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Languages and international NGOs: cultural knowledge in communities in crisis – University of Reading

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Languages and international NGOs: cultural knowledge in communities in crisis

About the project

Languages and international NGOs addresses the issue of how research into languages and cultures can support the work of NGOs and aid agencies as they operate 'on the ground' in international conflict and crisis zones. It focuses on the language and cultural challenges faced by international NGOs, and the role and status of the local personnel they increasingly employ.

Over the past decade, major changes in the international NGO sphere have simultaneously emphasised the need for local community empowerment in humanitarian aid, and exposed the relative lack of cultural knowledge with which to facilitate such 'bottom up' intervention. In personnel terms, a generational shift in staff working for NGOs has brought into the sector workers who can no longer be assumed to have an area studies background and experience in the particular region. In addition, younger NGO staff members will have graduated from a British educational system in which encouragement for the acquisition of foreign language skills has notably declined. The humanitarian sector's expectation of greater cultural sensitivity comes at a time when the humanitarian space itself is much less secure. As NGOs become increasingly risk-averse in their operations in crisis zones, they tend to restrict the movement of their personnel 'on the ground', and hence rely more and more on local intermediaries. The result of all these changes is that local intermediaries become vital transmitters of cultural knowledge between NGOs and the communities they serve, and thus key players in their own right in crisis operations.

The Network

The network, Languages and international NGOs: cultural knowledge in communities in crisis (LINGOS) brings together linguists, international relations specialists, NGOs and professional interpreters/translators in order to:

  1. enable the four groups to focus together on the specific issue of languages and international NGOs, and the role of local intermediaries;
  2. identify the current gaps in research and praxis around this issue;
  3. develop a series of key research questions related to these gaps in order to advance future work in the area;
  4. argue for the salience of this research agenda in the wider NGO community, and with relevant government agencies.

The Network comprises:

  • Language researchers working on the role of languages in conflict situations
  • International relations researchers with a particular interest in the work of humanitarian organisations
  • NGOs and humanitarian agencies which operate internationally
  • Professional interpreters and translators with a particular concern for the employment and security of locally recruited personnel.


LINGOS is convened by a language researcher, an international relations specialist, and a professional interpreter:

Hilary Footitt (Reading University) has experience in researching the role of foreign languages in war, having just completed the AHRC sponsored project, Languages at War: policies and practices of language contacts in conflict. She has published widely on this, and is co-editor of the new Palgrave Macmillan book series, Languages at War.

Vanessa Pupavac (Nottingham University) has written extensively on human rights and humanitarian aid, including the international politics of language rights. She has direct experience of working with NGO and relief groups like the Disasters Emergency Committee (Kosovo), and the International Advisory Panel for Irish Aid.

Linda Fitchett ( International Association of Conference Interpreters: AIIC) brings to the network the experience of AIIC's own project on Interpreters in conflict zones, a vast background in the field of linguistic mediation, and a worldwide network of relevant practitioners.

Aims and Objectives

LINGOS aims to bring together languages and international relations specialists, international NGOs and professional interpreters in order to develop an interdisciplinary research agenda which is of specific relevance to the language-related challenges which NGOs face, and to the role which local language/cultural intermediaries play in danger zones.

Its objectives are:

  • to bring the four groups together in a structured preparatory workshop
  • to raise awareness within existing relevant networks of the challenges NGOs face in this area
  • to develop a research agenda in a 'Building Future Projects' event
  • to argue for the salience of this research agenda in the wider NGO world, and with relevant government and European agencies.

Report on Workshop 20/1/14 Do NGO's need a Languages Policy?

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