Addressing the Language and Literacy Gaps in Humanitarian Aid & Development Work

How to Effectively Help Bridge Communication Gaps


Why do we need to Bridge Language and Literacy Gaps?

When it comes to humanitarian aid and development work, we have two choices as a society: help to save and improve millions of lives in marginalized communities around the world, or ignore the problems they face and do nothing. Unfortunately, the idea of helping others is being met with skepticism and scorn from both sides of the political spectrum. Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) described the situation thusly, “[i]n many places around the world they very premise and value of cooperation to tackle shared problems is being questioned, sometimes by those who had been its most staunch advocates in decades past.”1  The need for humanitarian assistance is rising at an alarming rate as crises exacerbated by climate change, coronavirus and conflict spread unchecked. According to UN OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Overview, “In 2020, nearly 168 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This represents 1 in about 45 people in the world, and is the highest figure in decades.”2

Projected Humanitarian Needs Graph

Data Source: UN OCHA, “Global, Humanitarian Overview 2020”, p. 29

Our Global Responsibility

There is undoubtedly room for improvement in the current global humanitarian and development system, and we applaud and support those who are fighting for reform. However, the need for such a system cannot, in good conscience, be questioned. The work that organizations like The Peace Corps, The Red Cross, The World Food Programme, and others do worldwide is an invaluable asset to global stability and the well-being of millions. Lowcock continued with his defense of the global humanitarian and development system: “We unquestionably save millions of lives every year and protect the most vulnerable people”3  His justification of the humanitarian system is twofold:First, it is a moral responsibility. Our basic humanity demands that we act with compassion to reduce suffering among our fellow human beings. And, second, it’s in the national interest of countries like the United States to ensure an effective and efficient global humanitarian system.” ibid

The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has proven beyond a doubt that no problem is local. In an increasingly connected world, disease, conflict, and climatic shocks will reverberate around the globe, affecting us all; it only gets worse from here. We have entered an era of a global crisis that will test humanity’s resolve. No one should be allowed to die solely because of the country in which they were born or the language they speak. It is our responsibility as a global community to help those who need it the most. If we choose to help, it is our responsibility to help effectively, ensuring equitable aid, avoiding waste, fraud, and abuse, building trust with partner communities, and making sure that we are empowering people to solve their own problems.

How do we Bridge Language and Literacy Gaps?

In order to help those in need, we must be able to communicate with them. How can we possibly begin to find the solutions to complex problems if we cannot even ask simple questions? Effective communication is the first and most important step to guaranteeing the success of humanitarian relief and development efforts. According to Ethnologue, a comprehensive catalog of world languages published by SIL International, out of the 7,117 languages that are spoken today around the globe, 40.71%, or 2,926, are endangered.

Living Languages Graph

Data Source: Ethnologue

Translators Without Borders

A language is made up of more than just words; a language consists of all of the human beings that speak it. No one should be denied the right to survive because of the language they learned from birth. To put it simply, “information in the wrong language is useless.”4 However, according to the non-profit organization Translators Without Borders (TWB), “humanitarians often develop communication strategies without reliable data on [language, literacy], or preferred means of communication.”5 In order to help effectively, we must examine these three aspects of effective communication. 

Fortunately, TWB has been conducting amazing research into the language gap with respect to communicating with and providing humanitarian support to marginalized and crisis-affected communities. Grace Tang, who is spear-heading TWB’s Gamayun Language Equality Initiative, emphasized the impact of the language gap in humanitarian aid: 

For people caught up in conflict or some other emergency, the language gap means the difference between making informed decisions for themselves and not knowing what to do or why to do it…Meaningful two-way communication fills a vital function in any emergency response, as pivotal as providing food, water or health services. To keep themselves and their families safe, people need critical information in a language they understand, such as how to best wash their hands or bury their loved ones. To be effective and accountable, responders need to be able to understand the needs and concerns of affected people.”6

In order to convey information in a way that people understand, we not only need to gather extensive language data but also must break the stigma surrounding illiteracy. According to TWB’s data gathered on literacy rates, “in most countries, male literacy rates exceed female literacy rates.”6 People who have not had the opportunity to learn how to read and write are not just a statistic; they are human beings with stories to tell and deserve our support. A colleague of mine, Alix Underwood, who served as a Peace Corps: Panamá volunteer in the indigenous community of Bajo Mosquito in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, described illiteracy like this:

Illiteracy looks like a child who attends school three days a week, when his teacher shows up, but who’s walked too far and received too little nourishment to focus on scratches on a page. It looks like a middle-aged woman who blushes when asked to write her name on attendance sheets, because she dropped out of school when she had a baby at age twelve and hasn’t read since.”7


Data Source: Translators Without Borders (TWB)

Help Us Close the Language and Literacy Gap

It is vital that we reach these people with life-saving information that is simple enough to be understood, despite the challenges they face with literacy and education. Even those who have the ability to read sometimes lack the reading comprehension skills that we take for granted. Taking into account the fact that “people access information and communicate in different ways,” Tang highlighted the “need to develop tailored communication strategies based on people’s preferences.”8 This calls for a multimedia approach that makes use of audio, video, pictorial and in-person communication. In addition to literacy, we need to focus on the medium through which we communicate. “We know that people often prefer face-to-face communication and are more likely to respond positively, which makes it effective. Social media and messaging apps are an increasingly prevalent mode of preferred communication. But access to technology or the internet can be a limiting factor.”8

A significant amount of work is left to be done, and a sense of urgency is building with each new crisis. We are responsible for ensuring the equitable distribution of aid and the ethical utilization of development. Effective communication is the key to solving the problems of our global community. By following the lead of Grace Tang and the rest of the team at Translators Without Borders, we can replace cultural and linguistic barriers with global connections and save lives. 

To learn more and find out how to support Translators Without Borders’ work in crisis response, visit or


Translators Without Borders InfographicTranslators Without Borders Infographic 2







Written by GIM’s Contributing Writer, Cullen Heater


1 “Linguistics.” Linguistics | Modern Languages and Cultures | University of Exeter,

2 UN OCHA, “Global Humanitarian Overview 2020”, p. 4.

3 “Saving Lives in a Time of Crisis: Why the Global Humanitarian System Matters.” Saving Lives in a Time of Crisis: Why the Global Humanitarian System Matters | Center for Strategic and International Studies,

4 “Words of Relief.” Translators without Borders, 10 May 2019,

5 “Language Data.” Translators without Borders, 9 June 2020,

6 Interview with Grace Tang of Translators Without Borders, (Sept. 10, 2020)

7 Interview with Alix Underwood, RPCV Peace Corps: Panamá, 2017-2019 (Sept. 7, 2020)

8  Tang, (Sept. 10, 2020)