In the early hours of Monday 29 February I travelled to London to attend the NGO industry’s largest event, BOND Conference 2016. BOND is the UK international development network, and this was the first time I had attended their annual conference. Was the £395 price tag worth it? Most definitely. I’d decided to attend because events like this help me keep up to date with sector news, identify new terminology, and maybe meet some new clients. Not only did I meet all three of these goals, I also met some new translation colleagues. And the lunchtime brownies were exceedingly fine. Which always helps.
So here’s a brief overview of the keynote speeches and workshops, with key learning points that I took from each, plus ways that I think translators can help the sector address some of its challenges.
A Pessimistic, Optimistic and Hopeful Start to the Day
The conference began with some thought-provoking speeches that pulled no punches in terms of the sector’s main threats, but also offered hope for a more positive future.
First up was Danny Sriskandarajah (pictured right), Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, who looked at four areas that, in his view, proved how NGOs were experiencing the best and worst of times.
He began by stating that the space NGOs had to work in had never been greater, with national and multinational agreements in place (the UK’s legally binding 0.7% of GNI for aid just one example), and tools that could be used to mobilize citizens to demand and bring about change. But these conditions were under threat in many countries, with activists being murdered and governments placing curbs on NGOs’ lobbying rights.
Danny then focused on money, commenting that while ODA was at its highest level, demand had outstripped supply. Not only that, but the cost to raise this money was increasing and larger NGOs were hogging power and resources. After money, he moved on to trust, citing the Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings that NGOs were still the most trusted organisations, but that in 19 out of 20 countries this level of trust was in decline. He attributed this to NGOs confusing brand recognition with organisational trust. The final area that Danny focused on was influence, noting that despite NGOs being heavily involved in recent decision making (the Sustainable Development Goals for example), an increasing amount of global decision-making was being taken by just a handful of major states. He ended on a hopeful note though, calling on NGOs to shape their future role, defend their current position and reconnect with civil society. He added that NGOs needed to build legitimacy in society and move beyond mere accountability, or as he put it, “the art of transformation was more important than the science of delivery”. This was a recurring theme throughout the conference, and I’ll return to it towards the end of my post.
Danny was followed by Aya Chebbi, a Pan-African feminist activist and blogger. Aya was involved in the Tunisian revolution, and her key message for the audience was that young people did not need to be given a voice, but they did have to be listened to. She went on to add that NGOs should stop treating young people as a distinct segment of the population; they share the same concerns as older generations, but treating them as a distinct group diminishes the impact they could have on decision making. Aya went further, suggesting that NGOs actually needed young people to deliver effective change; in her view the regimes in North Africa were brought down by the younger generation because “old people like progress but not change”. She also suggested that NGOs should stop using jargon when they communicate with younger people, and was particularly unimpressed by the use of the classic NGO term youth as beneficiaries. Just as well she didn’t attend the following workshop, which contained some excellent examples…
Workshop Session 1: Delegates Let Off Some Evaluation Steam
After a much needed coffee, or three, I headed into my first Bond Conference 2016 workshop: How to Crack Results 2.0. The speakers included Kevin Quinlan, DFID’s Head of Finance, Performance and Impact, Irene Guijt, Oxfam’s Head of Research, and Jessica Horn, Director of Programmes for the Africa Women’s Development Fund. Rather than outline each speaker’s presentation, I’ll summarise the main learning points I took away from the session, plus some of the rather complex language.
The overriding message was that programme monitoring and evaluation is either feared, despised or seen as a waste of time by NGO workers. Usually all three. Why? Because there is a lot of it, requirements change depending on the donors involved, and so much time is taken conducting the research that there is no time to analyse the results and draw conclusions for future programmes. Secondly, results on their own are unable to tell the whole story, and greater emphasis should be placed on stories from people affected by NGO programmes. I’ve translated the personal stories of women whose lives have been changed by Oxfam’s fairtrade network, and can testify to how powerful these can be.
As for the jargon, I noted down two phrases that were new to me: negative thoughtspace and rightsiding the negative balance of the reporting burden. I also jotted down the use of sausage numbers when referring to the statistics produced by evaluation (people like the taste but don’t want to know what went into them). There were plenty more, and I’ll be putting these into a glossary shortly.
