Language and development

The current buzzword in development cooperation is “participation”.

Participation can mean all sorts of things but it most commonly refers to the (more) active involvement of beneficiaries at all stages of a project, and in particular during the initial stages, when the content and objectives of a development project are defined based on local needs. Indeed, modern development cooperation is supposed to be aligned with the real “needs” of “beneficiaries” so as to avoid the pitfalls of old (creating and maintaining dependency, building infrastructure no one uses, imposing change from the outside that no one wants, using development projects simply as a modern form of colonialism etc.).

In order to allow beneficiaries to participate, one must, of course, communicate with them. Surprisingly, the literature on participatory development has very little to say about languages. It seems that communication between NGOs in the North and the South and aid recipients (often rural populations who have not had access to formal education) happens seamlessly and essentially without hick-ups, despite considerable differences not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, level of education, individual experience and exposure to development thinking.

As a trained interpreter familiar with several so-called “developing countries” I had reasons to believe that things are not as simple as that. Indeed, a development project involves a long chain of actors: institutional and individual donors, NGOs in the North and the South, grass roots organizations, beneficiary representatives and, finally, beneficiaries. It is safe to say that not all of them speak the same language and that no commonly shared lingua franca (no, not even English…) spans the whole chain.

When development workers meet potential beneficiaries they create a strange kind of hybrid communication space, a contact zone where different ideas about change, progress, development, work, life and the world come together. Negotiating difference can be enriching and valuable, but it is rarely a simple or painless process.

So how exactly does participation work? Who brings back the “stories” and “first-hand accounts” from the field that we find in every development aid publication? Who communicates with whom? Who are the people who broker encounters between different links of the chain?

That is what I am trying to find out in my current research project. You can view a short summary of it here.

Author: CarmenDelgado

I’m a trained translator (MA), Conference interpreter (MA), Interpreter trainer (MAS) and researcher (PhD, University of Geneva) with an interest in development anthropology, ethnography and technology.

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