Bringing words to life in northeast Nigeria

yoga I recently returned from northeast Nigeria, where Translators without Borders (TWB) is providing language support in one of the most severe humanitarian crises and linguistically diverse areas in the world. Unsurprisingly, I had many conversations about language issues with humanitarian responders.

The good news is that many were already aware of the need to communicate information in languages people understand, despite humanitarian programming often disregarding local language communications. When hearing about TWB’s language support capacity, many felt relieved that someone might be able to help them tackle language barriers. The bad news is that, even with that acknowledgment, the most common refrain I heard throughout my four-week assignment was, “I have never thought about language so carefully before and neither has my organization.”

So I found myself asking, “How much is being lost in translation?” And, more importantly, “If two-way communication in the right languages in northeast Nigeria was truly integrated into programming, how would humanitarian action improve?”

The fact is that the importance of two-way communication between local communities and aid providers, in a language affected people can understand, is increasingly recognized by humanitarians.

Some of the best humanitarian programs are now consciously factoring language into their efforts to meet people’s information and communication needs. They do so recognizing that only when those needs are met can affected people reliably access assistance, provide input, and make the best decisions for themselves and their families. But despite the nod to language, mainstreaming solutions to language barriers within humanitarian work is still not the norm.

This was clear to me in northeast Nigeria.

After nine years, the humanitarian crisis remains one of the most severe in the world. In the three worst-affected states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, 1.9 million Nigerians have been displaced from their homes; overall, 7.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Data shows that displaced people speak over 30 languages as their mother tongues. Overwhelmingly, they prefer receiving information in their own language. However, humanitarian responders are communicating with affected people mainly in two languages, Hausa and Kanuri. This is not enough to meet people’s needs, and serious problems persist due to the lack of two-way communication.

Humanitarian field staff shared many concerns about language needs in the response. They were unsure how to provide potentially life-saving information in camps where they do not know which languages people understand. There was concern that language diversity and low education levels prevent them from accurately gauging people’s needs and priorities. I also heard frustrations from some aid workers, particularly those who spoke local languages in addition to Hausa or Kanuri. These field workers are often asked to translate complex messages and concepts into those local languages with little or no support or experience in translation. In this situation, I wasn’t surprised that translation was seen as a considerable additional burden for multilingual staff, often an add-on to agreed job descriptions.

These conversations were both concerning and compelling. It’s no secret that for field workers in the humanitarian aid sector, day-to-day work can be more than a little complicated. Language should help, not hinder, the ability to provide effective and accountable aid to those who need it.

The problem is not a lack of awareness among field staff. What is missing is for those who direct organizational policies and program design to focus on language needs early in a response and appropriately resource language support.

To that end, it was exciting to be working with TWB’s team on the ground in northeast Nigeria. We are striving to provide that language support for humanitarian responders communicating with vulnerable people. We have already started to roll out the TWB Glossary for Northeast Nigeria – an in-the-hand tool for humanitarian field staff, interpreters, and translators to ensure use of consistent, accurate, and easily understood words in local languages.  

Yet so much more needs to be done.

The only way for this tool and other forms of language support to make a difference is by mainstreaming their use across the humanitarian response. This begins with ensuring field staff have the knowledge and resources to meet language needs in the response – and the support internally to prioritize the role of language in communication and community engagement programs. Otherwise, we risk seeing too few of these examples reach their potential for humanitarian accountability and effectiveness.

Having conversations about the importance of two-way communication in the languages of the most vulnerable is the necessary first step. Now we must move from words to action about language.

Like most things in life, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

Read more about TWB’s response in northeast Nigeria. 

Written by Mia Marzotto, Advocacy Officer for Translators without Borders.

Language Technology Could Help 157 Million People Get Access To Information

I was exhausted.  It had been a great week in Bangladesh, but the overload of language, smells, refugee camp, seeing old friends, meeting new friends, government, donors, and all the while pretending like I wasn’t jetlagged, was taking its toll.  I just wanted to go to sleep.

