Articles - August 2017


Anyone who works with United Nations materials – debates, background papers, draft documents, information releases and public awareness efforts – inevitably encounters what can only be called “UNspeak,” an ever growing collection of acronyms and terminology intended to facilitate communication within the United Nations and foreign ministries. The problem, however, is that these terms proliferate and become increasingly impenetrable even to those inside the United Nations system. To those outside the system “UN speak” actually becomes a barrier to understanding and serves to perpetuate an image of the UN as an elite institution aloof from the real world.

Researchers at the United Nation’s University’s Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology, a lengthy name that becomes UNU-MERIT in the universe of acronyms, recognized this communication challenge and set out to apply the latest information technology to the problem of translating “UNspeak” into comprehensible English.

What these researchers have done is to create what can best be described as a “UNspeak” decoder, a readily available smartphone app: “UNU Jargon Buster.” Technical vocabulary describes it as a meta-glossary, a listing of special terms defined and explained in a way that permits in-depth exploration. In fact, what the MERIT researchers have created is an exceptionally useful tool kit in the form of an electronic dictionary and search engine, literally in the palm of the user’s hand.

UNU Jargon Buster not only defines unfamiliar terms like “brain drain” or “green water, brown water, gray water and black water” but also deciphers cryptic acronyms like UNSSSS – The U.N. Security and Stabilization Support Strategy, PSO – Peace Support Operations, or CEDAW – The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It also allows users to drill down into the details to understand how searched terms are actually used in the on-going work of the United Nations.

The home page for UNU Jargon Buster opens with a free search field that can be queried by the user. It also includes three "barn door" fields in a horizontal scroll allowing users to search terms by any of the 17 SDG's, alphabetically, or by
UN organization.

The results will define the term or decode the acronym queried, but the response does not stop there. Answers are cross-referenced to related SDGs, linked to relevant UN offices and provide links to further information.

UNU Jargon Buster offers an accessible, efficient and comprehensible means to share the specialized knowledge that is at the heart of the UN’s work with a wider audience, and it can serve to make diplomatic representatives’ lives a good deal easier. As one Permanent Representative to the United Nations described it, this app makes it possible “to cut past the jargon and the arrogance and the sterile briefings and get real.” Pointedly stated, but a high compliment indeed.

The “UNU Jargon Buster 2.0” app can be downloaded for free on either “Google play” or Apple’s “App Store.”

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