Getting community engagement right from the start: a reflection on the Cyclone Idai humanitarian response

If I had to summarize Translators without Borders’ learning from the Cyclone Idai response, it would be: language support can be a significant tool for effective, accountable humanitarian action. But only if there is a more comprehensive approach to community engagement from the outset. 

It is one thing to read a statistic about the linguistic diversity and low literacy levels of the population in Mozambique. It is another thing entirely to sit down with a group of Cyclone Idai survivors in Beira and hear it in person. To learn from one person after another that they are unable to communicate with aid workers in a language they understand. 

Community engagement MozambiqueThis is what TWB’s assessment team and I heard a few weeks ago when we conducted a rapid language assessment in four temporary accommodation sites. We found that many people do not understand the main languages and formats used by humanitarian organizations. They voiced frustration about how difficult it is to access information about available assistance. After one of southern Africa’s worst disasters in decades, we learned that much humanitarian communication is failing because it is in the wrong language.

Today, in the comfort of my home, I’m thinking about what this means. In a way, it shows that humanitarians still fall short of meeting their commitments to “leave no one behind” and “put people at the center.” This is probably not news to many. But it leaves me torn when thinking about the impact of TWB’s language support services in the Cyclone Idai response. Looking at our project, I can say we worked with others to strengthen communication with affected people in the relevant languages. But looking at the remaining gaps, I am less convinced that our work ensured effective engagement with all those affected from the onset of the response.

My point here is not to be skeptical about the first-phase emergency aid delivered in Mozambique. Many communities lost everything due to Cyclone Idai and rely on that aid to rebuild their lives. But I want to reflect on learning in the humanitarian sector. I think we generally try to question ourselves. However, it sometimes feels like we spend more energy evaluating how things went wrong after the fact than we do getting it right up front. 

IOM response to Cyclone Idai, Beira, Mozambique
Credit: Andrew Lind / IOM

In recent years, there has been no shortage of research on the importance of meaningful community engagement. Effective two-way communication is an essential element of engagement. Yet, activities aimed at ensuring people’s voices are heard and understood are still implemented as optional ‘add-ons.’ They are rushed, under-resourced or restricted to the later stages of a response. That needs to change.

What then, can be done?

For a start, we need to collect and share language data as part of needs assessments. That data is a basis for workable and effective communication strategies. It tells organizations three key things: 

  • Which language skills we need to recruit for; 
  • Which languages and formats we need to provide information in; and
  • Which languages and communication preferences we need to tailor feedback mechanisms to. 

Language assessments of the kind carried out by TWB in Beira can provide additional insight into information comprehension and specific vulnerabilities. On that basis, language support like translation and interpreting can be built into community engagement response plans and budgets. 

It is not too late to start collecting, sharing, and using this data in the Cyclone Idai response. But we need to apply this change from the outset of the next emergency. It is the time to ensure we are accountable to the people that need it most, and that this process is in the languages and formats they want. We owe it to the people we aim to help – and to ourselves to maximize the learning we get from them. 

Any takers?

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

How I found meaning in my career

Volunteering with TWB is a rewarding and enriching experience.

Translators improve lives by translating potentially lifesaving information into often ‘marginalized’ languages spoken by vulnerable individuals. Those who volunteer for Translators without Borders (TWB) have a range of experience and skills and share a vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers. We are grateful for all our translators, and we love sharing their stories.

Iris Translator

Iris Soliman sets out to prove that when the cause matters to you, giving back comes naturally. Since early 2018, this translator’s enthusiasm for TWB’s work has shone through in her personal and professional life. Her support for the cause extends far beyond the translation work itself, as Iris has thrown herself into TWB’s Kató Community forum and social media platforms. Driving TWB’s vision of a world where knowledge knows no language barriers is a dedicated community of translators. They all volunteer because of a shared set of values: they believe in the need to make information available in languages that people understand. Iris embodies the energy and passion shared by many TWB translators.

Advancing a career in translation

The 35-year-old Belgian translator of Egyptian descent works in English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, and French. Iris began her professional translation career five years ago. And in just one year with TWB, she has participated in over 100 projects and translated over 200,000 words. Those words have helped individuals supported by a plethora of organizations including the NEAR network, Concern Worldwide, and Humanity and Inclusion.

Humanity and Inclusion is where Iris began her volunteering career in the Brussels office and in the field, 10 years prior to discovering TWB. More recently, she has been able to achieve a personal goal of translating a text from Arabic to French and participating in numerous meaningful projects.

Iris is touched by the knowledge that her work with TWB makes a real and discernible impact on lives. A fondly remembered translation was for a smartphone app called Miniila, by Missing Children Europe. The app provides migrant children with information about their rights and the services available to them on their arrival in Europe. In a separate project, she learned that important vaccine stocks in Syria had to be destroyed because they were in a location occupied by Daesh. For Iris, these translations are personal reminders of her lucky situation, while others sometimes struggle to meet basic needs.

Iris Translator

“Now I hope I’ll help all kinds of people – elderly, grownups or children – particularly those fleeing conflict, starvation or natural disasters.”


As an engaged member of the TWB community, Iris is thankful for the knowledge-sharing, the friendly environment and the opportunity to help others while gaining humanitarian experience.

Fitting TWB volunteering into a busy life.

Though she is busy, Iris finds time to dedicate to her volunteer work. For her it is about so much more than doing a job: she is part of a thriving community. While still volunteering for TWB regularly, Iris is completing various online courses and preparing for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi Chinese proficiency examination. 

Iris hopes that her energetic approach to the translator community will encourage other translators to join. For anyone who is curious, she offers words of advice: “You can always ask the project managers questions (they are more than simply available). And don’t worry if you need to double check, make corrections, or have your work revised. I was like you less than a year ago!” This is all part of her endless desire to make a difference and grow professionally.

“Iris has contributed a substantial number of words on TWB’s translation platform, Kató. But what really distinguishes her is the great enthusiasm she is showing in the Kató Community” Paulina Abzieher, Translation Project Manager for TWB.

If you, too, share our values, apply to join TWB’s translator community today.

To get in touch about any of the topics mentioned in this post, please join the discussion or email [email protected]

Written by Danielle Moore, Communications Officer for Translators without Borders. Interview responses by Iris Soliman, Translator for Translators without Borders. Cover photo by Karim Ani.

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”