Issue 79 - Article 15

‘How can we contribute if we can’t participate?’ The accessibility of humanitarian guidance to local and national organisations

May 25, 2021
Mia Marzotto, Kemal Alp Taylan, Fatuma Ibrahim, Marian Ellen Hodgkin, Rev. Father Paul Martin Lukusa Mbwebwa and Charles Abugo
Local responder reads the guide on engaging with humanitarian coordination mechanisms, in Congolese Swahili.
13 min read

In [the Democratic Republic of Congo], we sometimes mix French and English in coordination meetings, but if we want to better understand key information, all reference documents are in English and not everyone is comfortable with it. How can we be effective and contribute with our knowledge if we don’t understand the documents and we cannot participate in meetings?

(Rev. Father Paul Martin Lukusa, Country Director, AIDES, the Democratic Republic of Congo).

The past few years have been pivotal for recognising and advancing the key role of local and national organisations in the humanitarian sector. Although new global commitments and guidelines have brought global attention to localisation, local and national organisations still don’t routinely participate in humanitarian coordination mechanisms. Language barriers, in particular, continue to limit meaningful participation – even for senior figures such as Father Lukusa, as highlighted above. Local and national responders who are not comfortable with international languages 1. These are languages that extend far beyond national boundaries, such as Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. struggle to access even basic information about sector-specific standards and how to uphold them. They are also unsure about how to engage with coordination mechanisms.

To help address this challenge, Translators without Borders (TWB) recently led two research-based projects with the Global Education Cluster and the Child Protection Area of Responsibility, with funding from Save the Children. The research revealed that practical language provisions can improve local and national organisations’ access to guidance and technical tools. This enables them to take more leadership in humanitarian programming and decision-making. In this article we share what we did, what we learned and what remains to be done.

A note on research methodology and limitations

TWB led two mixed-methods research projects to gather experience, insights and recommendations from local and national organisations, cluster members and coordinators. The first focused on the use and usefulness of technical guidance on education and child protection. The research team interviewed 63 key informants, including local and national education and child protection responders and cluster coordinators, from Bangladesh, DRC and Mozambique. This was followed by comprehension workshops in DRC and Mozambique, individual resource reviews in Bangladesh and a readability assessment of some existing materials.

The second aimed to understand local responders’ information needs regarding the humanitarian coordination system. It included a workshop with members of the Global Education Cluster’s Strategic Advisory Group and interviews with 13 key informants. Interviewees included national and local responders from DRC, Yemen, South Sudan and Venezuela, and global and national cluster and NGO forum coordinators. An online survey with questions relevant to both projects received a further 325 responses from education and child protection cluster members from Bangladesh, DRC and Mozambique. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the research was conducted remotely. People with internet access, most of them men, are therefore overrepresented and local and national responders had less opportunity to input on developing the resulting guidance. Therefore, the data almost certainly understates the difficulty local and national organisations face in accessing online materials. We encourage local and national responders to suggest changes and improvements to the guidance we have developed.

What did we learn in our research?

Language, format and jargon limit understanding and use of guidance

Guidance is always in English and we need to discuss with those who do not speak English. Thus, you need to translate to Portuguese and again [into a] local language sometimes. 2. While this article aims to elevate the voices of all local and national responders involved in the two studies, quotes are kept anonymous where limited consent for data use was received.

(Child protection programme manager, Sofala, Mozambique)

Global guidance resources and technical tools are usually available only in UN official languages, in long written formats and also tend to overuse jargon and abbreviations. Most research participants reported that sector-specific and coordination-related terms like ‘resilience’ and ‘country-based pooled funds’ can be confusing and difficult to translate. This is an especially acute problem in contexts where multiple languages are spoken.

Our research confirmed that local language speakers cannot always access the same information or do so as promptly as speakers of international languages, which limits their ability both to understand information and to contribute to time-sensitive discussions. The fact that coordination meetings are usually held in international languages compounds the problem. Most local responders consulted also reported having to read resources available in English or other international languages more than once to understand them because of their style and complexity. Rohingya volunteers, for example, typically found long sentences confusing. We also assessed some existing education and child protection documents against plain language criteria and found that they fell short of TWB’s recommended benchmarks for clear writing 3. TWB’s plain language assessment involves a quantitative readability assessment that uses both commercial editing software and open source tools, and a qualitative assessment against a checklist of commonly cited plain language elements. For more on plain language writing, see: .

