No language inclusion means ineffective humanitarian aid

A deeper dive into CLEAR Global’s H2H-funded projects in Pakistan and Somalia

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Incorrect language and formulations can prevent humanitarian aid from reaching crisis-affected people. At a time when the gap between humanitarian funding and humanitarian needs is growing, it’s more important than ever that we work effectively for those most vulnerable in a crisis. In Pakistan and Somalia, CLEAR Global used H2H funding to gain practical insights into the language challenges and develop operational recommendations to help aid organizations work in a more language-inclusive way.

“We know that language matters in every single response. Though these contexts were somewhat new to us, we brought in our learning about systematizing multilingualism and contextualized nuances from these contexts to develop practical and agile recommendations – such as helping organizations have a practical planning tool to understand how flood risk might intersect with language marginalization in Pakistan, or where language marginalization is compounding other exclusion factors in Somalia”- Emily Elderfield, CLEAR Global

CLEAR Global’s projects perfectly encompass the H2H approach to making humanitarian aid more effective, efficient and accountable. Emily Elderfield and Jason Symons from CLEAR Global explained the value of their services to enhance the overall humanitarian response, and why adopting a language-aware approach is so critical for effective aid.

Following the floods in Pakistan in 2022, CLEAR Global used the H2H support package to improve the evidence basis for language-aware community engagement and accountability. They did this by making language data more accessible and mapping language and communication data in relation to flood-risk levels. With their national partner Pattan Development Organisation, they tested the reach and comprehension of existing information and terminology. The findings showed that information material had to be adjusted to be effective​; some of those hardest hit by the flooding had received no information at all, women were largely excluded from information, and poor communication increased risks to individuals and feelings of anger and injustice. In one example, the research identified a complete disconnect in the understanding of information regarding initiatives to reduce the risk of abuse of vulnerable people in the crisis. Crisis-affected people said that even when they had seen the information about the initiatives, it had been in the wrong language, or incorrect information channels were used. Printed text materials were often inaccessible due to low literacy rates and aid organizations used mobile phone information even though phone ownership among women was almost non-existent in the communities CLEAR Global consulted. This is a huge protection concern, Emily says.

In the H2H support package for the humanitarian response to the drought in the Horn of Africa from November 2022 – March 2023, CLEAR Global worked to make insights on language and communications dynamics available for targeted humanitarian assistance and engagement of marginalized language communities in Somalia. Understanding the complexity of language in the response was challenging because of wider political and socioeconomic dynamics. For example, Mahaa dialect speakers are overrepresented among humanitarian workers, whereas in many areas Maay is the most spoken dialect among affected people. Though Mahaa is the official language of education, educational exclusion means many members of vulnerable groups are unlikely to have been able to go to school and learn to communicate in Mahaa. CLEAR Global’s project in Somalia therefore focused on raising awareness of the different dialects of Somali and how this intersected with other aspects of aid delivery. They used the research findings to develop technical recommendations, such as the use of language data, and contextual recommendations such as including language diversity in hiring practices.

“Several of the humanitarian organizations we helped said that they had no idea that there were other marginalized languages beyond Somali.” – Jason Symons

Emily further explains that both local and international humanitarian organizations face​ challenges acting on​ language inclusion, although they often come from different sides of the spectrum. International actors ​often ​do not see the language hierarchies and the political language dynamics as well as local actors do, and those nuances are important. However, ​in some settings, ​international actors can see a situation more neutrally​ and focus on the humanitarian case for language inclusion​. Sometimes staff within national actors (consciously or unconsciously) feel pressure to demonstrate that they speak English and the dominant language of their country, as that is what allows them to work within the humanitarian sector. This reproduces the power imbalance we are currently working against.

Reasons given to CLEAR Global for not working more on language inclusion often include lack of capacity, time or money. CLEAR Global is trying to show how addressing language exclusion doesn’t need to be very time-consuming or expensive for humanitarian agencies, and that without it, their work risks not reaching their target audience. More bluntly, not being language-inclusive could put the entire project's success at risk.

Do you need support and tools to make your humanitarian work more language-inclusive? Some of the things CLEAR Global can help you with are:

  • Providing language mapping to visualise where minority and marginalized language speakers are
  • Supporting data collection about language use to collect large-scale data where it doesn't already exist
  • Qualitative research about language and communication barriers in people's experiences of accessing information and services
  • Offering training and guidance on how to address language-based exclusion

Please read more about CLEAR Global’s projects or connect with them here ->