translation and language mediation to be often an afterthought, and highlighted the negative effects of this on community participation and the establishment of relations of mutual respect.

The research findings also illustrated some of the unintended consequences of the dominance of English in UK INGOs. The difficulty of translating key Anglophone development terms and concepts (the longstanding ‘buzzwords and fuzzwords’ problem)1 was raised by practitioners, translators and interpreters across country contexts as presenting real issues in the successful implementation of projects. Furthermore, INGO staff in country and NGO partners often feel at a disadvantage working in a predominantly Anglophone organisation. Staff whose first language is not English see this as curtailing their ability to convey the dynamism of community activities through reporting and feedback mechanisms.

Yet, highly innovative practice also emerged from the field research in Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Peru:

  • Using translation processes to foster empowerment by involving people at the grassroots level in translation itself.
  • Adopting a communications strategy which includes languages and cultural awareness, for example by assessing language needs in the early stages of programme design.
  • Providing language support for projects at specific stages in the field to enhance the active participation of communities. For example, providing translations of materials, proposals and reports, developing handbooks in local languages and developing glossaries of key terms.

Some recommendations for international NGOs

  • Recognise the importance of languages within organisations: ensure that multilingualism is valued by recognising the ‘burden of bilingualism’ carried by some staff and by giving visibility to translation services.
  • Think about language at the design phase of the project, including budgeting for translation and interpreting.
  • Consider language support within monitoring and evaluation processes, for example translating reports into local languages.
  • Establish local registers and networks of translators and interpreters who have an understanding of development.
  • Translate project proposals and plans into local languages so that partners and communities have increased involvement and local ownership.
  • Support Southern NGOs and communities to develop local and sustainable linguistic capacity, for example by developing glossaries of key terms and by providing training in a language that is accessible.
  • Consider providing access to English language training for staff and partners.

On 27th June 2018 (09.00-18.00), the Listening Zones team are hosting a free conference ‘How to Respect Communities in International Development: Languages and Cultural Understanding’ at Court Room, Senate House, University of London. Information on how to register can be found here.

 Visit the project webpage here:

A full version of the final project report will be available to download in English, French, Russian and Spanish in early July, with other languages to follow. To join the project mailing list, email Wine Tesseur

1 See Cornwall, A. and Eade, D. 2010. Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Oxfam GB and Practical Action Publishing.