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Global Buzzwords That Will Keep On Buzzing In 2017

Leif Parsons for NPR

The world of global health and development loves its buzzwords — a word or short phrase that sums up a problem or a solution, like "food insecurity" or "gender equity." The problem is that buzzwords aren't always clear to the average global citizen. And some folks in the development world don't like them either. Here's to prove it.

Still, the latest jargon can reveal a lot about trends and goals. We asked our sources and our audience on Twitter to share buzzwords from 2016 that are likely to be part of the global conversation in the year ahead. And we checked to see what words are trending. Here's a sampling.


A haze of air pollution — think pea soup fog but toxic. The word's been around but resurfaced in the past few months after particularly bad airpocalypses in India and China. In December, Beijing issued its first red alert of 2016 after five days of smog was forecast. Schools were shut down, people wore surgical masks to filter out the fumes and flights were canceled because of poor visibility. There was even a trending hashtag, #themostserioussmog, which prompted citizens across Chinese social media site Weibo to share photos of their experience.

Use it in a sentence:During airpocalypse, the wealthiest schoolchildren in Beijing can expect to play soccer under an inflatable clean-air dome.

CHWs (community health workers)

They're not doctors or nurses. But they've received some basic training in medical skills and play a vital role in places where there's a lack of health workers — often in remote parts of low-income countries but in the U.S. as well, where there are 48,000 CHWs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December, CHWs had their moment in the sun when Dr. Raj Panjabi won a $1 million TED Prize for founding Last Mile Health, an organization that uses CHWs to provide health care in isolated parts of Liberia.

Use it in a sentence:By day, she runs a beauty salon, but by night, she's a CHW, educating women about contraception.


The act of collecting data and using it to predict or shape behavior — like keeping track of your steps with a FitBit so you can decide if you need to amp up your exercise program. The word's been around for years but got new life in the global community last year as technologists started thinking of ways to use data, like disease outbreaks, DNA and financial transactions, to improve people's lives. Some companies in China, for example, are feeding weather data into a computer with artificial intelligence software to predict pollution-related events — like an airpocalypse — in advance.

Use it in a sentence:Activists are hoping that the datafication of air quality data can help bring more funding for anti-pollution programs.

Energy poverty

Around the world, there are 1 billion people who live without power. They can't automate agricultural processes like milling grain to produce more food to sell. They use carbon dioxide-emitting cookstoves. They pay someone to let them charge their mobile phones. The term's been floating around the global development space since 2011, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made electricity accessa global priority. It made headlines in February 2016 when U.S. lawmakers passed the historic Electrify Africa Act, promising to put 50 million Africans on the grid by 2020.

Use it in a sentence:Some startups in Silicon Valley are fighting energy poverty by designing more affordable solar-powered lamps for people in the developing world.


A portmanteau of "financial" and "technology" used to describe emerging financial services like virtual currency, mobile banking and online payment systems. Last year, economists and developers started exploring how fintech might benefit the developing world. With just a mobile phone and an Internet connection, fintech makes it possible for people without bank accounts to save and send money — or get the loans they need to start a small business.

Use it in a sentence:Thanks to fintech, a Nigerian worker in China can send money back to his family using his mobile phone.

NID (national identification)

Proof that you are a citizen in a country. Some 1.5 billion people, mostly in Africa and Asia, are undocumented — limiting their ability to vote, get a job or inherit property. The need for NID has always been an important issue in global development, but over the past couple of years, there's been growing momentum in Africa to ensure that all citizens have these important documents from birth. This April, countries will meet in Namibia for the third Government Forum on Electronic Identity in Africa, in the hopes of finding better ways to register citizens.

Use it in a sentence:Sorry, madame, we cannot admit your 5-year-old child to school unless she has NID.

Planetary health

How ecosystems affect human health. In the face of climate change and rapid urbanization, it's a topic that will continue to grow in the years ahead. Climate change-induced droughts, for example, can cause crop shortages that lead to malnutrition. And cutting down forests to make way for housing can expose humans to harmful viruses that are carried by forest-dwelling animals. In December, The Lancet, a medical journal, created a new publication to help share research on the subject across the the global health community.

Use it in a sentence:The dwindling bee population is a big planetary health issue — we need them to pollinate nutrient-rich crops that help humans stay healthy.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)

A fancy acronym for drones and similar airborne robots. UAVs have been around awhile, but in the field of global health, the term got quite a lift in 2016. Aid groups are testing outUAVs to deliver everything from contraceptives to vaccines to the remotest parts. They're even being used to help communities map flood risk by capturing aerial images of slums in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Use it in a sentence:Dust is a big problem for the UAVs that deliver health care goods over desert terrain in Ghana — it makes it hard for the remote pilots to see where the drone is flying.

Any other buzzwords you think we may have missed? Tweet at @NPRGoatsandSoda and share your words with us!

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.
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