Language and Life in an NGO

English language skills are a huge professional advantage in Bosnia. Especially in the world of NGOs, as they compete for limited funding, much of which comes from abroad. A well-written grant proposal has a much better chance of winning the award than a poorly written proposal for an overall better project. As a native English speaker (and former TEFL teacher), it’s easy for me to spot grammatical errors that seem innocuous to those less practiced with the language.

For example, Bosnian doesn’t use articles the way English does; “I have a cat” becomes “imam mačku,” literally translating to “I have cat.” It’s not a big deal in casual conversation, but to a foundation committee member an application that reads “we plan to hold a workshop” is stronger than “we plan to hold workshop.” It’s a small error that doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence at all, but repeated mistakes such as this can lose vital funding for an organization.

Considering that English is not the official language of Bosnia, it seems a little unfair that English language skills have become such an important factor contributing to an NGO’s ability to exist. Beyond grant writing, a multilingual staff can greatly expand an organization’s networking capacity, and a good English language version of a website can attract outside support in a way that a Bosnian language webpage will not. Unfortunately, the dearth of domestic funding necessitates the acquisition of proficiency in a “global” language, and “global” languages just so happen to be those of the most financially prosperous nations, which more often than not have acquired their wealth at the expense of others.

The United States is a glaringly obvious example of this. As I’ve been researching grants, I’ve found that even foundations based in wealthy, non-anglophone European countries accept applications in their own languages and in English. Because I am fluent in English my value as an intern increases, even though I have no real experience with grant writing or website maintenance. While it is undeniably helpful to my NGO that I can assist with these tasks, my language assistance also perpetuates the system that favors speakers of my native tongue. Simply having had the good fortune to be born and raised in the USA gives me the privilege of working in my first language in many parts of the world, whereas all the Bosnian employees in my Sarajevo office are at least proficient in a second.

As long as the majority of funding comes from abroad, outside actors will also continue to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence over the types of projects that will be implemented in foreign countries. If there is one grant and multiple NGOs apply for it, it is the foundation that chooses which project will receive the funding it needs, based on what they think sounds best. The proposal has to sell the idea to an outsider, who accepts or declines to fund it based on what the author writes; the populations that stand to benefit from competing projects don’t have a voice in the process that determines which project will be chosen. And this circles back to language again in that a local, grassroots NGO with strong ties to the community may have the strongest proposal for their population of beneficiaries, but a bigger, more removed NGO with greater resources may have a stronger presentation for their audience and thus win the funding for an inferior project.

While I would love to change this system with a wave of my magic wand, I’m still waiting on my Hogwarts acceptance letter. As long as the balance of power and wealth in the world remains stacked in my favor, perhaps the best thing I can do is listen to my host organization when they tell me what I can do for them. They know best what their own organization needs, and if that’s proofreading from me then so be it.



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