‘They are not empowered enough to speak English’: Multilingual communication between Kenyan NGOs and local communities
Contemporary development NGOs aim to promote community participation and ownership rather than impose solutions that lack local relevance and support. Participatory development approaches consequently attribute high value to the direct interaction between NGOs and beneficiaries, and to an NGO’s ability to hear and understand the concerns of local communities. However, given the diversity of actors involved, these interactions are far from straightforward, and many, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa, involve one or multiple language barriers. Surprisingly, the multilingual nature of the contact zone between NGOs and their beneficiaries is rarely acknowledged explicitly in the discourse on participatory development emanating from NGOs and other institutions in the aid chain. Furthermore, NGOs seem to lack a systematic approach to multilingual communication in these encounters. This lack of engagement with multilingualism in development discourse, however, is not matched by a commensurate gap in development practice. Indeed, both translation and interpreting are common in development encounters, and aid workers in the Global South are highly resourceful in overcoming language barriers. The findings presented in this paper provide an overview of the multilingual practices deployed by Kenyan development NGOs to communicate with beneficiaries and deepen our understanding of how language constrains and shapes participation in development. In shedding light on these practices, the author hopes to contribute to enhancing the visibility of languages in development discourse.
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