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IPK’s model for online and multilingual events

We would like to share our model for the requirements of online multi-lingual events. This emerged from our online design and facilitation work, and may have implications for decolonising development by getting all voices heard.

We were working with a UN agency in a country in the global South, and the agency jointly with the national government were conducting a policy review process which had been delayed because of COVID-19. The country was locked down, but the policy review needed to move ahead. During preparatory discussions, we discovered that some national UN agency staff were reluctant to engage online for the following reasons: if the review meeting was in English, one staff member said she would be hesitant to speak her mind because she would struggle to find the correct words, and would never be sure that her words actually say what she means. This would be even worse for members of government who are not expected to have a level of fluency in English that UN agency staff are.

We believe that language is a challenge for the whole system of international co-operation, because by conducting most of its work in European languages like English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese, the system of development aid favours those first-language speakers. Given that we know that those people tend to be from the global North, be empowered, and to assume that their voices will be listened to, the language of the system re-enforces their power. People who are reluctant or uncomfortable to speak in those languages tend to be local representatives from the global South, and be the very voices that the global development system needs to hear the most, yet the language may exclude them or disempower them. If we really want to do more than pay lip service to the concept of participation of so-called beneficiaries in development aid – ‘nothing about us without us’ – then we need to create the conditions where they feel comfortable and safe to participate. In the above example, the ‘beneficiaries’ are senior national government officials, and even partnerships at that level include this language hurdle. Without inclusion of voices from the global South, the development agenda will remain largely guided by the confident English/ French/ Spanish/ Portuguese speakers from the global North. As Kenyan writer and academic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote: “I was wondering why I was put in prison for working in an African language when I had not been put in prison for working in English. So really, in prison I started thinking more seriously about the relation between language and power.”

IPK has built a model for this, and represent it in the diagram:

How can we design and facilitate online events in ways that make participants feel safe, feel able, and feel comfortable to do what they need to do? IPK has identified three key building blocks to this. The participants need:

1. Technology orientation: An orientation or introduction to the technology and platform. Online interaction can be more complicated than face-to-face for most people, and the tech can form a barrier to free participation. This is especially true in places with low bandwidth.

2. Attendance: An ability to attend in a way that allows participants to see and follow what is happening. If there are presentations or background documentation as part of the event, participants need to understand them or make sense of them in their first language.

3. Participation: The means to participate, act, and co-create. Getting all voices from the system into the same virtual room is IPK’s principle tenet when designing events as this ensures that all voices contribute to the final outcome, and people support what they have had a hand in creating. If all participants are to contribute to conversations and action plans, they need to be able to do so in their language of choice.

These three layers need to be built by the facilitators to ensure that participants feel safe and confident to contribute in the event:

1. To have orientation, the interface and surface which help people to find their way need to be accessible and understandable and ideally in their language: things like buttons, tabs, page names, and instructions. There needs to be an introductory phase in participants’ first language, so that they can confidently navigate that virtual space and does not feel lost;

2. To attend, they need content that they understand – that is in their language – for example documents, videos, presentations, etc;

3. To participate, they need interactions that they understand, so there needs to be collaborative tools, chats, polls, etc that they can access.

We have used and make mention of QiqoChat as a virtual meeting platform because it can provide the required level of translation and comfort for participants. Buttons, rooms, and menus can be translated into any language, documents can be translated, and simultaneous translation can be built in.

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