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“When you’re talking about the next development agenda… you have to be talking about peace, justice, government, and rule of law, as well as the outcomes we want—to eradicate poverty and have people succeeding in their education, living longer, and so on…we have to build a better world,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark in a wide-ranging interview with the Skoll World Forum’s Rahim Kanani on the state of global development today. The full interview can be found below.
Helen Clark became Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in April 2009, after serving three consecutive terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand. She is the first woman to lead the UN’s global development network and chairs the UN Development Group. The UN General Assembly confirmed her appointment by the Secretary-General to a second four-year term in April 2013. UNDP has an annual budget of US$5.8 billion annual budget and a staff of 8,000 in 177 countries.
In May, Forbes named her one of the world’s 100 most powerful women for a ninth year, citing her focus on gender equality to promote sustainable growth and reduce poverty. Clark was ranked 21st on the list of 100, which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Gates Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates, US First lady Michelle Obama, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Foreign Policy, in its May-June 2013 issue, included Helen Clark in “The FP Power Map: The 500 most powerful people on the planet,” while American University ranked her among its top 20 Women Changing the World.
Rahim Kanani: Since becoming UNDP Administrator just over four years ago, are you seeing the kind of progress you would like as we approach the 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)?
Helen Clark: When I came to UNDP, the MDGs had been launched about eight and a half years earlier, and a tremendous amount of work had been done by the whole UN system to really get behind these goals and get them into national development plans. Rather than leaving our goals as abstract targets, we really needed to translate them into national and local contexts to get results. So a tremendous amount of work was done around that, but I said, “Look, I think there’s a need to be much more proactive now.” Our Bureau for Development Policy went away and came back with the proposal for an acceleration initiative.
To cut a long story short, some fantastic things have been done from 2010 on with countries that came on board, governments on board, development partners, other stakeholders, and beyond. Civil society is very important, for example. We started to zero in on goals which were lagging in particular countries. In some countries, many goals are lagging, but when you pick one and say, “Let’s really go after this and see if we can make a difference,” that works. So I feel that from this exercise over the last three years or so we’ve learned quite a lot about our approach to achieving these goals. But you do have to get them into national planning frameworks first because otherwise countries will lack a sense of ownership.
I keep quite an association with local government, and particularly through the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, which has the local governments of the 57-plus countries involved. They are powerful advocates, as we are, for engaging the local level of government on the MDGs, for localizing the MDGs because again, often the work lies down one level below a national government, with quite a lot of things decentralized. There’s local economic planning, development, and so on. So again, we’ve seen that where goals have got traction they have been translated down, grabbed by people at the sub-national level.
A good example is Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states. They wrote the MDGs into their Constitution. The governor was so committed to this, and that makes a huge difference. In Colombia, one of the countries which took on the acceleration initiative, they took it on in the poorest municipalities to make a difference at the municipal level. So looking at it overall, I think there’s now a very big focus on getting results. Now we’re really seeing the effects of focused action.
No more new strategies. There are strategies all over for achieving every goal. What you need to get to is why the strategy and policy and plan might not be working, and what is standing in the way.
And what you find is that when you take this acceleration approach, you uncover the obstacles to progress. It’s often outside the sector. What is one of the greatest barriers to decreasing maternal mortality? Lack of transport to health facilities. That’s not a health sector issue. It’s a basic rural infrastructure issue. Another obvious issue is that maternal mortality rates are highest among adolescent girls. This requires a lot of social mobilization to take on the issue of girls completing their education and not having a baby during puberty. It’s all connected.
This has got us into a more action-oriented mindset about what needs to happen. Something like adolescent girls and pregnancy is not a simple or quick issue to address. It needs many conversations within countries and good leadership. But at least if you identify this as a key issue, chances are you can help stimulate some action.
So really a lot of this is about localizing goals, issues, problems, and solutions, and identifying what the barriers really are. I often say we could build and support countries to build spanking-new health clinics throughout, but if a woman doesn’t have the power to walk out her front door and go to that clinic or the girl is forced into an early marriage, can that clinic help? No. Will that clinic have staff? Will it have equipment? Does the allocation of budget from a national capital make its way out there? There could be multiple barriers in the way of actually getting that service to one of the girls who needs it. These are much deeper issues.
Kanani: Has the thinking behind localizing the goals evolved over time?
