At recent digital health conferences in Geneva and Washington, DC, representatives from African countries (Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Senegal, and Kenya) were regulars at the podium. These presenters had much in common: a commitment to digital health, similar health challenges, and digital health projects with many of the same funders and implementing partners. But there was one more fairly obvious commonality that could be problematic outside of a conference: all these presentations were in English. Not exactly a recipe for knowledge sharing with French, Portuguese, Swahili, and Arabic speakers.
Complex ecosystems of digital health funding, infrastructure, and governance are evolving globally. National and regional digital health initiatives are yielding valuable experience, reusable tools, and best practices that can and should be shared with others. Too often, however, knowledge sharing ends at the language barrier. Many prominent funders offer RFPs, workshops, tools, and project reports only in English. Purveyors of health data and research in African countries list few resources in French, Portuguese, or Spanish. Some conference organizers do offer simultaneous interpretation at events, but conference materials including hand-outs or schedules are often monolingual. For smaller organizations and government agencies, there often aren’t enough skilled translators, adequate facilities, or funds to provide translation and interpretation services.
As development organizations shift to a greater reliance on data, systemic alignment, and regional solutions, there is an opportunity for greater impact by addressing this language gap. Conference organizers can plan and budget for break-out sessions or presentations with full translation and interpretation services. The producers of digital health research, project reports, tools, and other reusable assets should budget for different language versions, and work with national health authorities to create local-language versions as needed. Online platforms and websites focusing on digital health in Africa should have English, French, and Portuguese options. Translation and interpretation are added expenses, of course, and in the absence of active, inter-regional collaboration and engagement, the impact and utility of translated resources might be limited. But without more investment and attention to the language gap, we risk contributing to the creation of parallel, incompatible digital health systems intended to treat the same health issues. Malaria, HIV, Ebola, diabetes, and diarrhea all speak the same language.