Workshop Session 2: Raising Income Online
After the lunch break and a visit to NGO and supplier stands, I went into my second workshop session, Delivering Income Through Digital. The speakers included Mike Walton, Chief of Digital Engagement at the UNHCR, and two digital consultants, Sam Jeffers and Alison McCormack. Key lessons from this session were a) digital is now a major fund raising medium for NGOs, with the UNHCR raising the majority of its 2015 income online, and b) empathetic messaging, rather than pity, is a better way of increasing support for an NGO’s programmes over the long-term. In other words, people are more likely to become long-term donors if you present them with positive stories about the impact NGOs can have. But this messaging depends on stories from people on the ground, another opportunity for professional translators to help NGOs make their work more effective.
A Chance but ‘Appy Meeting
Before the final keynote session, I had a chance to network with delegates from a variety of NGOs and their partner companies. They were fairly surprised to meet a translator, but they confirmed that there was a great deal of demand for my services. Phew. And especially for UK NGOs working in French speaking countries. Phew number two.
I also met several other translators via the excellent conference app (hence the truly dreadful pun above). Delegates could upload their profile to the app and contact fellow delegates, which was how I received a message from Marcela Sariego, who also introduced me to Audrey Langlassé and Pilar Ganez. Meeting fellow colleagues was a great opportunity to share our experiences of working in this sector, and stopped me feeling any hints of colleague envy as I watched the NGOs delegates chatting amongst themselves over a cup of tea.
Final Keynote: World Humanitarian Summit
The day’s penultimate event was a keynote speech by Stephen O’Brian, United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. His speech first of all focused on the scale of the challenges facing the international community, both in terms of those who need humanitarian assistance (125 million people in 37 countries) and the funds required to help them ($20 billion). He then moved on to express cautious optimism about the humanitarian aid situation, citing donor generosity, the incredible efforts of local NGOs, and the 26,000 contributions that fed into the United National Secretary-General’s “One Humanity Shared Responsibility” report for the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (23-24 May 2016). Mr O’Brian was asked some challenging questions in the subsequent Q&A session, ranging from calls for the United Nation’s charter to be reviewed, to criticism that too few local civil society organisations were included in the UN report. As an ex-Minister and MP, he deftly sidestepped these contentious issues, even when pushed for answers in a Today programme fashion by the event’s chair, former BBC journalist Mike Woolridge. He finished by apologising for using the word disintermediation, a word which he said struck terror into the hearts of United Nations interpreters as there is no easy translation into French, Russian, Spanish, Chinese or Arabic. I felt my French and Spanish colleagues beside me nodding with sympathy…
I’d chosen to attend the first day of the two-day BOND Conference 2016 because the final session was a drinks reception. Tempting though the red wine was for someone who had been on the go since 5am, I actually thought this would be a great opportunity to network with other delegates. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay too long as the main event had overrun, but I did manage to chat to the International Rescue Committee’s very friendly, and multilingual (fluent in six languages no less) Finance Director, Tania Songini.
Homeward Bound Thoughts
As I walked to the Tube station after the event I thought about what I’d learned that day. Two things stuck in my mind. Firstly, the amazing dedication and passion that these delegates have for their work, and what a privilege it was to help them do their job. And secondly, how vital communication is to the work that NGOs do. It’s crucial in identifying needs, shaping programmes, evaluating effectiveness and communicating success to future donors. But after listening to the speeches and workshop discussions it became clear that a more narrative approach could also help, using communication to reinforce Danny Sriskandarajah’s keynote comment that “the art of transformation was more important than the science of delivery“. And I think this is where we, as professional translators, can help. We can ensure that the voice of the young people mentioned by Aya Chebbi, or that of any local community, reaches potential donors, decision makers and NGO workers.
As I headed into Westminster station, I decided that not only would I attend next year’s conference, but I’d be there on both days, doubling my chances to meet delegates and learn more about this fascinating sector. Never had a 5am start been so worthwhile.