Published: January 15th, 2006
A Key Subject: Communications and International Activism
by: Enrique Góngora*
16 January, 2006
Recently, Richard Stern from Agua Buena Human Rights Association (Costa Rica) pointed out that many committed activists from the Latin America-Caribbean region are ‘semi-excluded’ from decision-making due to language. This debate is usually focused on the representation issue (or rather, under representation) and the fact that this region usually does not get heard unless it can count on the participation of articulate bilingual people (usually well-educated, high-income males). However I would like to reflect on the wider problem of information and communications for social movements while also taking up some of the points made by HIV/Aids activists from the Latin American region.
It is widely assumed that international activism uses English as its working language. This assumption justifies the decision of organizers of international community meetings and its donors of only rarely making provision for costly interpreting and translation services. Nonetheless, ensuring multilingual communication would make a great difference when it comes to networking across regions (South-South initiatives) or to exchange knowledge and experiences (treatment literacy and best practices). But face-to-face meetings are not the whole picture. What about day-to-day work and information flows once everyone gets back to their desks?
It might be fairly easier for a Pilipino activist to disseminate their community-driven experiences by translating it from Tagalog into English or directly drafting the report in the latter, a great majority of people in the Philippines were educated in English. The same process would apply in many countries form the global South within the colonial sphere of influence of English (although Xhosa and Zulu are among the 11 official languages of South Africa, the news on the AIDS community in this country usually are in English). However, this does not apply to most of Latin America, where an activist from Colombia wishing to disseminate his/her experiences internationally or to draft a funding proposal, for instance, will have to rely on professionals charging high fees to translate documents into English. And a more serious gap of the same nature is seen in cases in which activists from these regions are to negotiate or express political postures with regard to a global strategy in multi-stakeholder meetings such as GFTAM. Likewise, any French-speaking country of Africa will have to relay their documents from local language into French and then into English in order to be visible internationally. The same can be said of Brazil, where a great deal of its community experiences and treatment advocacy is not sufficiently known internationally for lack of opportunities or resources to publish in English.
As a consequence of this predominance of English and other Western languages, very little is known internationally about HIV/Aids activists’ experiences in countries where education is not given in such languages. And the further we go form their “sphere of influence” the more difficult it is to get timely accounts, thereby missing a wealth of experience and indigenous knowledge that could be enormously enriching for social movements. Moreover, some people working on the ground might even have to come to grips with terms of reference originally drafted in English as they are expected to produce their project reports, with agencies paying little attention to the need to adapt such documents for use locally. In contrast with the scarcity of technical assistance and resources that communities require now and again, look at how deferentially government representatives are treated internationally by always being ensured proper multi-language translations for their over half an hour of blah-blah and the commonplace declarations typical of representatives of bureaucracies when gathering internationally.
There is, however, a remarkable amount of good-will translations, and many good readers and writers (but also listeners and record-keepers) in each region have contributed to review, adapt, translate and disseminate knowledge and documents that were forged within the international HIV/Aids treatment movement (such as GIPA, The Denver Principles, and a large number of treatment and prevention literacy and advocacy handbooks). This has also been possible thanks to the infrastructure and support of international and donor agencies and to committed professionals from the North and the South, since the so-called digital divide is not so much a geographical obstacle but one to do precisely with access to education and new technologies. HIV/Aids community networks are perhaps one of the best known examples of transnational civil society at work, clearly positioned as global players in rights-based struggles, development programs and demanding democratic participation in international governance.
But can we really say that the HIV/Aids Communities worldwide are currently in a position to set communication and information exchange strategies as a means to better ‘globalize’ their movement and achieve their goals? One thing is for sure: English is the international language. If HIV/Aids activists around the world are to become visible leaders and their voices heard in an international movement, capacity building necessarily implies acquiring multilingual and intercultural tools. Likewise, it is important to make sure that local and regional information reaches and is made available to transnational civil society organizations such as ITPC, GNP+ and ICW, with constant feedback from bottom to top, but also to position the relevant issues of their struggle in the international media while influencing public opinion. Chinese HIV/Aids activists know that well enough and, in fact, have managed to attract the attention of the media in English language in a much more permanent way than have their counterparts in Latin America or the Middle East. I also have an anecdote in the European context. At a human rights conference in Nuremberg (Germany), a Catalan councilor made a point of speaking in her language to the audience, much to the organizers’ dismay, until a colleague from the Netherlands reminded her that although his own language, Dutch, is recognized as an official EU language, there is a common understanding to adopt English as the work language in such European meetings. Although in Europe we must note the remarkable efforts made by European Aids service organizations and by the EATG, which publishes a newsletter in 5 European Union languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) plus Russian, this is not a sustainable model internationally, given the enormous amount of funding it would require (nonetheless, the lessons learned through the Eastern Europe /Central Asia information and communications strategies in partnership with the EATG and within the coalition are immensely valuable.
How can transnational civil society organizations overcome the digital divide and reap the benefits of enhanced information and communication technologies? 
For almost a decade now, there has been word of “Community-owned networks” in cyberspace; but how can we make this sustainable and effective for an international activism speaking so many languages? Any plan or strategy to become fully communicated and connected (ideally in many languages) should deal, in the first place, with problems related to physical access to information technology. This is a local concern which international activists can actually push forward in the international agenda (there is even an ongoing campaign on the subject: the Communication Rights in the Information Society < http://www.crisinfo.org/content/view/full/90>). Then there is the contents: communities should be consulted on what their priorities are in terms of communication networks and information dissemination; perhaps even start by making an audit of already existing sites and programs in each region. And, thirdly, there is a control issue: who owns these networks and how is transparency and freedom of information ensured when such platforms are sponsored by companies or governmental bodies?
Early in 2005, the ITPC international steering group began discussions on the feasibility of forming a small communication team at regional and global level “to get the process on tracks” as David Haerry from HDNet described it. It is clear that regional communication teams will require team members with written language skills (i.e., English, French, Russian and Spanish as the coalition’s statutory languages, and I might add, at least one of the team members of each region should be bilingual, including English) along with knowledge management skills. And this should be happening soon, since many challenges ahead will require efficient and timely information exchange, but also to achieve a cohesive international activism and gradually provide skills-acquisition (or literacy in communications) for more activists in the international arena (an area of work that is also subject to activist burnout).
This team should have as a top priority to make sure that the voice and work done by non-English speaking activists are not silenced for failure to disseminate news concerning them and their work. This priority is also useful for international NGOs that need to be well connected to the grassroots in order to better model international campaigning based on verifiable facts and reports from communities. Many a lesson can be learned from the way local activists are getting organized and how they tackle their local/regional challenges, what they think and how they word their capacity-building shortlist and their technical priorities while also contributing to international governance and taking their share of responsibility in this matter.
* The author is a Peruvian human rights activist living and working in Spain as a translator and writer for EATG, CIAT and other European and Latin American public interest organizations.
 The concepts set forth here come from: Ó Siochrú, S. Global Governance of Information and Communication Technologies: Implications for Transnational Civil Society Networking. New York: SSRC, 2003.