My last meeting was in Dhaka with someone in the Prime Minister’s office.  I had little hope of staying awake through the meeting.

And yet, I was captivated.

Bangladesh Help Desk Signage
Bangladesh Help Desk Signage

The literacy rate in Bangladesh is considered low (72.8% according to UNESCO in 2016) but is just below the global average. Literacy among women is lower (69.9%); but, in general, the majority of the people have at least basic literacy skills.  There is 90 percent mobile phone penetration and 96 percent mobile internet access. The International Mother Language Institute, the body in Bangladesh that supports the promotion, spread, and preservation of Bangla languages, says that 41 languages are spoken in the country, only five of which have written scripts.  In the humanitarian response for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Translators without Borders (TWB) finds the situation particularly difficult. Rohingya has no agreed written script. Very few of the refugees can read and write, there are few people who speak Rohingya and anything else well. Add to this mix low radio coverage – not only do the Rohingya not have radios, even if they did there is not even radio coverage in parts of the camps, and about one million people living in poor and difficult conditions that speak many different dialects and you begin to understand why communicating effectively is difficult.

It’s vitally important that there is two-way communication between the people – refugees and local Bangladeshis – and the government and aid workers. Take the issue of the coming monsoon. The formal and makeshift refugee camps have sprouted up all over the Cox’s Bazar district, an area that includes a national park and lush forest. But now the trees have been torn down to make room for shelters and for firewood.  This makes the soil very unstable and dangerous, with monsoon rains promising huge mud pits and the possibility of landslides. It is also a hilly area; tents are built on the sides of hills that will become slippery and unstable with heavy rains and wind. Refugees, as well as local residents, need to know where to go, what to do if there’s an emergency, how to get help for those needing medical attention, and what to do if food gets swept away.  

The challenges abound. The digital world seems a world away.    

And yet, enter Dr. Jami.  In a buzzy, busy office with a high level of excitement and a relatively good gender balance, I was suddenly in the middle of a high tech environment.  Dr. Jami launched directly into what he wanted us to know and do.

Dr. Jami runs the Access to Information (A2I, inevitably) project in the Prime Minister’s office. The aim is to help the people of Bangladesh quickly and easily get information on public services. One of A2I’s projects is the digitization of government institutions; they have developed over 1,000 key government websites.  Dr. Jami is not a language guy (he’s a solutions architect), but he proceeds to tell me quickly that Bangla was only standardized in Unicode five years ago, so there is very little data available from which to build good translation engines.  While there’s 90 percent mobile phone penetration, in 2018 GSMA estimated that only 28-30 percent of those were smartphones. Yet, 96 percent of internet access is via phones. Whaaa? How does that work? It’s also startling how little desktops and laptops are used to access the internet.  

I asked a taxi driver, who was using a smartphone, if he used his phone for the internet.  He replied, “No, but I use it for Facebook.”

There are no data charges for Facebook in Bangladesh – unless you want to see videos or pictures.  Internet use is Facebook and Facebook is only text. Those who are illiterate, or only barely literate, won’t have smartphones.

To Dr. Jami, who needs more people to have smartphones to help ensure they can get access to information, the cost is not the barrier:  There are very inexpensive smartphones in Bangladesh. He believes it is fear of technology, which he believes is associated with illiteracy. To reach his goal of migrating 70 percent of the current mobile phone users to smartphones, he must address fear.

Language is an issue.  With a population of over 157 million people, and one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, you’d think that the language technology for Bangla would be outstanding.  It’s not. That’s surprising. And without that technology, equipping 1,000 websites with dynamic information in Bangla is nearly impossible, not to mention making them interactive and/or adding audio.

The work that A2I is doing is globally relevant, of course.  Other countries are already seeking their support to bring better access to information to their people.  He mentions that they are already working in South Sudan – which has the 2nd lowest literacy rate in the world.  Again, the language barrier is huge. And, again, there is little digital language data.  

