Many NGO workers on the ground don’t speak the local language – new research from Universities of Reading and Portsmouth

Have also informally written about this concept in reference to water sanitation work. This research was conducted in Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Peru. Full report – English, Russian

Some key problems they found were:

Languages generally have a low priority in development. DFID officials generally assume that NGOs have sufficient language capacity to communicate with aid recipients. But few NGOs have language policies and language needs tend to be underfunded, even though aid workers are keenly aware of the importance of languages in their work. Many NGOs rely on multilingual staff members on the ground to come up with ad hoc solutions. The problem is that staff are not always fluent in the languages and dialects of the communities that they work with, and so interpretations can be sub par. Communities can become confused about the objectives of aid projects, or even misunderstand them entirely.

Many development concepts that are essential to NGO work are not directly translatable into other languages. Examples include accountability, resilience and sustainability. Aid workers often have to invent their own interpretations of these concepts with minimal guidance from management. The interpretations can vary widely, which exacerbates the confusion of the communities about the purpose of aid projects.

These language problems have negative effects on community participation, and the trust that communities have in NGOs. Certain groups, especially those speaking an indigenous language that does not have official status, end up being effectively excluded from participating in project design, and providing feedback on the performance of the NGO. This is an impediment to establishing relationships of mutual respect.1


1.Footitt H, Crack A, Tesseur W (2018) Respecting communities in International Development: languages and cultural understanding, EN version available at: https://www.reading.ac.uk/modern-languages-and-european-studies/Research/mles-listening-zones-of-ngos.aspx

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