Every June 20th, the world celebrates World Refugee Day to honor refugees from around the world. The day, formerly known as Africa Refugee Day, was established in 2001 in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and designated as an international day in 2000 by the United Nations.
To add to this day, and help to shine a light on the rights, needs, and dreams of refugees, I interviewed Aimee Ansari, CLEAR Global's CEO. CLEAR Global (previously named Translators without Borders) is a nonprofit helping people to get vital information and be heard, whatever language they speak. CLEAR stands for community, language, engagement, accountability, and reach, the cornerstones of their work around the world.
Tell us about your role in CLEAR Global, formerly Translators without Borders.
I joined TWB six years ago. The board wanted to bring someone in who had a professional background in international development and humanitarian response to help the organization achieve our mission. Back then, we only had three full-time staff members. I immediately saw the potential of this amazing organization, particularly the incredible community. There was so much that could be done to help people to get information in their language.
Since then, the organization has grown exponentially. The community of linguists was a solid core of about 4,000 people; it’s now well over 80,000 people. And the number of language pairs in which we can work has expanded with this.
We have an incredible team of professionals who make all this happen - they are the ones who have made the growth of the organization and our impact happen.
Last year, we decided to change our name to CLEAR Global. Translators without Borders, of course, continues to be the main pillar of our work, but we now also have CLEAR Tech and CLEAR Insights. We changed our name because our mission to support people to get information and be heard, whatever language they speak, required us to be able to scale our efforts and move more into clear communications and language technology.
My role is, with our Board, to lead our team to harness the power of our community, our research, our skills and knowledge in language technology, and our support so that people who need information can get it in a language and format that they understand and that they can be heard.
Translators without Borders has responded to crises in many different locations, including West Africa, the Caribbean, the USA, and Greece. What is the role of languages in humanitarian aid delivery?
Communication is at the core of any humanitarian aid delivery program. Following a crisis, one of the most immediate priorities is to listen to the people most affected and respond to their needs. Language differences can complicate response and recovery efforts.
We have seen crisis after crisis, how communicating with affected communities in their own language is vital to the effectiveness and adequacy of any relief efforts. Putting language and good communications at the center of humanitarian assistance is essential if we are truly committed to reaching people with life-saving information, practical advice, and even more important if we want to listen to what they have to say.
Do you recall any situation where the lack of information in the appropriate language resulted in a barrier, leaving people at risk?
How long do you have? I can think of hundreds of situations over my 25-year career when the lack of information in the right language left people at risk. In Kyrgyzstan, the woman who lived across the hall from me wanted to know where she could find a safe place for her and her daughters to hide from her abusive husband - they were Tajiks and there was little information in Tajik. In Chad, a village elder wanted me to help educate the young men in his village because that meant they could get jobs and it might help to stop the endless cycles of violence - but there were no materials in Arabic. In Bangladesh, a young woman wanted information on where she could seek help after being raped - there simply was no information on where she could go or what she could do. In northeast Nigeria, where I am as I write this, women and girls are kidnapped and violated all the time; there are few resources for them to find out how to protect themselves - or what to do if they are violated. And even less information in the languages they speak that would help them seek recourse.
It is because of these experiences and many, many more that I have such a passion for the work CLEAR Global does.
When responding to crises, are teams in direct contact with the community, or is the information delivered through some other means? How do you ensure that the right information gets to the right people, at the right time and in the right language?
As I mentioned, I am currently in Nigeria - and we have teams here, in Bangladesh, in Ukraine, in Poland, and a smaller presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. We engage with aid workers and directly with people in communities who need information. But, to be honest, that’s not terribly scalable - and it’s very expensive.
Most of our work supports humanitarian and development organizations to communicate effectively. We only work with reputable, trusted organizations, and we try to ensure that all of the content that we work with meets strict criteria and is “community facing.”
More than that, though, we are developing language technology and language technology enabled tools - including multilingual conversational AI chatbots - that can scale easily, reach thousands of people and respond to their concerns and information needs in their language.
There are plenty of organizations providing aid out there. What should these take into account to become more aware of the importance of language in humanitarian actions and effectively address language barriers?
We’ve developed some tools and guidance that can be found on our website. These are very simple, straightforward questions, maps, and other tools, in multiple languages to help aid organizations to ensure that their communications are effective. This includes knowing in what language and formats people prefer to get information and give feedback, ensuring that the authors follow plain language principles, and asking how and from whom people would like to get information and give feedback.
The consequences of overlooking language needs are dire for the people in need of humanitarian aid – and pretty tough for humanitarian workers themselves.
So, I think all organizations that are helping should move away from English or French-centric communications and processes that exclude those who they want to help. Organizations providing aid should put processes in place to ensure that their teams are equipped with proper language support.
This can begin with collecting the data needed to plan for language needs and resourcing those needs appropriately. Training and capacity development programs can help build translation and interpreting capacity in languages for which there are no professional translators.
On the occasion of World Refugees Day, what are CLEAR Global's most immediate or urgent plans? How can the language and translation community support your crucial work?
As you know, we acted very quickly to ensure that language and information accessibility was at the forefront of the humanitarian response. Thanks to donations we received, and translation support we got from our community members and sponsors, we were able to translate over 1.5 million words of critical information for over 35 local and international partners.
At the moment, we are working closely with local organizations in each country to ensure that language and communications are clear and that misinformation and disinformation is combatted. Our hope, however, is to combine language and smart technologies to help refugees all over the world get the information they need - just like you and I can.
The best way to support us is of course, especially from companies in the language and translation industry, by becoming one of our corporate donors or sponsors, but if there might be time and extra capacity, we always need help with pro-bono translation or revision!
Thank you, Aimme, for this interview, and for your amazing work around the globe!