Dr. Jami has heard of TWB’s Gamayun project – can we help?  Can we be a neutral broker to bring together the limited language data out there and leverage our knowledge of language and the language industry to help Bangladeshis get access to information about basic services?  

Dr. Jami and the TWB team will continue this conversation – there are still many questions to be asked and answered.  But I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the accomplishments of his team. And I am really excited to see where Dr. Jami and other countries take this exciting initiative.

Written by Translators without Borders' Executive Director Aimee Ansari. This article was also published on HuffPost UK.


Read a related post on The #LanguageMatters blog, ‘Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution’.  In TWB’s last blog post, Executive Director Aimee Ansari explains why we need to create and disseminate a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries. 

Language: Our Collective Blind Spot in the Participation Revolution

Two years ago, I embarked on an amazing journey. I started working for Translators without Borders (TWB). While being a first-time Executive Director poses challenges, immersing myself in the world of language and language technology has by far been the more interesting and perplexing challenge.

 

Students, Writing, Language
Students practising to write Rohingya Zuban (Hanifi script) in Kutupalong Refugee Camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Language issues in humanitarian response seem like a “no-brainer” to me. A lot of others in the humanitarian world feel the same way – “why didn’t I think of that before” is a common refrain. Still, we sometimes struggle to convince humanitarians that if people don’t understand the message, they aren’t likely to follow it. When I worked in South Sudan for another organisation, in one village, I spoke English, one of our team interpreted to Dinka or Nuer, and then a local teacher translated to the local language (I don’t even know what it was). I asked a question about how women save money; the response had something to do with the local school not having textbooks. It was clear that there was no communication happening. At the time, I didn’t know what to do to fix it. Now I do – and it’s not difficult or particularly expensive.

That’s the interesting part. TWB works in 300 languages, most of which I’d never heard of, and this is a very small percentage of the over 1,300 languages spoken in the 15 countries currently experiencing the most severe crises. There’s also no reliable data on where exactly each language is spoken. I’ve learned so much about language technology that my dog can almost talk about the importance of maintaining translation memories and clean parallel datasets.

Communicating with conflict-affected people

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative have just published a report about communicating with conflict-affected people that mentions language issues and flags challenges with digital communications. (Yay!) Here are some highlights:

  • Language is a consistent challenge in situations of conflict or other violence, but often overlooked amid other more tangible factors.

  • Humanitarians need to ‘consider how to build “virtual proximity” and “digital trust” to complement their physical proximity.’

  • Sensitive issues relating to sexual and gender-based violence are largely “lost in translation.” At the same time, key documents on this topic are rarely translated and usually exclusively available in English.

  • Translation is often poor, particularly in local languages. Some technology-based solutions have been attempted, for example, to provide multilingual information support to migrants in Europe. However, there is still a striking inability to communicate directly with most people affected by crises.

TWB’s work, focusing on comprehension and technology, has found that humanitarians are simply unaware of the language issues they face.

  • In north-east Nigeria, TWB research at five sites last year found that 79% of people wanted to receive information in their own language; less than 9% of the sample were mother-tongue Hausa speakers. Only 23% were able to understand simple written messages in Hausa or Kanuri; that went down to just 9% among less educated women who were second-language speakers of Hausa or Kanuri, yet 94% of internally displaced persons receive information chiefly in one of these languages.
  • In Greece, TWB found that migrants relied on informal channels, such as smugglers, as their trusted sources of information in the absence of any other information they could understand.

  • TWB research in Turkey in 2017 found that organizations working with refugees were often assuming they could communicate with them in Arabic. That ignores the over 300,000 people who are Kurds or from other countries.

  • In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, aid organizations supporting the Rohingya refugees were working on the assumption that the local Chittagonian language was mutually intelligible with Rohingya, to which it is related. Refugees interviewed by TWB estimate there is a 70-80% convergence; words such as ‘safe’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘storm’ fall into the other 20-30%.

What can we do?

