The Listening Zones of NGO's: languages and cultural knowledge in development programmes

Project Details


In development programmes, NGOs traditionally position themselves as listening attentively to the voices of the beneficiaries and local communities with whom they work. Despite the fact that this relationship is normally presented by NGOs as a meeting in which local communities speak, and NGOs hear, the role of foreign languages in these encounters passes largely unnoticed. In International Relations and Development Studies there has been little interest in the inevitable 'foreign' dimension of these NGO/local meetings, and in the role which foreign languages and cultural knowledge may play within them. Whilst the language challenges of working with humanitarian NGOs have begun to engage the attention of language/translation scholars, the world of development programmes is one in which foreign language-related research is still largely absent. This lack of systematic study of foreign languages in development work has encouraged us to focus on the ways in which NGOs listen to their beneficiaries, and the language policies and practices that they adopt.

'The Listening Zones of NGOs' brings together specialists from two universities in an innovative association with a key body in NGO practitioner research and development in the UK, the International NGO Training and Research Centre, INTRAC, Oxford. With its record of over twenty years working with some two hundred NGOs, INTRAC offers the project unrivalled access to the NGO development sector. The lead investigators have an academic background in language policy and practice in conflict zones, and in NGO accountability and global governance, and their universities, Reading and Portsmouth, provide a supportive interdisciplinary environment for this research with specialists in Diversity, Rights and Representation, Literacy and Multilingualism, and Development and Security.

The project, focusing on four large and well-established UK-based NGOs, will examine their language policies and practices over time in three contrasting case studies- Malawi, Peru and Kyrgyzstan- chosen to reflect different language landscapes for NGO activity (particularly defined by the status of the English language), different historical periods of sustained intervention, and operational ease of access through INTRAC's current links. The project will use a range of different resources: the archives of NGOs and government/institutional donors; current NGO and Department for International Development (DFID) online documentation; semi-structured interviews with NGO international staff, in-country staff, staff of partner organisations, local communities, language intermediaries, and Foreign Office/DFID officials; and a session of ethnographic observation in each case study area involving a regular in-country audit meeting.

We believe that this project will enable us to develop a framework for analysing the role of foreign languages in NGO development work which could be used in the future as the basis for a larger comparative international study of NGO development programmes. 'The Listening Zones of NGOs' aims to ensure that the relevance of foreign languages in development enters into the public arena in a way which is backed up by robust academic research which will inform public debate and stimulate the future thinking of all those concerned, in particular development NGOs, government/institutional funders, and professional translators/interpreters. Through the Advisory Board, the extensive network of INTRAC NGO contacts, and dedicated workshops, seminar and conference, the project seeks to involve these groups in the on-going research, share results with them, provide tailored and practical advice to influence future policy and practice, and lay the foundation for follow-up academic research on the role of foreign languages and cultural knowledge in the global world of international development.
Effective start/end date1/04/1531/03/18


  • Arts & Humanities Research Council: £32,291.00


  • Languages & Literature
  • Interpreting & Translation


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