Sunday, February 24, 2013

Open letter to International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) whose official languages are English AND French, working in Francophone countries

Dear INGOs,

I am writing on behalf of any and all individuals that live in Francophone countries that collaborate with you through funding initiatives, programs, conferences, etc. and to express my personal aggravation regarding the use of English in your key documents and materials as well as communications with your Francophone collaborators on the ground.

It has come to my attention several times over the course of the past five months of living in a Francophone country that an overwhelming amount of literature you provide to Francophone individuals is unfortunately only available in English. Here is but one example of the frustrations that are borne of this type of oversight:

At a conference hosted by several INGOs geared towards ECOWAS Members’ Ministries of Education, a majority of the presentations were conducted in English and the material provided (documents, manuals, pamphlets etc) was in English. For your information, of the fifteen ECOWAS countries, eight are Francophone, two are Lusophone (one of which participates in the French monetary union and whose citizens speak French) and five are English-speaking. At the end of the conference, the participants were expected to use the materials provided to come up with a Plan of Action to be monitored by the INGOs.
As a native English speaker, my colleagues brought the materials to me to be translated into French. Discouraged, they asked me, “How can we come up with a legitimate Plan of Action if we can’t even read the materials?”

In 2013, I find it appalling that this should be the case. As many INGOs work in countries where English is not the national language, it’s disappointing and discouraging that efforts are not made to provide participants and “collaborators” with the tools they need in their working language to implement the projects that you suggest/encourage that they put into place.  Furthermore, many of the INGOs that work here claim that French is one of their official working languages. This becomes hard to believe when documents are not then translated into this "official" language.

Lucky for the Ivoirian Ministry of Education, I am here to provide capacity support, including translating the documents that you fail to provide them in French. But, this is completely unsustainable. Furthermore, what are they expected to do with this material, which in most cases is highly technical? Use Google Translate?

What message are you trying to send to the people you are supposed to be collaborating with? As a colleague said to me, clearly deflated: “it’s as if they [INGOs] don’t even care about us.” When I attempted to overcome this problem with the INGOs in the example above via email, I was met with a dismissive attitude. I was told that the presenters were used to presenting in English and felt more comfortable doing so. And that my colleagues should have gotten the basic gist of the presentations during the conference, despite it being in a different language. This attitude, coupled with the fact that the participants (reminder: majority of which were Francophone) repeatedly asked for translated documents and were given the run-around, further reinforces the statement made above by my colleague.

If the purpose of coming and leading conferences or providing materials to individuals in developing nations is to build their capacity and put them on the path to development, it is absolutely unacceptable to not provide them with documentation, PowerPoint presentations, and what have you, in their own language. 

I recognize the financial burden that translation may place on organizations. But I do strongly believe that there is no way this cost outweighs the benefits of providing important translated content to people working to make change in their countries.

I hope that this letter is well received by all whom are concerned and that by voicing this frustration, some changes will be made in the ways that INGOs communicate with their Francophone counterparts.

Justine Davis

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