Humanitarian response is becoming increasingly digital. How do we build trust, even when remote from people affected by crises?

‘They only hire Iranians to speak to us. They often can’t understand what I’m saying and I don’t trust them to say what I say.’ – Dari-speaking Afghan man in Chios, Greece.

Speak to people in their language and use a format they understand: communicating digitally – or any other way – will mean being even more sensitive to what makes people feel comfortable and builds trust. The right language is key to that. Communicating in the right language and format is key to encouraging participation and ensuring impact, especially if the relevant information is culturally or politically sensitive. The right language is the language spoken or understood and trusted by crisis-affected communities; the right format means information is accessible and comprehensible. Providing only written information can hamper communication and engagement efforts with all sectors of the community from the start – especially women, who are more likely to be illiterate.

Lack of data is the first problem: humanitarians do not routinely collect information about the languages people speak and understand, or whether they can read them. It is thus easy to make unsafe assumptions about how far humanitarian communication ‘with communities’ is reaching, and to imagine that national or international lingua francas are sufficient. This can be done safely without harming the individuals or putting the community at risk.

Budgets: Language remains below the humanitarian radar and often absent from humanitarian budgets. Budgeting for and mobilizing trained and impartial translators, interpreters and cultural mediators can ensure aid providers can listen and provide information to affected people in a language they understand.

Language tools: Language information fact-sheets and multilingual glossaries can help organizations better understand key characteristics of the languages affected people speak and ensure use of the most appropriate and accurate terminology to communicate with them. TWB’s latest glossary for Nigeria provides terminology in English/Hausa/Kanuri on general protection issues and housing, land and property rights.

A global dataset on language

TWB is exploring ways of fast-tracking the development and dissemination of a global dataset on language and communication for crisis-affected countries, as a basis for planning effective communication and engagement in the early stages of a response. We plan to complement this with data mining and mapping of new humanitarian language data.

TWB has seen some organizations take this on – The World Health Organization and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have both won awards for their approaches to communicating in the right language. Oxfam and Save the Children regularly prioritize language and the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are starting to routinely include language and translation in their programs. A few donors are beginning to champion the issue, too.

TWB has only really been able to demonstrate the possibilities for two or three years – and it’s really taking off. It’s such a no-brainer, so cost-effective, it’s not surprising that so many organizations are taking it on. Our next step is to ensure that language and two-way communication are routinely considered, information is collected on the languages that crisis-affected people speak, accountability mechanisms support it, and we make the overall response accessible for those who need protection and assistance.

Written by Aimee Ansari, Executive Director, Translators without Borders.

Bangladesh Program Update

Bridging language gaps empowers people to communicate in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps

Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
Kutupalong makeshift camp, Cox’s Bazar.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, once famed for its beautiful 120km long beach, is now home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Between 900,000 and one million Rohingya women, men and children, depending on the estimates, now live in the area. Since August 2017, more than 670,000 Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar and settled in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar.

Translators without Borders (TWB) first came to Cox’s Bazar in October to assess the communication and information needs of the affected population.

Our team rapidly discovered that language was making communication between the affected communities, humanitarian organizations, and the host population extremely difficult. As reported by our partner organization Internews, more than 70 percent of the refugee population identified themselves as being totally illiterate in any language and more than 60 percent said they were unable to speak to humanitarian providers.

In Cox’s Bazar, Rohingya is often the only language spoken by those most in need. It is an oral language, with no commonly accepted written script.

One of the major communication problems in this humanitarian crisis is the lack of a common language. The humanitarian workers mostly speak English, local NGOs and government officials speak Bengali, many interpreters speak Chittagonian, and the refugees speak Rohingya.

The reality

Take a moment to imagine this in the context of a refugee camp. Signs are erected to identify health facilities and safe spaces for women in a language they do not understand. Information can become distorted as it is passed from person to person and humanitarian organizations rely on untrained interpreters to communicate life-saving information as part of their support to the refugees. As summarized by TWB’s sociologist,

Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Eric DeLuca / Translators without Borders
Three interpreters (Hassan, Rafique, and Abdullah) in Kutupalong makeshift camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. 

