Who makes the best ‘Alphabet Soup’ of all?

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Take a close look. This is the original Alphabet Soup.

It’s is a kind of soup containing noodles shaped like the letters of the Latin alphabet. According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, it comes as a prepared, canned vegetable soup with letter-shaped noodles. Read full Wikipedia entry

Metaphorically, alphabet soup means “an abundance of abbreviations or acronyms”. In this sense, the term goes back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies of the New Deal (1933-38). In the United States, the Federal Government is described as an ‘alphabet soup’ on account of the multitude of agencies that it has spawned, including the NSA, CIA, FBI, USSS, BATF, DEA and INS.

But Uncle Sam’s expertise in making alphabet soups has been challenged by another entity – the United Nations. (Interestingly, Roosevelt was an architect of the UN, and coined the term with Winston Churchill). The UN’s propensity for enriching the alphabet soup has few parallels.

In the early 1990s, when I was earning a living as a UN consultant in Asia, I had to wade through the sea of acronyms and abbreviations as part of my daily bread. Funnily enough, some high-level peddlers of arconyms no longer even remembered what they stood for!

The UN has enriched the alphabet soup even more in the years since. MDG is a current favourite – it stands for Millennium Development Goals, a blue print for achieving basic socio-economic development by 2015.

It’s not just the UN, but the entire development community that is in love with coining abbreviations and then liberally bandying them about. Some are manageable. Others are unpronounceable tongue-twisters. PLWHA comes to mind – that stands for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS.

And then there are too many meanings or expansions for the same abbreviation, causing confusion to those who don’t know the context. ICT is a good example. We in media and development circles use it to mean Information and Communications Technologies. But the Wikipedia shows at least another two dozen meanings for the same three letter combination!

Journalism taught me to explain every technical term and abbreviation when introducing it. I still do, but on the whole I avoid abbreviations if we can help it.

But I have to watch out. A colleague reminded me recently that I’ve been happily coining inhouse acronyms myself. Examples:
GBR – The Greenbelt Reports (Asian TV series)
STP – Saving the Planet (Asian regional project and upcoming TV series)
D4C – Digits4Change (Asian TV series)

Does this make me a minor chef in expanding the Alphabet Soup?

Maybe it does! If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em….

‘Toxic Trail’ continues its trail across Asia

mongkon-tianponkrang.jpg mongkon-tianponkrang-of-tef.jpg
Meet Mongkon (Mong) Tianponkrang.

He is a Programme Coordinator with the Thai Education Foundation (TEF), a non-profit organisation working to improve education in Thailand at all levels, especially using non-formal methods.

I met Mong earlier this month during our regional workshop on communication capacity building under TVE Asia Pacific‘s Saving the Planet project.

TEF’s School and Community Farmland Biodiversity Conservation project is one of six stories that was chosen from among dozens of public nominations to be featured in the Asian regional TV series we are working on, titled Saving the Planet.

Saving the Planet will feature remarkable initiatives from South and Southeast Asia by educational, civil society and community groups engaged in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Mong was a live wire during our 5-day workshop in Khao Lak, Thailand. We encouraged everyone to share experiences in communicating with their respective audiences, using whatever communication methods and means (media or non-media).

At one point, Mong started describing how he and his team have been using a video film called Toxic Trail that takes a critical look at the use of pesticides in crop cultivation in Thailand and neighbouring countries.

He described how they’d found the film’s Thai version very useful in their work with farmers, housewives and other community members.

This was a fine coincidence: he didn’t know until then that we at TVE Asia Pacific had been involved in versioning Toxic Trails, originally produced in English, into half a dozen Asian languages including Thai. That was back in 2002.

Toxic Trail is a two part documentary that was produced in early 2001, directed by a long-time friend and colleague Janet Boston (who today heads the Thomson Foundation, which has a 40-year track record in training journalists in the developing world). It was first broadcast on BBC World in April 2001.


Image courtesy Community IPM website

It followed Russell Dilts, an expert working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as he investigated the pesticide industry in South East Asia. The trail begins in Thailand, moving to Cambodia and ending in Indonesia. The main focus, however, is on Cambodia, where Dilts uncovers major problems in the misuse of pesticides.

Dilts makes stark and horrifying findings: the mass use of pesticides is progressively destroying delicate local ecosystems, as well as causing many health problems to farmers and their families involved. Eventually, everybody is affected by consuming agricultural produce with high levels of pesticide residues.

Read TVEAP website feature on Toxic Trail (Aug 2002).

Read key issues raised by Toxic Trail films

Image courtesy Toxic Trail website

Interesting things happened following the release of Toxic Trail in 2001. First, the FAO came under intense pressure from pesticide companies for having supported an investigative film that probed the reality of product stewardship that these companies claimed existed.

Stated simply, Product Stewardship is when companies take the responsibility for their products. It includes the monitoring of the distribution of products with regard to choice of outlet and method of sale. Toxic Trail questioned how this concept was being practised in developing countries such as Thailand and Cambodia.

Clearly, the companies didn’t like what was disclosed with tangible, visual evidence. In the weeks that followed the film’s release, and its high profile broadcast on BBC World, at least three heads rolled at FAO’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme for Asia.

But by then the genie was out of the bottle. The BBC broadcast may have been watched by a handful of officials, diplomats and businessmen who walk the corridors of power. But a much larger Asian audience was reached by our versioning the films into Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi, Khmer, Mandarin, Sinhala and Thai — which, between them, are spoken by close to two billion people. These versions have been broadcast and narrowcast through numerous outlets ever since.

And as Mong reminded us earlier this month, the films are still in good use, several years after their production and versioning.

One clear lesson: it’s not just enough to produce a good TV film. How much it is seen and used depends on the amount of promotion, local adaptation and subsidised or free distribution that goes with it.

In the case of Toxic Trail, there was a network of promoters for IPM and sustainable agriculture who picked it up and ran with it — and continue to spread the word.

Meanwhile, we should be releasing more such ‘genies’ out of their bottles…

Visit Community IPM website

Look up more online resources on integrated pest management

Photos of Mongkon Tianponkrang by Indika Wanniarachchi of TVEAP
Other images courtesy Toxic Trail website