An Invisible Issue


Sometimes the aid provided by organizations such as Care takes the form of food, medical help or financial support. But sometimes aid is information. Simply words. Explaining methods for increasing crop yield, promoting the use of condoms or directing survivors to shelter are all examples of information as aid.

But how helpful is information when the people who need it don’t understand it?

Think of a disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti. Part of the aid that was delivered to survivors involved informing people how to avoid cholera. However, very little of this information was delivered in the local Haitian Creole spoken by the majority of the people at risk. The result? After surviving the earthquake, 685,000 Haitians were infected with cholera and an additional 8,500 died.

Here’s another example. Before the super typhoon hit the Philippines, local people in its path were warned about a ‘storm surge’. Those words, in English, failed to convey to the Cebuano and Waray-Waray speakers the severity of the expected sea level rise. Many drowned in their coastal homes.

How do we get this so wrong? Where did we get the idea that a European language like English or French is the best way to communicate with people in need?

Aid tends to be directed at the poor. Ironically, they are the ones who are least likely to speak a European language.

This is true even in countries like Kenya, where the urban elite speak a gorgeous virtually mother-tongue English. But those who belong to this English-speaking urban elite are more likely to work for aid organizations than to need aid themselves.

It would be a mistake to infer a country’s linguistic abilities from this relatively privileged subset of the equally small subset of people in the developing world who live in the urban areas.

India is also widely regarded as being a country where “everyone speaks English”. Yet only 15% to 16% of Indians speak English. The gap between what we think we know and reality shows us how invisible the majority of Indians are, those rural poor who speak one of the country’s 122 languages.

Non-profits operating in France wouldn’t dream of using English as their medium of communication. So why would a non-profit speak to a tailor in India or a farmer in Kenya in the language of Shakespeare?

It’s strange that, in our globalized world, non-profits who want to help are so unaware of the need for translation.

Companies who want to sell internationally have realized the truth in what Willy Brandt, the former West German chancellor, famously said:

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language.
If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Non-profits who deliver aid may not have paying customers who will insist on their language being spoken, but we can insist that those who provide aid are accountable for being effective. And when aid is information, then being effective means it damn well better be in the right language.

Excuse my language.

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