Helen Clark is UN-daunted by the need to change

Helen Clark

Former NZ PM's new role is to make the world a better and more forgiving place.

This article is from the February 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Helen Clark’s entire career has been about implementing change to make her community, her country and now the world a better and more forgiving place.

Having earned her leadership stripes as a three-term prime minister of New Zealand, Clark was reappointed this year to run the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for a second time. She oversees a staff of 8000 in 177 countries and implements an annual budget of US$6 billion. Forbes magazine last year ranked Clark as 21st on its list of the world’s most influential women.

In her trademark no-nonsense style, Clark told former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley that when she took on the role in 2009 the UN didn’t need another development professional, they needed a leader who would take the ideas from the development professional and spearhead action and advocate for change.

It’s a gargantuan goal – to eradicate extreme poverty and chart a course to a world of prosperity, peace, sustainability, equity and dignity for all – but after just an hour with Clark you realise a quiet retirement was never an option for this former prime minister.

Malley: Helen, you are the eldest of four daughters raised on a farm. If I was to have spoken to your parents, would they have told me this leadership capability was evident in childhood?

Clark: Yes, yes they would. They would have said I was always the leader of the pack, and it sort of goes from being the first in the family.

Malley: I’m interested in one of the great characteristics of leadership, which is the capacity to influence. You managed to do that for three terms. On reflection, how did you learn to better influence as part of your leadership approach?

Clark: To win elections you’ve got to take to a sufficient number of people the vision you’re communicating, so: a), it’s got to be worth following and b), you’ve got to get out and sell it.
You have to go beyond the national headlines, because if all people ever see of you is some scrap in the parliament, or formally pronouncing from somewhere, then you’re a cardboard cut-out figure. They like to know you, like to touch you, like to see you, engage with you. I have been at it a long time. I’ve built up a base in the community with people who are interested in what I have to say.

Malley: Politicians these days seem to have an extraordinary number of advisers. In the end it’s your instinct, isn’t it? It’s your authenticity as a leader?

Clark: The truth is, the leader has to have their own ideas and opinions. What you need as a leader is factual advice. You need to know: “Well, if I’m going to take that policy option, what does it mean? What are the numbers? Who’s it going to hurt? Who is it going to benefit? How will it be received?” I want facts.

Malley: How did you find the adjustment to working at the UN? What were some of your early observations of what the role needed and how you brought about a strategic direction?

Clark: The pitch I made was that the last thing the UNDP wanted was a development professional at the head of it. It’s stacked from top to bottom with development professionals. So actually it needed leadership and advocacy. Times were tough. When I came, the world was in multiple crises with the global financial meltdown, which was going to impact on development, developing countries, developing organisations, budgets. The ongoing, sad business as usual – war and conflict and countries in profound trauma – in some ways got worse. Look at the Arab states and Mali in Western Africa. Mali – 20 years of constitutional government – 20 years tipped over.

Then we are in the era of the mega-disaster, a lot of it climate-based. So there is a lot of crisis out there. I said, “Someone has got to have a clear head to lead the organisation through this and position it to be a highly relevant organisation, taking on the challenges”. So, yes, that was really a shift from dealing with the public policy challenges of New Zealand to public policy challenges of the world and developing countries.

Having said that, everything I had ever done in New Zealand was relevant to this. Running a government, what do we do? Governance, preparing for disasters and mitigating around it. Social policy and social protection, job growth, environment, sustainable development – everything I’ve done, really, was relevant.

Malley: The millennium development goals (MDGs) are really a wish list of the very best things you could do for emerging economies. How, as a leader, do you feel it’s progressing? How do you match that?

"If all people ever see of you is some scrap in the parliament, or formally pronouncing from somewhere, then you’re a cardboard cut-out figure.

Clark: In 2000 the Millennium Summit [was held at the UN headquarters in New York] and the elements of the MDGs were in a summit declaration that we all signed. The goals are basic benchmarks of human development: you shouldn’t be hungry, shouldn’t be extremely poor, kids should be in school, women shouldn’t die in childbirth and pregnancy, kids should live till their fifth birthday and beyond. All very, very important things.

Now, of course you don’t just pull a lever and have all these things happen. They’ve got to be enabled and to enable them you do need growth, which has been very elusive. You need a stable environment, because severe drought or climate shocks of other kinds wiping out food stocks create great problems.

So initially with the MDGs, countries got on and wrote them into their national plans, which was great – and UNDP did a lot to help that. Where they were a little slow to pick up was, “What are we actually going to do to make these things happen?”.

Malley: Build a culture around it?

Clark: Yes, and you know what’s standing in the way of achieving this and that? When I came on board I asked the question, “What are we actually doing to support countries to make it happen?”. Because just sitting, counting and measuring doesn’t do anything. Out of that came the MDG acceleration framework, which we’ve worked with now with other UN agencies in about 46 countries. It’s very solution orientated: “Here’s the blockage? What are we going to do?”

