Language Barriers: Real and Imagined

We are quite excited here about expanding our work into a new province. There are a couple of donors involved, and one, having wiggled their toe in the water for quite some time without achieving much, was in something of a hurry to show some results, so the preparations, at least for the initial bit of work, were quite rushed. After an initial recce visit – which went very positively with good early relationship building – we developed a plan of action almost entirely by email; the provincial officials were copied in all the relevant exchanges except for our contract negotiations with the donor. However, when our team recently showed up in the provincial town to begin work they were met by an entirely different attitude; the officials claimed they were expecting some kind of special rate for collaborating in the work (on top of standard per diems), and complained they were not fully informed.

The demands for special rates were downright greedy, unjustified (folks – this is your job!), and completely at odds with established norms (we pay the government standard rates for a reason); as such they were relatively easily rebuffed. Such obstructionist behaviour, however, is not exactly uncommon hereabouts; the real challenge is to work out why such unnecessary obstacles are being raised, and then to treat the cause, not just the symptoms. The clue was in the second – on the face of it, ridiculous – complaint of being uninformed. At first they said email doesn’t work very well in their office, but they had previously admitted to receiving all the emails, although they never replied. Then they explained that they had expected formal letters addressed directly to them rather than just being copied on a general correspondence over email.*

This is a bit pathetic. However, we can make a few more educated guesses. The emails were all written in English (otherwise the donor wouldn’t have understood). Both the provincial officials involved speak reasonable English, and it is clear they understood the emails well enough. But I had written the emails rather than my local counterpart. My use of language is very different to most local people and infused with Western norms. We can never know for sure – if they had wanted to be straight with us, they wouldn’t have invented their various complaints – but if I had to guess I would say that the officials were intimidated by my linguistic style (and choice of communications medium). They felt unable to reply in kind, and, as a result, felt as if they were not in control, and responded with a couple of rounds from the bureaucrat’s arsenal of prevarification and obstructionism.

Development workers are nearly always outsiders. Our differences are myriad; some obvious, others subtle. My local colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as experienced in what we do; my language was appropriately diplomatic and our (local) general manager did not notice anything in the emails which might have given alarm. Nonetheless we stumbled. The complaints raised were pathetic and deserve scorn, but no-one likes to feel intimidated, and we can understand when someone thus affected might lash out in some way.

Officialdom here needs to grow up, and stop requiring every little issue to be the subject of a special purpose workshop requiring people to travel from all over just to discuss fairly simple matters. Officials uncomfortable moving any faster will throw up any number of obstacles including apparently imaginary communications failures. Underneath, however, there is a very subtle but very real language barrier which takes real courage to cross.

*  It is one of those oddities of life out here that one receives 1MB emails just to invite one to attend a meeting of some sort when a two line plain text job would suffice. Instead, you get a formal letter that has been signed by the big boss and then scanned in full colour, before (to save on the stamp?) being emailed out to one.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Ah, the eternal per diem conundrum. Thanks for sharing a real example and your reflection on it. “Nonetheless we stumbled.” The sector could really benefit from more humility such as this, while at the same time ignoring local officials’ contribution to the situation. Good on you.


  2. […] when delivering such criticism, diplomacy is advised. As I’ve previously remarked, it is easy to cause offence and or blunder across unseen cultural boundaries, even when you’ve got plenty of experience. BINGO staff might be paid handsome international […]


  3. […] is meant when bureaucratic obstructions are raised can be difficult, and there is no doubt that subtle cultural and linguistic barriers can play a significant part; we need to remain watchful of when we may be the ones erring. However, […]


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