“There’s just a lot of crucial information lost in this crisis.”

One of the most urgent needs is to find ways for the refugee population to fully express their needs to humanitarian responders.

With thorough research and community interaction, we are developing a professional training program and tools to help interpreters and humanitarian organizations understand some of the cultural and linguistic specificities of the refugee population.

Shades of meaning

TWB is developing a freely downloadable glossary of key humanitarian terms. This translates technical terminology in English into simple and clear Bengali, Rohingya, Chittagonian, and Burmese terms. The aim is to cover concepts relevant to a range of sectors, making the glossary useful across the humanitarian response.

‘We really deliberated on the meanings and context of the translations,’ says TWB’s sociolinguist. ‘Words can have shades of meaning, so the social and cultural context is important.’

Working as a consortium with Internews and BBC Media Action, TWB is contributing to a regular newsletter distributed to all humanitarian organizations in Cox’s Bazar. This newsletter, entitled What Matters? The Humanitarian Feedback Bulletin, specifically addresses communication and language issues. The first newsletter, distributed in February this year, highlighted the important differences in weather terms between Chittagonian, Bengali, and Rohingya. This is vital when distinguishing between a warning for strong winds or a cyclone, for instance. 

Ultimately, bridging these gaps is empowering people to communicate. When people can communicate they can assert their rights and humanitarians can deliver life-saving information.

With the cyclone and monsoon season starting soon, the need for simple and actionable information, in plain and clear language that the refugees can understand, is becoming even more acute. The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger when the rains begin in April. These are likely to cause major flooding and landslides in the steep hills and unstable terrain where the camps are located and contribute to the spread of disease.

‘This is where translating key Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) messages are critical,’ says our sociolinguist. ‘Community workers need to be able to explain the differences in severe weather systems between here and Myanmar, what services are there to help in a disaster, even how to help prevent the spread of disease. These are not messages you can afford to miscommunicate.’

Follow the progress of our work in Cox’s Bazar and consider a donation to support our work around the globe.

Written by TWB’s Program Director for Bangladesh

Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard

International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated across the globe on 8 March each year. It is a day when we highlight the achievements of women around the world. A time of celebration, it is also a time to push for more equality, especially in terms of gender parity. A collective effort is needed to achieve this. By challenging stereotypes and bias, we can make a positive difference.

The IWD theme for 2018 is Press for Progress. The theme acknowledges that progress towards gender parity is being made, but that the progress varies throughout the world, and we must continue to work hard. #PressforProgress #Timeisnow.

Across all regions, women are more likely to live in extreme poverty than men… The culture of gender-based poverty, abuse and exploitation has to end with a new generation of equality that lasts.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

Translators without Borders (TWB) is well placed to understand the unique challenges of women in crisis. While a humanitarian emergency affects everyone, experience shows that women often have bigger mountains to climb. This is in part because of the difficulties in communicating as a marginalized woman in crisis.

Accessibility and Relevance to Women

TWB has looked at the impact humanitarian crisis has on women. In recent studies about communication barriers encountered by humanitarian responders, conducted in Nigeria and Bangladesh, our team found that gender plays a big part in increasing vulnerability. Continue reading “Language Can Help All Voices Be Heard”

#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.

Improving access to information in the right languages for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable individuals is the core mission of Translators without Borders (TWB). Often, however, there are too few translators or interpreters available, especially during times of crisis when impacted populations and humanitarian responders do not speak the same language.

To alleviate the dearth of translators and interpreters, TWB invests in the skills of our 26,000 strong community of language professionals. We also invest in state-of-the-art tools and technology that enable us to serve many kinds of humanitarian needs.

Translators Guinea Language Technology.
TWB-trained translators in Guinea.

The right combination of skills and technology helps our translators deliver high-quality, accurate information to partner organizations such as Doctors without Borders and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, often under chaotic, time-sensitive conditions. Our volunteers work to industry standards, building marketable skills that may lead to paying jobs.

