Languages and international NGOs- addresses the issue of how research into languages and cultures can support the work of NGOs and aid agencies as they operate ‘on the ground’ in international conflict and crisis zones. It focuses on the language and cultural challenges faced by international NGOs, and the role and status of the local personnel they increasingly employ.
Over the past decade, major changes in the international NGO sphere have simultaneously emphasised the need for local community empowerment in humanitarian aid, and exposed the relative lack of cultural knowledge with which to facilitate such ‘bottom up’ intervention. In personnel terms, a generational shift in staff working for NGOs has brought into the sector workers who can no longer be assumed to have an area studies background and experience in the particular region. In addition, younger NGO staff members will have graduated from a British educational system in which encouragement for the acquisition of foreign language skills has notably declined. The humanitarian sector’s expectation of greater cultural sensitivity comes at a time when the humanitarian space itself is much less secure. As NGOs become increasingly risk-averse in their operations in crisis zones, they tend to restrict the movement of their personnel ‘on the ground’, and hence rely more and more on local intermediaries. The result of all these changes is that local intermediaries become vital transmitters of cultural knowledge between NGOs and the communities they serve, and thus key players in their own right in crisis operations.