Misunderstanding + misinformation = mistrust

Date Published: September 27, 2019 Author: Translators without Borders

In multi-lingual contexts it can be a challenge to establish effective two-way communication between humanitarian actors and affected people for various reasons, including lack of understanding on the part of humanitarians as to which languages people actually speak and understand, what language and what form people prefer to receive communication in, and the linguistic ability to then communicate in these languages. However, it is critical that genuine two-way communication exists in order to achieve protection outcomes – highlighted as an integral part of adaptive programming and outcome-oriented methods in Results-Based Protection.

We speak a hala hotha [black language]… That’s what we call languages that don’t have too much power. Our language is one of them

A Rohingya man aged between 25 and 49

To shed light on this challenge, Translators without Borders (TWB) produced a three-part report in September 2019 titled, “Misunderstanding + misinformation = mistrust: How language barriers reduce access to humanitarian services, reduce the quality of those services and aggravate social exclusion for Rohingya communities,” exploring the role of language in humanitarian access and community relations in Cox’s Bazaar and Sittwe.

Unclear communication and low capacity can lead to misinformation, mistrust, and power imbalances.

The first part of the report highlights cross-border trends; the second and third parts share findings from Bangladesh and Myanmar, respectively, with sections on challenges and adaptive programming. TWB proposes a set of recommendations that demonstrate how humanitarian actors can communicate with communities more effectively. These include:

  • Apply plain language principles;
  • Invest in formal training for interpreters and field staff in language and cultural skills; and
  • Test comprehension of critical messages to see which are best understood, and whenever possible, co-design messages with community members.