Over the long-term, the data we’re creating will play a key role in bringing more underserved languages online and into the digital age. Continue reading “#LanguageMatters. So Does Technology.”

The Silver Lining – Education brings hope during a refugee crisis

There is a lot of despair and pain radiating from the refugee camps in and around the Cox’s Bazar district of Bangladesh. Physical pain from disease and injury, coupled with a lack of food, are constant issues for the Rohingya refugees in the camps. The mental anguish is much greater. Loss of family to violence, loss of homes and crops, and an ongoing feeling of degradation and violation of rights – this anguish lives with every refugee, every day.

And yet, while walking through camps, meeting with responders and activists throughout Cox’s Bazar, there was also a thin yet constant thread of hope. Would it be possible, now that the refugees are relatively safe, in camps run by Bangladesh and the international community, to truly educate hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children, giving them a future they could not have previously imagined?

Educating an illiterate population

The new influx of more than 600,000 refugees to Bangladesh includes a large number of school-age children. According to Save the Children over 60 percent of the new refugees are children. These numbers could increase as even more refugees are expected to cross the border by the end of the year. UNICEF estimates that more than 450,000 Rohingya children aged 4-18 years old are in need of education services. That includes those who have been in the camps for longer periods [source: Reliefweb].

Evidence indicates that a very large number of the children, as well as the adults, are illiterate. In fact, in a rapid survey conducted by the TWB team in October with Rohingya refugees, 73 percent of respondents self-reported to be illiterate. This illiteracy is limiting the children’s ability to be further educated and to demand their human rights.

Evidence also indicates that when education is made available, literacy rates increase. In fact, in the study TWB completed last month, it was clear that refugees who have been in Bangladesh longer show higher levels of literacy than those who had more recently-arrived.  While not easy to obtain, education is more readily available in the established camps than it was in Myanmar where twin restrictions against movement between villages and education above primary level severely limited access to education. When our team tested populations who have been in Cox’s Bazar since prior to August 2017, comprehension rates improved across the board.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of children together in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, is this an opportunity to offer them education and a future?

Unfortunately, though, the language of instruction will be unfamiliar to the Rohingya children. Currently, a number of organizations are looking to set up learning centers in the camps. The goal is to give the refugee children at least two hours of education a day, beginning in January. Yet the official curriculum that the government of Bangladesh has approved does not include mother tongue education, and the teachers who are being hired will teach in Bangla and Burmese, two languages that the children do not read or speak.

Why mother tongue education matters

A wealth of experience and evidence over the last 50 years has proven that children learn better when they are taught in their mother tongue language. We also know that countries do better when their children are educated well. Evidence from a project that Save the Children has implemented in Thailand focusing on mother tongue education for Rohingya children, shows that learning a second language, English or Thai, is difficult when children do not understand the language of instruction. This undermines children’s ability to participate and invest in their education, despite their motivation [source: Save the Children].

But the issues with mother tongue education for the Rohingya children are deeper, because their mother tongue, Rohingya Zuban, is largely oral. The illiterate community speaks it fluently but does not generally have a means for written communication, through their mother tongue. Interesting work is already being done to establish a written form of Rohingya Zuban. A script was developed decades ago, and has been taught within the established camps and throughout areas of Bangladesh and Malaysia. The teaching is generally ‘under the radar’ of even informal education centers, and the materials used are handwritten, as unicoding of the language, is not complete. But even so, there is a major desire among the children and adults in the established camps to learn the written form; estimates put the number who have learned some of it at 10,000. Even more encouraging is the excitement generated among the students when they do have the opportunity to learn it – there is a true sense of the empowerment and identity that learning to read their own language gives them.

