Language and the Sustainable Development Goals: An Example of Disease and HIV Prevention in Kenya


Language mainstreaming is understood as incorporating language policy and planning at the core of development initiatives. Being fully aware of the language diversity in the places we are setting out to work – or the lack thereof, affects the effectiveness of development initiatives. Language diversity is usually considered a problem despite claims by linguists such as Haugen, who state that language diversity only becomes a problem when it is used as a basis for discrimination. Echoing this, Dell Hymes, mostly known for the creation of the Ethnography of Communication, asserts that languages, just as people, are potentially equal, but they are not treated as such primarily for social reasons. In what follows, this piece will offer an overview of the broader picture in which the development agenda and language policy and planning intersect with one another in the African continent and will end with a specific example related to a goal set to be achieved by 2030.

On the African Continent and Language Diversity

The African continent is well known for its wealth of languages and cultures, as well as for its history of colonial subjugation. Colonialism and the Berlin conference (1884-1885) greatly impacted the socio-political structure of the continent as it affected language use as it existed before. The current diversity of languages and cultures was constrained by the colonial process and it was not until the rise of pro-independence movements and the beginning of the national building process that attempts to create uniform language policy addressing the existence of various languages under one national identity emerged. Even though researchers who have set out to study the relationship between language and development have failed to find a straightforward link between them, some have concluded that language uniformity is a necessary but insufficient factor for economic development and that economic development is sufficient but unnecessary for language uniformity (Pool, 1972). This author, as well as others like Omoniyi, use economic development as the measurement of their research and it would be interesting to see further research addressing the issue of language diversity dealing with other development paradigms that take on board concepts of language rights, fairness or access to the public space, to name a few.

On the Sustainable Development Goals and the Need for Language Mainstreaming

The Millennium Development Goals presented some language policy gaps that were highlighted by Bamgbose, an academic linguist hailing from Nigeria, who criticised a report about the MDGs which stated five reasons for why sub-Saharan African countries were at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. He highlighted that most of the development strategies implemented in the African continent use a language that excludes most of the people. The current Agenda 2030 set the Sustainable Development Goals, an ‘upgrade’ of the already outdated MDGs. Regarding the issue of language within the new agenda, The Study Group on Language and the United Nations, in cooperation with many other institutions, organised a symposium on Language and The Sustainable Development Goals in 2016. The symposium focused mainly on education, literacy and language development, all of which are important. However, if the motto of the Sustainable Development Goals is “Leaving no one behind”, it is evident that there is more work to be done in mainstreaming the use of language(s) to improve access to spaces, services, opportunities, etc throughout the Agenda.

On their Intersection and Importance of Language Mainstreaming

To illustrate the need and the importance of language mainstreaming when dealing with development strategies, I want to draw on an analysis of various documents published by both international organisations and some Ministries within the Kenyan government in addition to an Impact Study on Ebola Information conducted by Translators Without Borders (TWB) in Kenya. These case studies are all related to goal 3 of the SDGs, which aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, since there continues to be little awareness about issues surrounding the language used in the dissemination of health and prevention information, or so it seems on paper.

When analysing documents published by international organisations dealing with HIV prevention, for instance, it is striking to see the complete lack of regard given to the importance of the language. In 2011, UNESCO published a guide that outlines the crucial elements for an effective HIV prevention [link in Spanish] in which there is only one mention of the use of “national languages”. Where information is only provided in “the national languages” in multilingual societies, this can imply that many people are left without adequate information on HIV prevention. The UNESCO guide, however, does touch upon ideas of language usage that should avoid possible stigmatisation: it deals with how to use language but also with what language is best to use. 

"Where information is only provided in “the national languages” in multilingual societies, this can imply that many people are left without adequate information on HIV prevention."

This pattern of language exclusion as an issue in policy documents can also be seen in HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care for key populations published by the World Health Organisation or here. The same happens regarding national policies: in Kenya, both the HIV and AIDS Policy published by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Development in 2009 and the Kenya HIV Prevention Revolution Road Map. Countdown to 2013 published by the Ministry of Health in 2014 make no mention of language at all. However, unlike the documents emerging from the International community, there are other national documents that do mention language. The Education sector policy on HIV and AIDS published in 2013 by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology states that “Every person has the right to relevant and factual HIV and AIDS information, knowledge and skills that are appropriate to their age, gender, culture, language and context” (p. 6); and the National Guidelines for HIV Testing and Counselling in Kenya published in 2008 highlight the need of “incorporating approaches such as local sign language” (p. 14) and that “Information, education and communication materials should be developed in multiple languages and with appropriate illustrations and graphics” (p. 37).

"One can say in all seriousness that information given in the right language can save lives."

A successful example of language mainstreaming is shown in the analysis carried out by TWB. The baseline percentage of people who had information about Ebola and were able to answer questions correctly was only 8%. In a comparative analysis the percentage of correct answers resulted in only 16% of the participants when information was provided in English, conversely this percentage increased to 92% when using Swahili. One can say in all seriousness that information given in the right language can save lives.

In a nutshell, some efforts and initiatives are starting to consider language as a crucial component of development practice, but there is still a long way to go in ensuring that attention to language is at the core of development initiatives and programmes. After all, not only is language closely linked with culture and identity -- it also saves lives.


Isabel Ciudad Fontecha is currently a MA in Gender Studies student at SOAS, University of London, which she combines with her background in communications and translation. She is particularly interested in gender, languages, sustainable development and environmentalism. Right after finishing her undergraduate degree, she interned with the United Nations Development Programme in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Throughout her degree she has also been engaged with several organisations and institutions both abroad and in her home country. Her thesis on language mainstreaming for development won the First Aristos Campus Mundus Good Practices Award for University Cooperation for Development.


¹ American linguist quoted in Hornberger (2006)

² UNESCO Bangkok published a document addressing the importance of language for the MDGs



Interested in a feature? Read our guidelines & submit:

Was this blog post useful, thought-provoking, or inspiring? Support us with a donation.