Beyond their own comprehension challenges, research participants in the first project also found some existing materials unhelpful as a basis for communicating with non-specialists, including parents and foster parents. This is a wider target audience than most sector-specific materials are probably developed for, and the finding suggests developers and users should discuss expectations from the outset. Applying plain language principles is an established way of making written content more immediately understandable for the widest possible audience. The first project found that applying these principles to a technical document markedly increased information recall among participants in Beni, DRC. This suggests using plain language may be particularly important outside urban centres, where literacy rates and exposure to technical terminology are typically lower.

Internet issues and lack of knowledge of where to look hamper physical access to guidance

We have access to some documents in the printed version but have difficulty with [online documents] for lack of means.

(Child protection specialist, NNGO, DRC)

Among people consulted, those with better connectivity reported accessing guidance via email and internet searches. Others reported using hard copies of key guidance materials. Poor internet access, slow download speeds and related costs were raised as issues across all countries. For instance, in Mozambique 34% of those surveyed had problems accessing resources, with internet connectivity and cost cited as key obstacles. Some also described having one copy of a document for their whole organisation and having to obtain authorisation to read it. Community-based staff and volunteers said they had no office to read in and struggled with longer documents.

For research participants in Bangladesh, DRC and Mozambique, confusion about where to find guidance documents online was an additional challenge. They also reported difficulties navigating and prioritising a sometimes overwhelming flow of information.

Asked how they would prefer to access cluster resources, participants mentioned holding meetings and training to discuss new guidance and its application in members’ work, and sharing key documents on a flash drive or via direct email. This would help local and national responders learn about guidance related to their work in a language they speak, while avoiding information overload. It can also make it easier for them to relay key points to colleagues more widely – including in less connected rural areas where access to coordination meetings and electronic copies is limited.

Existing guidance is useful but not always up-to-date and adapted to the context

They should adjust the content and add more concepts that relate to [our context]. They should also tell us about other documents that we can consult and that will give us additional information.

(Primary school teacher, Goma, DRC).

Where research participants had access to existing resources, they reported using them and seeing them as valuable in their work. However, most people consulted about global guidance on the humanitarian coordination system felt that it is rarely tailored to national and local organisations and their specific roles and expertise. Interviews with global coordination staff similarly indicated that most resources assume more prior knowledge of the international humanitarian system than they would expect local and national organisations to have.

Participants consulted on technical education and child protection guidance also felt such guidance is of more direct value when it is adapted to their context. For example, participants in North Kivu valued the references to national laws and content tailored to the realities of eastern DRC in the contextualised version of the Minimum Standards on Education in Emergencies. Other issues raised were about resources containing pictures that did not reflect local realities, or hyperlinks to resources not available in relevant languages. Similar criticisms were made about guidance not being updated to reflect changing situations – for instance, measures linked to the pandemic such as physical distancing. While regularly adapting and updating guidance can present a challenge, several local responders consulted were keen to contribute to those efforts. This calls for establishing a clear process with diverse participation and appropriate investment, as previous similar contextualisation efforts highlight.

Shorter, better tailored documents in a range of languages and formats would be easier to use

When you find the documents, most of those available on the internet are [very long] and in English and it’s difficult for us to understand some of the information and what to do with it.

(NNGO platform representative, Juba, South Sudan)

While global expertise can inform local action, it must be communicated in a way that makes it easy both to grasp and use. Across the two studies, local and national organisations consulted requested resources to be in ‘as many languages as possible’, including the main languages of their countries. They also indicated the need for shorter documents, with illustrated content such as tables, graphs and practical tools like checklists for meeting sector-wide standards. Glossaries and lists of acronyms were also mentioned as other helpful ways to improve readability. Where documents cover a large volume of information, people called for tools such as indexes and checklists to help the reader find the content they need. These requests were linked to ensuring that guidance materials benefit the work of their intended audiences, while minimising reading effort for all readers, regardless of their language skills or literacy levels. They are also in line with all plain language principles.

