Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

WEEE? UNSSSS? New app unscrambles jumble of U.N. jargon

by Sebastien Malo | @SebastienMalo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 January 2016 14:46 GMT

A man poses with an iPhone that displays the United Nations University Jargon Buster App in this photo illustration in the Manhattan borough of New York, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Image Caption and Rights Information

New smartphone app aims to demystify U.N. acronyms that act as barrier to getting public support and even baffle insiders

NEW YORK, Jan 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Understanding the workings of the United Nations as SDGs are thrown around with RIMLGs can be challenging even for insiders so Howard Hudson decided to step in - with a smartphone tool to decrypt U.N. jargon.

Hudson, a communicators coordinator at the United Nations University (UNU), realized the acronyms adopted so widely by the 193 U.N. member states were a barrier to getting public support for its work and confusing even those in-the-know.

He cited as a key example the adoption last year of a new set of global goals by the United Nations to combat poverty and inequality that were called the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, to replace the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

When asked about the SDGs outside the U.N. headquarters in central Manhattan, members of the public were baffled.

"This is a recipe for inaction if we don't have people clarifying things," Hudson recalled a colleague saying about the SDGs which took three years of negotiations to hammer out.

"A lot of the papers that I have to edit get so technical that they're actually like hieroglyphics," he added.

Enter Hudson's brainchild, the "UNU Jargon Buster" glossary app for smartphones, with about 450 A-to-Z entries from AAR to WTO, aims to decipher the global organization's penchant for vernacular that some say muddies public debate.

Looking like pieces in a Scrabble game, it spells out the meanings of such seemingly haphazard initials as CHAP - or Common Humanitarian Action Plan - RIMLG - or Regional Integration and Multi-Level Governance - WEEE - or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and UNSSSS - the U.N. Security and Stabilization Support Strategy.

The project was first mooted when Hudson, an editor and communications coordinator at the UNU-MERIT in the Netherlands, noticed that social scientists from different fields often did not understand each other.

Creation of the free app, launched in November for Android and iOS devices, was "also partly for my own sanity," said Hudson, whose job involves pouring over jargon-packed papers and policy briefs.

Linguists often regard jargon as a way to boost efficient communication within a group or community and create internal ties.

But in the context of the United Nations, others view things differently - and that dates back to the early years of the organization that was established in 1945.

"It is a thing that occurs frequently at the United Nations. The most concrete things become here abstractions," wrote celebrated French author and U.N. diplomat Romain Gary in 1958.

Jargon has been in the United Nation's DNA, for better or worse, since its creation, said Jussi Hanhimäki, professor of international history at Geneva's Graduate Institute and author of "The United Nations: A Very Short Introduction."

But he said jargon reinforces a stereotype of the United Nations as elitist.

"There is concern about the disconnect with the U.N. as an organization and the people it's supposed to serve, who have no clue what the hell is going on in some cases," said Hanhimäki.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.