Epistemic Injustice and Humanitarian Action: The case of language and translation
IN HUMANITARIAN ACTION
Access to information has been described as a humanitarian good, alongside other basic needs such as food, water, shelter and healthcare .
Accountability is a major priority in the humanitarian sector, including accountability of non-governmental organizations toward the communities they serve.
Coordination of aid between humanitarian organizations, and with local governments and agencies, has been identified as a key concern for effective crisis response .
All three of these activities – sharing information, practicing accountability and coordinating aid responses – are predicated upon the mobilization and exchange of knowledge, and serve to illustrate their centrality to humanitarian action. Important ethical concerns exist, however, when some individuals or groups are excluded from the pooling and exchange of knowledge. One source of exclusion relates to the linguistic dimensions of humanitarian aid: what languages are spoken by whom and for which purposes, what language barriers exist, what credibility or authority is or is not associated with people speaking certain languages, and whether translation is available. Most humanitarian crises are linguistically diverse: both amongst local communities (for example, approximately 40 languages are spoken in the areas surrounding the Ebola outbreak that began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018 ), and within and between humanitarian organizations. Yet, translation is frequently limited or unavailable. There are many reasons for this gap: scarcity of overall resources, lack of skilled translators, prioritization of life saving interventions, limited awareness of the importance of translation, or few resources existing to facilitate technologically-mediated translation of many smaller languages  . The issue of language and the sharing of knowledge points to a set of ethical concerns for international humanitarian action that can be clarified through the concept of epistemic injustice .
In a global context of profound social, economic and political inequalities, the notion of epistemic injustice was developed to take into account the relationship between power and knowledge. Epistemic injustice is linked to inequalities in who has access to positions of knowledge-based authority and how credibility is assigned to different agents, as well as to different types and sources of knowledge. The concept and growing literature on epistemic injustice is relevant in a range of ways for humanitarian action. For example, the role of language barriers, especially for immigrants and refugees, in healthcare settings has been studied in relation to the production of epistemic injustices .
“There is a general epistemic privilege associated with certain languages, commonly English but also French, Spanish, Arabic or other, in which humanitarian assistance is coordinated and delivered.”
In the context of this broader discussion, here we highlight three forms of epistemic injustice associated with languages and linguistic mediation in humanitarian crises. Our purpose in doing so is to draw attention to some areas of ethical concern that may not be widely discussed because the form of ethical concern – injustices associated with people’s status as knowers and their ability to contribute to knowledge sharing and gathering – has received limited attention.
First, there is a general epistemic privilege associated with certain languages, commonly English but also French, Spanish, Arabic or other, in which humanitarian assistance is coordinated and delivered. As a result, persons with less facility with these languages – including local government officials and members of civil society organizations – are less well positioned to contribute to the pooling and exchange of knowledge (and to the coordination of humanitarian responses).
Second, this epistemic privilege is linked to concerns of testimonial injustice “when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word.” . In such situations, a person’s knowledge, competence or insight might be treated as less credible due to the language they speak or an accent that they speak with. If, for example, a national staff member’s or government representative’s expertise is disregarded or disvalued due to the fact that they speak with an accent or more haltingly in the language of epistemic privilege, rather than due to the actual knowledge they possess, this would constitute a form of testimonial injustice.
Third, epistemic exclusion and epistemic paternalism may occur. For example, it has been reported that some cluster coordination meetings in the initial months after the 2010 Haiti earthquake were conducted exclusively in English, without translation being available. Kirsch et al report that, as a result, “local officials and [non-governmental organizations] were unable to participate” . This organization of meetings may have been viewed as increasing efficiency in a time of urgency, however, it limited the capacity for Haitian government and civil society actors to take part in the pooling of knowledge and decision-making processes. In doing so, it may have contributed to epistemic paternalism and the imposition of a particular understanding of what was the best way to respond to the earthquake in Haiti, without sufficiently engaging with local perspectives and priorities.
In these ways, the concept of epistemic injustice applied to language barriers – and the related phenomena of epistemic privilege, testimonial injustice, epistemic exclusion and epistemic paternalism – helps to clarify ethically important features of linguistically diverse humanitarian crises. It also points to the importance for humanitarian workers and organizations to think carefully about whose knowledge is given credence, and who is able to contribute to the collective pooling and exchange of knowledge. These are crucial concerns both for effective and ethical humanitarian action.
[French and Creole translation of this applied example will soon be available.]
Ryoa Chung is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal.
Matthew Hunt is an Associate Professor and the Director of Research in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University.
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Photo by Matthew Hunt: Shadows II statue by Jaume Plensa (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)