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Enabling community participation for development

How UN Online Volunteer translators contribute to the localization of the SDGs

28 Sep 2017
Cover page of Equator Initiative case study translated into Mooré © UNDP / Zoramb Naagtaaba Association, Burkina Faso


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from the early stages of their formulation through their first years of implementation, emphasize the role of all actors to participate in and advance sustainable human development. As innovative approaches to tackling development challenges often come from the affected communities themselves, organizations reach out to local communities to gather learning and best practices. Translation plays an important role in including communities in knowledge exchanges around the SDGs and enables community-driven initiatives to connect with and inform national governments and international policy makers.

Since 2000, the UNV Online Volunteering service has offered 8,500 translation opportunities, which makes translation one of the most popular tasks through which online volunteers engage in peace and development work. Most organizations engage translators for the six official languages of the UN: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. But because of the diversity of UN Online Volunteers’ profiles and the wide geographical reach of the platform, organizations increasingly request volunteer support for translating into local languages. To date, they have found UN Online Volunteer translators for 118 languages.

Since 2013, for example, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has been engaging hundreds of UN Online Volunteers in collecting data in almost 100 languages for the biennial E-Government Survey, which presents a systematic assessment of information and communication technologies to enhance efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, accountability, access to public services and citizen participation. The Equator Initiative, managed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and bringing together the UN, governments, civil society, businesses and grassroots organizations to recognize and advance local sustainable development solutions, has been involving UN Online Volunteers to translate questionnaires, nominations and winners’ interviews as well as case studies of the prize winners in the respective local communities’ languages – 51 for the latest cycle, including Portuguese, Tok Pisin, Tajik and Lozi.

Translations into local languages enable citizen participation in monitoring and measuring the impact of projects on the communities they serve. UNDP, for instance, involved an online volunteer to translate documents into Bosnian related to an independent investigation meant to ensure local communities' social and environmental rights. The UK chapter of CBM, an international NGO working for people with disabilities, got support from Amharic-speaking online volunteers to strengthen the monitoring and evaluation of its programmes in the Amhara region in Ethiopia, to ensure the required adjustments can be made during the timespan of the programmes to maximise disability inclusive development.

Online volunteers’ contributions also directly impact local populations. For example, their translations of the Survivorship Passport, developed by the European Society for Paedriatric Oncology, into Dutch, German, Italian and Portuguese, will provide childhood cancer survivors with easy access to clinical data and personalised recommendations to ensure quick responses to side effects related to the cancer treatment. Their language skills help organizations strengthen access to justice: the Swiss NGO International Bridges to Justice recently asked two online volunteers to translate documents into Burmese, to deliver legal training to 100 attorneys in Myanmar – and three online volunteers with Kurdish skills are translating human rights reports submitted by six UNDP-supported Legal Aid Centers in refugee and internally displaced persons camps across the Kurdistan region, to support the residents in those camps. 

“Online Volunteering is an exceptional resource that has allowed UNDP to engage qualified individuals from around the world with local linguistic and cultural expertise.” Paul Goodwin, UNDP

In May this year, in order to recognize the important role of translators in bringing nations together, and in facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, the UN General Assembly has declared 30 September International Translation Day.