Quality Communication is Key to Quality Aid

qualitycommunication-1.jpgTo mark World Humanitarian Day on August 19, InZone decided to interview Roberta Businaro, a humanitarian practitioner who recently looked into the subject of interpreters working in humanitarian crises.

Initiated in 2008 by the UN General Assembly, World Humanitarian Day celebrates humanitarian workers bringing aid and assistance to populations in need across the world.

To mark this occasion, InZone decided to look at the role of humanitarian interpreters by interviewing Roberta Businaro, who recently completed an MSc in Humanitarian Action at University College Dublin with a thesis entitled “Relief Operations Across Language Barriers: the Interpreter Factor”.

Based on a case study of the emergency response to the Syrian crisis both in and outside the Za'atri refugee camp in Jordan, Ms. Businaro's work explores the nature and challenges of communication across languages in humanitarian contexts and the status of interpreters working in these contexts.

“Communication between vulnerable groups and international staff was often facilitated by non-humanitarian staff such as drivers or anybody who happened to be around,” Ms. Businaro said. “All in all, it seemed to me that the role of interpreters in humanitarian crises was non-existent, or rather not given priority at all.”

As Assistant Project Manager with Fundacion Promocion Social de la Cultura (FPSC) Ms. Businaro met with representatives of key humanitarian organizations working in the response to the Syrian crisis in Jordan. As part of her research, she conducted interviews with both interpreters and humanitarian actors working in relief operations in emergency contexts in 52 countries.

qualitycommunication-2.jpg “According to the interpreters,” she said, “the skills needed in carrying out interpreting tasks were very specific and often lacking; on the other hand, the field workers I got in touch with seemed not to be aware of the importance of interpreters and of the consequences of miscommunication in relief operations.”

The scenario will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the pressures and challenges associated with humanitarian crises.

“Within the context of Jordan, I witnessed that non-Arabic speaking humanitarian workers relied on local colleagues who were often not proficient in English, the most common language used in the field,” she said.

“Most of the international humanitarian staff interviewed spoke common languages such as French and Spanish, but not Arabic, and more specifically not the North Levantine Arabic, the variety spoken by Syrian refugees,” she added.

Language barriers can hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance in countless ways, including errors in needs assessment, possibly resulting in the delivery of what is thought to be needed rather than what is really needed. In addition, poor communication can potentially lead to mistrust and the exclusion of beneficiaries from project design and implementation, and this calls into question the very effectiveness of relief operations.

Quoting George Bernard Shaw, Ms. Businaro pointed out: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” adding that for communication to be genuine and effective, it has to work both ways.

“Practitioners need to understand affected populations who, in turn, need to understand practitioners,” Ms. Businaro explained.

The communication scenario in relief operations is complex; there are three factors at play: language, culture and expertise (this encompasses the humanitarian expertise of the practitioners, as well as the local expertise of the affected populations). Interpreters can help overcome language and cultural barriers, thus allowing for such expertise to be shared.

To fill the communication gap, Ms. Businaro said, the humanitarian interpreter’s skill set ought to comprise “four fundamental components: language knowledge (proficiency in the working languages used), cultural knowledge (knowledge of the culture of the individuals involved in the interaction), professional knowledge (knowledge of the field and principles of humanitarian work) and interpreting skills (analytical skills, listening and recall skills, note taking skills, and good memory skills).

“The lack of any of these components will compromise the quality of message transmission. As the reality in the field showed, national staff working as interpreters lack interpreting skills and professional external expatriate interpreters often lack cultural and professional knowledge.”

A solution to the communication impasse is provided through training.

“What emerged from my research is that in the field, there is a great need to have those who serve as interpreters be trained in interpreting skills,” Ms. Businaro said. Quality communication is key to ensuring quality aid.

“The first step for aid agencies is to rethink the pivotal role of interpreters to ensure communication between beneficiary groups and international humanitarian staff,” she said, adding: “Humanitarian workers should stop focusing exclusively on getting things done, but rather make sure that relief interventions are based on excellent two-way communication.”


Roberta Businaro holds a BA in Interpreting and Translation from the University of Trieste and an MSc in International Humanitarian Action from University College Dublin. She currently works as Project Manager in Jordan for Un Ponte per… (UPP), an Association for the promotion of peace. Her humanitarian experience includes volunteering in Gilgil, Kenya and Granada, Nicaragua.

She can be contacted at robertabusinaro(at)

Find out more about Un Ponte Per...

Full text of Ms. Businaro's study

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