Hilary Footitt, University of Reading, UK


Reimagining the learning spaces of International NGOs: Policies and practices of multilingual development programmes


This paper explores the ways in which large and well-established UK-based NGOs (OxfamGB, Save the ChildrenUK, Christian Aid and Tearfund) respond to and learn from the multilingualism of their development programmes, and how this multilingualism informs policy-making in the organisations.

Borrowing from the work of Lisa Smirl (2015) on ‘Spaces of Aid’, the paper interrogates the social imaginary of the NGO ‘field’ and its representations as reported back to headquarters, reports upon which future policy and programmes are largely based. The channels through which the ‘local’ and its diverse languages enter into the learning spaces of the institutions are examined with particular reference to:

  • the articulation of distance between anglophone Western donors and local non-anglophone ‘beneficiaries’
  • the recruitment and employment patterns of NGO personnel
  • relationships with Western government donors and local governments and agencies
  • ‘beneficiary feedback mechanisms’
  • movements to establish NGO identities as coherent ‘One Programme brands’, balancing pressures to regionalize against those to globalize.

Languages are central to these developments and to the power relationships inscribed in them. Using examples from a range of case-studies in different countries, the paper explores how the institutional learning spaces of development NGOs might be reimagined with languages foregrounded, and speculates on the policy implications of this new language-inflected imaginary. Given the ‘history of silence (on) the issue of languages in International Relations’ (Fierke, 2003:67), the paper suggests that foregrounding languages in the learning models of NGOs may also serve to challenge the widely accepted anglophone domination of Development Studies (Cornwall & Eade, 2010).


Cornwall A., & Eade, D. (2010). Deconstructing development discourse: Buzzwords and fuzzwords. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

Fierke, K.M. (2003). Breaking the silence: Language and method in International Relations. In F. Debrix (Ed.), Language, agency, and politics in a constructed world, (pp. 66-86). New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Smirl, L. (2015). Spaces of aid. How cars, compounds and hotels shape humanitarianism. London: Zed Books.

Hilary Footitt is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies in the University of Reading, UK. She has written widely on the role of languages in war and conflict (including Languages at War: policies and practices of language contacts in conflict, 2012) and on the ‘Underside’ of occupation (in Liberal Democracies at War, 2013). She is co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan series Languages at War. She is currently PI for the AHRC project, The Listening Zones of NGOs: Languages and cultural knowledge in development programmes, conducted with the University of Portsmouth and the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), Oxford.