the Limits of Language: Gendering Language, Post-Colonialism and Development Policy in West Africa

Limits of Language Feminist Foreign Policy West Africa Development Policy Post-Colonialism

Wittgenstein once wrote, ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’  Whilst this was in reference to human comprehension, the phrase is also applicable to human relationships and our ability to extend the knowledge of our lived experiences. Language provides a powerful mechanism through which human relationships are established, but can also be used as a means of exclusion. In efforts to improve the living standards of such women, it is important to understand how language can provide barriers to implementing equal opportunities to education, healthcare, and employment.

There has been an abundance of studies on the impact of policy and law in the lives of rural women, but there has been little research specifically on how development organizations have affected rural women in Francophone countries relative to those living in Anglophone countries in West Africa. In order to effectively embark on such an investigation, it is important to first illustrate what financial support these different countries are receiving and whether there are significant differences between the aims, implementation, and results of this assistance. Together, the United Kingdom and the United States donated $60.685 trillion in aid in 2015. France donated $19.920 in the same year. These donations were contributed in the forms of bilateral aid (from one country to another) or through international organizations such as the World Bank or United Nations. Funds from the US Agency for International Development are distributed evenly across West Africa. However, it is evidenced that the UK offers more development support to English speaking/former colonized countries that are considered ‘Anglophone’, such as Ghana and Nigeria. In contrast, France offers more support to ‘Francophone’ countries.

Development projects have generally had a heightened focus on ‘gender mainstreaming’ within multilateral organizations and state funded projects, which in theory means larger sums of financial assistance will be focused on positively affecting more women. Therefore, the projects and work this money impacts becomes increasingly important to examine. It also necessary to assess the impact language has on these societies, in order to examine how language can create barriers in the successful realisation of these development projects.

Language can create huge obstacles for women’s economic empowerment. For example, rural women are less likely to go to school, therefore, less likely to learn a second or third language. In Burkina Faso, a country with an overall seventy languages in use, 78% rural women cannot read or write. With knowledge of only the local language, gaining employment can be difficult. This will hopefully improve, as young people - especially girls - have access to more educational opportunities. 

With the embrace of social media and the ever-growing online presence of businesses, it is natural to connect to businesses in our native language, and so language barriers can create challenges to building business relationships. Such barriers mean that rural women do not have the same opportunities to share their experience, knowledge, and skills.  

It is critical to challenge and unpack the deeply rooted colonial links between language and policy.

In Sierra Leone, a country once colonized by the United Kingdom, fluency in English is a requirement for parliamentary candidates. Only a handful of women can meet such a prerequisite. In both Liberia and Sierra Leone, literacy is considered to be essential for all candidates and may soon become a formal requirement. Whilst it is understandable that a parliament would want a mutual language for its members, this is also effective in keeping rural women out of the conversation.  

Language has long been considered a feminist issue and many grassroots development organisations hold language classes for local women to ensure better participation and socioeconomic opportunities.  But beyond this, it is necessary for governments to allow for an array of languages to be used in order to ensure that rural women are not excluded from participating in discussions on internal development policy.

It is critical to challenge and unpack the deeply rooted colonial links between language and policy. Further comparative research would help identify ways to assess how language affects successful development policy, and in doing so, ensure that the most marginalized factions of society are included. 


Lydia Birtwistle-Sawyer is a recent graduate of SOAS, University of London and attends lectures as a hobby.


Annie Gergi