Clark: I think development people across UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, and so on realized this, but the issue now is to get a focus in country on what the barriers really are and then to have an action plan to deal with it. We really just need to focus our efforts at this point.
Kanani: With roughly 900 days left until the 2015 MDG target, do we need to do anything differently to meet some of these goals that we’re not slated to reach by then?
Clark: Some goals have been achieved at the global level, and they were set as global goals. Now when you take them to the national level, you will find that at the time they were launched some developing countries probably had met all of them, some had met none, and some won’t meet any of them by the 2015 target.
So people are at very, very different stages. But having global goals is very important because it says, “Here’s a minimum that we should have reached.” It’s not a maximum because those goals didn’t say “eradicate poverty.” They said, “Cut poverty in half from 1990-2015”—which is great if you’re in the half that got the attention, and not great if you’re in the other half. We have to be more ambitious next time but also, and here’s a key point I discussed in a speech at the US Institute of Peace in April and a lecture in New Zealand in August, increasingly, as you see this very substantial movement from poverty in China and India, the geography of extreme poverty is going to overlap with where’s there conflict: very weak governments, persistent exposure to natural disaster, and poor social cohesion.
So if you’re going to eradicate poverty, it’s quite a heady mix of things you have to deal with because you have to eradicate it in Central and South Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Eastern DRC, and a long list of other places which are quite troubled. So those are the challenges, and that’s why when you’re talking about the next development agenda, in the end you have to be talking about peace. You have to be talking about justice. You have to be talking about government. You have to be talking about rule of law as well as the outcomes we want: to eradicate poverty and have people succeeding in their education, living longer, and so on.
Kanani: Concretely, in terms of capitalizing on the next 900 days—be it doing something smarter, faster, or entirely differently—what are some ideas or suggestions that come to mind?
Clark: On education, the Secretary-General has appointed Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a special envoy, and Gordon has been very diligent in going directly to countries that still don’t have every child in school. Some of them are quite large, such as Nigeria.
If you could move Nigeria over the next two years towards full enrollment, that would be tremendous. But immediately, we’ll think of some of the barriers with the instability in northern Nigeria. How possible is it for a child to go to school? There’s a concerted effort to focus on the last mile and getting children enrolled in education.
The water goal—to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation—is pretty nearly met. Maternal mortality is down on a global level but that is the goal most often chosen for acceleration because countries don’t want 500 to 600 women out of every 100,000 dying as they’re giving birth. So it is quite a focus. Infant and child mortality was a huge push. We’re just about getting to gender parity in education.
So I think this last 900 days is really when we can push forward that last mile in education, the last couple of miles in infant and child health, move forward a bit more on women’s representation and decision-making. There will be a reasonable story to tell at the end of the MDGs in 2015, not because everyone has achieved everything. Some have, and some haven’t achieved anything. But there’s a reasonable story to give you the confidence that it’s worthwhile setting these goals and in the next iteration of development, globally, to focus on the last mile as unfinished business while also aiming higher.
Kanani: In thinking about the post-2015 development framework, how has this iteration evolved from the original goals? Does it reflect a deeper understanding of what was originally agreed upon in 2000, or have the issues themselves changed over time?
Clark: At UNDP, we’ve been playing a big part in the global conversation about this—because there wasn’t a global conversation about the MDGs. The MDGs were promulgated, and you wouldn’t get away with that now. This is the 21st Century, and the world has changed. So we felt it was important to bring voices from the grassroots to the conversation and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people have been involved one way or another—voting online, going to their national consultations, and so on. It’ll probably touch a million people in some way or another.
We’re busy reporting on that, but the key things coming out of this are, firstly, people said not to give up on the MDGs. These are great goals, and we’re not there yet, so you have to carry the unfinished business over. Secondly, they say, there needs to be much more focus on equitable outcomes because when you measure aggregate figures you often miss groups that are marginalized. People with disabilities feel marginalized. They say, “If someone is missing out it’s probably us.” So we need to think about the marginalized groups. We have to have a vision for the MDGs in which they touch every life. Thirdly, there’s the issue of not just measuring quantity but quality: the spread in universal access to education, for example. There’s been huge progress but it seems that the quality hasn’t kept up with the expansion in access.
Kanani: How so?