This initial mother tongue education work is unknown to most international agencies setting up learning centers, and its potential is unexplored. TWB is working with these agencies, as well as local organizations, international organizations specializing in mother tongue education and hopefully, the Bangladesh government, to include mother tongue tools in the curriculum. Teaching aids in Rohingya Zuban, mobile and online tools in unicoded Rohingya Zuban, and printed Rohingya Zuban early readers would all make a difference.


Now, back home and separated from the daily grind of the response by miles and time, I have reflected on that seed of hope that is education, and started to figure out how TWB can contribute to its growth. I believe TWB can make the greatest impact, by including mother tongue teaching and learning aids into the education programs being developed for Rohingya children.

The Rohingya refugee crisis offers the potential to educate hundreds of thousands of illiterate children, eager to learn, in their mother tongue. I hope we can make it happen.

Please follow this link to support TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Rebecca PetrasBy Rebecca Petras, Deputy Director and Head of Innovation at Translators without Borders.

Putting language on the map in Nigeria

Without data on the languages of affected people, humanitarian organizations are ill-equipped to communicate with them effectively. In May of this year, Translators without Borders (TWB) started trying to better understand what data is available regarding the language preferences of populations affected by humanitarian crises. The short answer is that there isn’t much. In September 2017 we published a report highlighting the major gaps in data regarding what languages migrants and refugees arriving in Europe speak. The report also describes the difficulties organizations have in providing information in the appropriate languages. Around the same time, we began a similar research initiative in Nigeria.

In June 2017, TWB worked with the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix team to add language -related questions to their ongoing data collection efforts with internally displaced people in four conflict-affected states in north east Nigeria: Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, and Borno. This was the first time any routine language data collection had been done in the current response. There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. For humanitarian organizations working in the north east, this diversity of language is an incredible challenge. Organizations report difficulties in knowing what language pairs they should recruit interpreters in, in designing communication materials that use the most appropriate languages, or in understanding what formats are most effective. One of the main reasons for these difficulties is that they do not know what languages their intended audience speaks, or to what extent they understand various lingua francas such as Hausa. As one NGO staff member in Maiduguri explained, “In a focus group discussion, we may hear that somebody only speaks Marghi, but then we have no way to respond to them.”

IOM’s DTM team gathered input from key community members to identify sites where language was a major barrier to effective aid delivery.

Following this, we worked with a team at Map Action who designed a web map to help visualize some of these geospatial patterns and trends. We combined this map with qualitative and quantitative comprehension research that we conducted in partnership with Oxfam and Girl Effect. The combined findings gave a clearer picture of the language landscape for humanitarian responders. We have summarized the findings in an interactive storymap - see below or click here for a full-screen version

By Eric DeLuca, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager at Translators without Borders.

On the ground in Bangladesh. So – how do we communicate?

A second report from Rebecca Petras who is heading up TWB’s response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The language complexity in the current Rohingya refugee crisis is deep. I had only a faint understanding of it when I landed a few days ago; I have a slightly better sense now. The Rohingya refugees come from Rakhine in Myanmar. They are Muslim; the other dominant population in Rakhine is Buddhist. The political issues between the two groups and the Rakhine as a whole and the government of Myanmar are extremely complicated, and not for my humble explanation. Suffice it to say, on 25 August 2017, a massive and violent event forced thousands of Rohingya to abandon their villages and flee to Bangladesh, through hills, unfriendly areas, and across water. There are still many thousands waiting to cross the river; in total, there are well over 700,000 new arrivals.

In and around Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town (with the world’s longest contiguous beach) in Chittagong division of Bangladesh, there are now official and unofficial camps, sprawling across hills. Because of decades of unrest in Rakhine, there were already approximately 200,000 Rohingya refugees living in either one of two official camps or within the host community, and many have lived there for two decades. They are now witnessing a massive and very uncertain influx from Myanmar, including thousands of orphans, thousands of traumatized and abused women, and many more who need medical attention.