Many research participants also expressed a preference for guidance in audiovisual formats (see Box 1), while others suggested that audio files as a summary of a written document could make guidance more user-friendly and accessible even in low-connectivity contexts. As learning styles vary, a range of formats is likely to benefit all responders, including international staff.

Box 1 Audiovisual guidance helps local organisations participate in response planning
In September 2020, Save the Children and the Child Protection Area of Responsibility produced a video on the needs assessment and analysis step of humanitarian response planning. The video was the first of a series aimed at increasing understanding of and participation in response planning processes among partners, including local organisations. The Child Protection coordination groups in Iraq and South Sudan, which contributed to the video, have already disseminated it widely. They found that the video increased the participation and knowledge of local members in child protection needs assessment and analysis. As an indication of early impact, local organisations took a more active role in response planning and coordination in late 2020, particularly at subnational level. Local members commented that they understood better how to contribute to needs assessments and analyses, and why their input was important. Some said that, for the first time, they could understand how the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance and the magnitude of a crisis are calculated. The video is currently available in English and Arabic, on the CP AoR website:

How did we act on these findings?

We used the findings to produce three main resources:

  1. A guide for national and local responders on engaging with humanitarian coordination mechanisms, available on the GEC website in ten languages 4. See The guide is available in Arabic, Bengali, Congolese Swahili, English, French, Juba Arabic, Kenyan Swahili, Lingala, Portuguese and Spanish. . It includes general information about the cluster system and specific sections about the education sector. Users can adapt the guide to other sectors and contexts. Feedback on the guide, including requests for further translations, can be provided via the Global Education Cluster Helpdesk.
  2. Specific recommendations for improving the accessibility of existing guidance on education and child protection in emergencies, available on the GEC and CP AoR websites.
  3. A checklist for commissioning new guidance to help cluster coordinators and members provide  information in plain language that’s geared to the needs of local and national responders, available  on the GEC and CP AoR websites.

Furthermore, the Global Education Cluster has recently set up partnerships with AIDES in DRC, ASEINC in Venezuela and Soul for Development in Yemen to translate key working documents into French and Arabic. This helps national and subnational education cluster members to access guidance related to their work and disseminate information to other responders and community members in the most relevant languages. As project partners, we are also advocating with other global clusters to follow suit.

Where do we go from here?

There are a number of practical lessons we and other humanitarian organisations can take from these studies. First, we should write guidance more clearly: established plain language principles show us how to achieve this and doing so will improve clarity for readers and for translators. For example, we should use the active voice, short sentences, and familiar terminology in a structure that reflects readers’ information needs. Second, we should produce guidance in more formats to help responders access information, both online and offline. Third, we should earmark resources for language support, including translators and interpreters for local languages. Donors can support this as part of their investment in localisation and coordination. Organisations should share translations of guidance documents and technical tools electronically.

In contexts where connectivity is low, organisations producing new guidance should make those resources available as durable hard copies. This can be supplemented by introducing new guidance through meetings and training sessions. Perhaps most importantly, organisations should use the expertise and insights of local and national responders to adapt and develop resources to meet their needs. If the quality of humanitarian action is to benefit fully from the contribution of national experts such as Father Lukusa, we must all lift the communication barriers to their contribution and leadership.

Mia Marzotto is a Senior Advocacy Officer with Translators without Borders. Kemal Alp Taylan is a Localisation Specialist with the Global Education Cluster. Fatuma Ibrahim is a Senior Localisation Specialist with the Child Protection Area of Responsibility (Global Protection Cluster). Marian Ellen Hodgkin is the Education in Emergencies Senior Advisor with Save the Children. Rev. Father Paul Martin Lukusa Mbwebwa is the Country Director for AIDES and a Global Education Cluster Strategic Advisory Group member. Charles Abugo is a former Project Coordinator for Save the Children in South Sudan.


Comments are available for logged in members only.