Clark: Arguably, there’s less quality than before. There are more children in school, but without the resources going into training the teachers, equipping the classrooms, and so on, we have a problem. Some of the studies are a little disturbing on how little children actually learn during their time at school. Even after four or five years, they may be scarcely able to read. And then there are completion rates. I mean the aim has to be 100 percent [completion] or we’re not being honest about our progress, because if you don’t complete primary you don’t get on to secondary, for a chance to further your education and training. So the quality of education has emerged as an issue. And when people tick what’s most important to them in these globalized surveys, one of the most popular things ticked is “honest and effective government.” It’s a lot to ask. We all want honest and effective government. But the people are saying, “This is critical to us.” How can we move the needle on these issues if government doesn’t function well, if it’s corrupt, if it’s not transparent, and if it’s not responsive? That’s going to be quite a challenging issue I think for the UN General Assembly.
Kanani: Is there going to be more of a focus on governance moving forward?
Clark: I think it has to be in the equation. We all find unity around eradicating poverty, putting kids in school, and so forth, but we have to have an honest discussion about the means. And that’s why the High-Level Panel report by the Secretary-General’s commission is important, because it does take this broader view of governance, rule of law, peace, and justice.
Kanani: In terms of the post-2015 framework, there’s a new sub-bullet on land rights, for example. Was that the result of the newly-realized importance of land rights to alleviating poverty and providing economic opportunity, or how do new goals come about?
Clark: One of the challenges is that we must not have dozens of goals and thousands of sub-bullets, because you really have to focus. I think the critical thing is that having defined goals such as food security allows us to look at what stands in the way of food security: often the lack of investment in agriculture, and if you don’t have secure title or tenure on your land, you don’t invest in it because your money can go up in smoke when someone else says “that’s mine.” So smallholders, indigenous people, need land rights because they can’t get ahead otherwise. That should be their asset but they haven’t got security over it. They can’t borrow against it. They can’t be productive, and so on. Then you come back to means of implementation and actually having those basic rights is quite important.
Kanani: Recently, in an effort to drastically reduce extreme poverty, the World Bank announced its goal to decrease the percentage of people living with less than US$1.25 a day to no more than 3 percent by 2030. How aligned is this goal with the post-2015 development framework?
Clark: I favor the goal to eradicate extreme poverty, but when adopting that goal, we have to acknowledge changes in the geography of extreme poverty. It is going to be a question of how do you eradicate it when societies are in severe meltdown because of conflict, lack of social cohesion, very weak states, or because they are disaster-prone. It really has to focus us on how you deal with that. This is not a simple issue of going in and creating livelihoods. You can’t create livelihoods in the middle of a war zone.
Kanani: What has to happen to achieve this goal?
Clark: We have to build a better world.
How do you eradicate extreme poverty in Afghanistan if people are terrified to till their fields because they’re going to walk into a landmine? That’s probably why the World Bank says “eradicate, minus 3 percent.” We have to have a vision for a world in which it is possible for no person to be living under that extreme poverty line. And it’s not going to be easy.
The phrase “low-hanging fruit” is often used when talking about eradicating poverty. The low-hanging fruit in this case is stable countries, where you can formulate a plan. Ethiopia would be a good example. Ethiopia is not the Ethiopia of the past, rife with civil war and famine. Ethiopia has had a very proactive development agenda. It’s on the move. You can see Ethiopia absolutely determined to eradicate extreme poverty. They will eradicate extreme poverty. But you need a state of peace to do that.
Kanani: How much do organizations like UNDP and other agencies across the UN work with or align themselves to the World Bank agenda—or vice versa?
Clark: There’s been a very positive development with Jim Kim coming in to lead the World Bank, as he is also wanting to see more progress on the MDGs. We’ve got the 2015 deadline and he has instructed the Bank’s country directors to collaborate with the UN on acceleration. So this brings the resources of the Bank in behind the acceleration plans and that’s pretty important.
Kanani: As someone who works for the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll World Forum, what role can philanthropy play in this acceleration initiative, and how should we fit into this framework?
Clark: Depending on the nature of the foundation, there are a range of roles for philanthropy to play. One key area is advocacy. You have your own networks and opinion leaders advocating for what needs to be done, and the sort of support that needs to be given. Second, of course, is that everyone needs funding for initiatives. They also need partnerships, which are very important. Now if you take a foundation like Gates Foundation, who have been very helpful to us with initiatives such the 2012 African Human Development Report focused on food security, for which they provided us some funding. Some of that funding was for the intellectual work. The thought leadership can be very important. But certainly partnerships on the ground are always welcomed as well.