'There really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it'

All of this makes for a very complicated language situation, with an amalgamation of spoken Rohingya from long-term refugees and new arrivals, spoken Chittagong from locals, written Bengali (or Bangla), and, possibly, written Burmese. Add layers of what is allowed by the government (still unclear which languages are being allowed), as well as how to translate complicated English terms into Rohingya, and we have a tricky communications issue. One of the main goals of Translators without Borders’ initial work here is to assess the language needs and then direct the numerous responding aid organizations, with accurate information on language. We will be testing assumptions and testing actual comprehension of material that is given to refugees.

We are beginning that assessment now – I will be working with community health workers and youth this coming week, and our research lead (Eric DeLuca) will be joining me in one week to test agency communications tools with new arrivals. But, at the same time, responding aid organizations want to start communicating right now. The community engagement leader of one of our main international partners said when I first met with him that there really isn’t any communications happening yet, and no one really knows how to do it. So while we try to put standards in place, train new interpreters, support interpreters with resources, and address the various language needs, we also need to just start communicating now. With seemingly endless rains and very little infrastructure in the camps, there is a very real danger of water-borne diseases, making communications urgent. What I need most at this time is more time in the day to get it all done.

Below are some suggestions of how you can support this response. Stay tuned for more updates this week.

Rebecca PetrasRebecca Petras, TWB Deputy Director and Head of Innovation

Bringing down the language barriers in Nigeria

In November 2014, when Boko Haram forces occupied the north-eastern Nigerian border town of Damasak, in Borno State, the population fled north into Niger. Two years later, after the Nigerian army retook much of Damasak, thousands of people returned. They found homes destroyed and the hospital stripped of beds and supplies. Many had lost family members; many had witnessed or been subjected to physical and sexual violence by armed men on all sides of the conflict.

Earlier this year, an inter-agency team went to Damasak to assess humanitarian needs. One aim was to find out whether women and girls were experiencing violence or exploitation, but with no one on the team who spoke the women’s language, Kanuri, they could find only a male soldier from the local barracks to help them communicate. Unsurprisingly, the women claimed to have no protection concerns.[1]

It was a stark example of what can happen when humanitarians cannot communicate in the language of the people they are trying to help. Yet a recent assessment by Translators without Borders (TWB) suggests such challenges are common in north-eastern Nigeria.

All the operational organizations interviewed by TWB in Borno State said language barriers hamper their efforts to understand and respond to the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) and others affected by conflict and hunger. With 28 first languages spoken in Borno alone and low levels of education and literacy across the wider area affected, aid organizations struggle to recruit staff with the right combination of language skills and technical ability. Professional translators and interpreters are in short supply, particularly for languages other than the regional lingua franca, Hausa, so communication materials and program documentation tend to be available only in English, often in Hausa, and sometimes Kanuri.

As a result, humanitarians interviewed from six program sectors feared they lacked a full picture of needs and priorities across the target population, as speakers of minority languages risked going unheard. Without the right languages, ‘We can talk to the host communities, but not the IDPs.’

They also described challenges with providing assistance: Was information about the services available getting through? Were mine awareness communications understood, or were the various explosive remnants of war all being translated as ‘bomb,’ without the distinctions that determine how to stay safe? In short, how much was being lost in translation?

Despite lacking even basic data on the languages of affected people, organizations find ways around the language barriers. Some work through three informal interpreters in succession to communicate with affected people. Some have documents laboriously translated back into English to check their accuracy. Some provide non-professional interpreters for minority-language speakers so they can take part in training sessions.

All those we spoke to knew it was not enough.

Happily, solutions are available. Simple means of mapping the languages of affected people can provide humanitarians with a basis for planning communication. TWB has the expertise to work with subject specialists and language professionals to develop a library of multilingual humanitarian materials everyone can use and train translators and interpreters for minority languages. A protection glossary app designed by TWB’s Head of Technology, Mirko Plitt, has already proved popular and expansion is planned.

Together we can bring down the language barriers that impede recovery for affected people in Nigeria, now and for future emergencies.

Glossary
An example of the TWB Protection Glossary App
By Ellie Kemp, Translators without Borders Head of Crisis Response