How might one translate Accountable Now to a non-English speaker? Bilingual and multilingual readers may want to pause to reflect upon this problem as ‘accountable/accountability’ has few direct translations in other languages. You might have to concoct a rather over-complicated phrase in order to capture all the dimensions and connotations of the word. How might one go about explaining that in a development context, where there is a huge diversity of languages, dialects and cultures? It’s not an impossible task. But far from straightforward.
Many other terms that are used frequently in international development are similarly difficult to translate, especially in languages spoken by marginalised communities. Examples include gender, sustainability and resilience. Conversely, these communities are likely to have words that do not have a direct equivalent in English – although it is unusual to find acknowledgement of these linguistic realities in the reports that NGOs produce about their engagement with affected people.
The importance of listening to people affected by NGO work is strongly embedded in the Accountability Commitments of Accountable Now. For example, take the fifth Commitment to People-Driven Work. It is stated that members should: ‘Learn from the people we work with and represent so their issues are our goals…Ensure that people’s views are well reflected in our decision-making processes at all levels of our organisation; Invite and act on people’s feedback to improve our performance and collective impact.’
It is therefore strange that few questions tend to be asked about what language/s NGOs are using to talk with, and listen to, communities. I have recently concluded a collaborative three-year research project that addressed this gap in knowledge. My research partners were Professor Hilary Footitt and Dr Wine Tesseur from the University of Reading, and INTRAC. We explored the role of language and language mediators in development work, seeking to understand how these shaped power relationships on the ground. It involved case study research in Malawi, Kyrgyzstan and Peru and extensive interviews with INGOs, Southern-based NGOs and donors. Our key objective was to present evidence-based policy recommendations to NGOs about language policy and language practice.
We found through talking to DFID officials and UK-based INGO staff that languages generally have a low priority in development work. It was unusual to find examples of where organisations gave overt consideration to the role of languages in development and their potential contribution to development relationships. However, staff based outside the UK consistently described languages as being vital in establishing relationships of trust with the community. It is a simple point: if communities do not share the same tongue as NGO staff, or cannot communicate through an interpreter, they will not be able to fully understand the project objectives or contribute ideas and feedback. In the words of one interviewee from a Malawian NGO: ‘How can the community ask you that you must be accountable if they don’t understand the language?’
It is therefore concerning that our interviewees complained that languages are generally not integrated into the development cycle. We identified a widespread tendency to fail to budget for language in funding proposals at key stages of the project. In fact, the potential need for translation and language mediation in development projects is often an afterthought, with ad hoc arrangements being made normally in-country. This is problematic because the quality of the dialogue with communities can be very variable between localities and projects, even within the same organisation. Moreover, poor language provision leads to unequal demands being placed on NGO staff. Bilingual/multilingual staff members are frequently called upon to deliver translations, which are an additional burden outside of their agreed job descriptions.
We recommend that organisations think about language at the design stage of a project. It is important to listen to the words that the community uses to describe aspects of their lives relevant to the project objectives. It is crucial to be sensitive to the cultural connotations of words, and also to be alert to how taboo topics are spoken about (or avoided). The aim should be to build projects on relationships based on meaningful communication and respect for cultural norms. During a project, NGOs should utilise local language support wherever possible to feedback regularly to communities. INGOs might also consider ways in which to help their partners and communities to develop language capacity. For example, they could work together to produce glossaries of key terms in local languages that could be shared as a common resource.
Delivering linguistically inclusive projects may take more time and money than is typically the case. Therefore we also recommend that donors consider how to improve their current practices to raise the status of language, such as encouraging applicants to include interpreting and translation costs in their funding budgets. We urge donors to demonstrate their commitment to downwards accountability by challenging proposals that are ‘language-silent’. Language provision should not be thought of as an ‘unnecessary overhead’, but an essential component of development work that is truly ‘people-driven’.
What is conveyed here only touches briefly upon the extensive findings of the study. Importantly, we consider the effects of current language policies and practices on Southern-based organisations, which struggle to access funds because of lack of English capacity. The full report can be downloaded in multiple languages at our website. The recommendations will be relevant to members of Accountable Now who are reflecting on how to put the Accountability Commitments into practice in a multilingual environment.