For example, you take a West African country like Niger, which has had chronic hunger and food insecurity, terrible droughts. You start to analyse the issue. Now, one of the issues is that if you want people to make basic investment in land and infrastructure such as their water, you need tenure. Would any of us make a whole lot of modifications to our house if we didn’t have a title to it? Of course not. So one of the many things that go into the pot of answers for food insecurity being tackled is security of tenure, whether it’s a firm rental agreement or whether it’s ownership. With ownership, of course, you become more bankable, you’ve got access to credit and so on. There are quite big gender issues in that, too, because women often face particular problems with being able to own and inherit.

Malley: One of the charities, Room to Read, is all about giving books to young girls, because they are the ones who are going to manage families and be educated and encourage that moving forward.

Clark: Yes, and you can show now the education level of a mother corresponds then to how a child does, even in health terms. The more educated the woman, the more likely the child will survive up to five and beyond.

Malley: When you talk about gender balance, gender equity, reproductive health and the principles that go with building that around an economy, interestingly the debate around gender balance still goes on in the established economies; your country, my country. What’s your perspective about quotas to get women on boards?

Clark: Norway actually did it on boards. They just said, “That’s the way it’s going to be ... the women are out there, go and look for them”. Often the guys will say, “Oh, we can’t find them”. I used to chair the cabinet honours and appointments committee and the proposals for our appointees to state enterprises, such as boards and the major government boards and committees. We used to throw the nominations out: “No, go away and do better, you haven’t looked. There are women out there. Go away and come back.” You just have to force that cultural change.

Malley: You’ve just returned from a trip to China?

Clark: When I came to the UNDP I said: “We’ve got to really look at the relationships we have with these large emerging economies, because while we’re working with them on their own developmental challenges, they are also very engaged in development cooperation with other countries and I’m sure we could play a role as a partner in that.” It’s what you call triangular cooperation.

Malley: I see that you are a keen user of Twitter. How did social media grab your attention?

Clark: I wish these technologies had been around when I was prime minister. When I came here I worked out this was actually a very good way to communicate what you’re doing. Yes, for a while you’re too busy to engage, can’t cope, but then eventually you work out that Twitter is even more helpful than Facebook because Facebook doesn’t lend itself to the quick thing. With Twitter you can get a lot out there. It works very well for me.
I’ve been doing events around technology development. You have got so many applications. For health there’s remote diagnosis, community education and the village hub. In education you can deliver curriculums to remote areas, professional education of teachers, adult education. When I was in Bangladesh in 2010 I was ta virtual ceremony with the prime minister of Bangladesh: he was sitting in Dakar, I was sitting in a little village hut on the edge of the Bay of Bengal.

e-Government allows people to interface with the services they need and that’s all-important. Early warning systems, text message systems for hot spots with electoral violence or early warning of heavy rains or climate or seismic events providing for early response – that’s all-important.

Then the elephant in the room in several countries is the democratising effect of the use of these technologies. I always remember the phrase of one young Egyptian activist who said, “we use Facebook to get people to the square, we tweet from it and we put the videos on YouTube later”. Smart, right? ]

It has also spurred a lot of innovation: obviously the smartphone is not [ubiquitous] in developing countries, but it will be. More likely it’s a conventional cell phone, and maybe not even with text, so to spread these uprisings we had innovations such as talk to text: you could phone someone and be translated to text and then be tweeted. Let’s not underestimate the impact technology has had on these social change movements. If you want change you have to engage with structure. You can stand and throw rocks, but you will be throwing rocks forever. You have to get into a structure and work out where the levers of power are that you might have an influence on.

Malley: So to the eternally relevant leader, what does the future hold for you?

Clark: I was re-elected by the [UN] General Assembly in April for four years here. That will take me to age 67.

Malley: That’s young today, isn’t it? I mean, 67 is hardly a retirement age.

Clark: Hell, no! I can tell everyone who held high office and no longer has it, there is a life beyond!

Business call to action

Malley: There are many genuine business leaders who want to contribute to activities like yours. I know there would be various calls to arms. Is that improving? and what’s the message for business?

Clark: We’ve found the private sector is engaged as never before in development and big debates. You go to a major summit like Rio+20, where the governmental side of it didn’t reach a state-of-the-art outcome – the energy was with the business sector, the ngOs, the civil society summits, sub-national governments. so they are very much part of that debate.

Actually, one of the events I had in China was working with the ministry of commerce on the global corporate responsibility of their companies. If you’re a Chinese company, you don’t want bad headlines back home. You’ve got to work out, as Western countries have had to, how to behave in a foreign country. how do you build a positive image?

We would work to take that beyond a narrow concept of corporate social responsibility into one that says: “How, through our operations, can we provide opportunities for the micro-entrepreneurs, the small businesses? What’s our contribution to the skills pool? Will there be an infrastructure legacy from what we do?”

There’s also been some quite interesting work on what we call commodity platforms. We take a commodity like pineapple from costa Rica: traditionally it’s produced with a tremendous amount of chemicals, which wasn’t good for the soil or water. The communities that provided the workers to the companies worked with the government to make production sustainable. That’s also been done with cocoa in Ghana, coffee in Ethiopia and palm oil in Indonesia.

If the private sector changes the way it does things, the way it produces, it will begin to answer some of the problems – if it’s committed to clean energy, if it’s committed to sustainability. This is huge. So we are engaged.

This article is from the February 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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