Kanani: There has been an incredible push in recent times to advance women and girls around the world, and to both acknowledge and amplify their role in positive development outcomes. Where is all this heading?
Clark: I sometimes use the phrase that there’s a silver bullet in development—that if you can bring equal opportunity and empowerment to women and girls, you will really move whole nations, because if you’re not tapping the full potential of all your citizens that’s not smart economics. It’s under-selling a country. There’s no doubt that the gender agenda has a lot of traction and will be very prominent in the next global development agenda. And there is a lot of support behind that.
Kanani: What are some of the bright spots or positive case studies that you can point to from recent times, and where do we need to shine a light because things are heading in the wrong direction?
Clark: Bad news sells, and we know what’s not doing well. Because of war and conflict and repeated disaster, it’s hard to pick yourself up each time after these things happen. Witness Haiti, which as just starting to pick up from the terrible cyclone a couple of years before the earthquake, which came in 2010 and killed a quarter of a million people in the south of the country. So it’s hard to get knocked back time and time again. But Haiti is picking itself up again. There are certainly stories of countries which have had considerable human development successes out of very difficult pasts. One instance is Rwanda, which is doing very well on the MDGs. Ethiopia, too, as I’ve mentioned, is doing well.
Kanani: Why are they doing so well?
Clark: They have strong leadership. Some might say too strong, but these have been visionary leaders. Whatever people think of them—Meles Zenawi, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda—they have delivered on human development. They’ve had a vision for something better for their people, and it works. Ghana is another country which has had its military coups and instability, a rocky start. Today, Ghana is a middle-income country due to the extractive industries boom, and they have set up a very interesting governance structure.
Botswana too is a good news story. We have good news stories of countries which have overcome quite big barriers to development and go on with it. And that should inspire everybody else.
Kanani: And in large part you credit visionary leaders for such progress?
Clark: Leadership is critical. Nothing that any development partner can do can substitute for leadership. It has to burn in the gut of the leader and the team he or she has around them. If this matters to them, they really are driven to achieve results.
Kanani: On the other hand, where are some places that could use a spotlight because of their lack of progress?
Clark: We have to work with things as they are. Countries have their leaders, however they got there. Many genuinely try. The going is tougher for some than others because you get knocked back. I’d take a country like Niger, which, when I came to UNDP, had a leader who was in denial about drought and wouldn’t open the door for support. People died because of that. He was pushed aside by the military, which later opened the doors to development partners. But also very importantly they said, “We want to fast-track back to proper Constitutional rule.” It happened. Their new leader has a clear vision, and put a team around him. And this all happened with everything that’s happening around Niger—crises from northern Mali spreading to Libya and Nigeria on the other side, and the ongoing instability in Cote d’Ivoire to the south, which have been an important economy for migrant workers.
Niger is making progress. So our job is to identify where we can really get in behind people with strategies to make a difference.
Kanani: Can you think of any countries that are at a transformational tipping point, and that with a little more support could achieve something even more significant?
Clark: I feel that Niger turned a corner, but it will need ongoing support because it’s in a region which has issues. Now there’s another country for instance which isn’t much written about here and you don’t see it much on the television screen and that’s Guinea. There was a democratic transition in the last presidential elections, back in 2010. But it’s proven politically very difficult to even hold elections. The agreement to hold them has just been reached, which the UN helped facilitate. Now, if Guinea can be supported to hold these critical elections in September, this will be a new chapter.
You look at Senegal, in which there was apprehension about elections, going back to late 2010 and early 2011. They came through it. Civil society mobilized, the women mobilized, and people got behind a credible election process. In the end it didn’t falter. This is important. We need countries like this to succeed. Sometimes gains can be fragile and international attention can fleeting, but we have to stay the course.
Kanani: Finally, speaking of headlines, what aren’t we hearing about? What should we be talking about but aren’t?
Clark: The Central African Republic. They went into a deep abyss in March. There had been rebels advancing on the capital last December. There were peace talks in neighboring countries. The region tried to help. Those talks didn’t hold. The militia went into the capital. From a humanitarian perspective, essentially everyone in the Central African Republic is in need of support.
People taking anti-retroviral medication for HIV lost access to their drugs. Think about that. The chance they had to live has been severely jeopardized. It’s getting very little publicity but the situation is dire, very dire. Occasionally I tweet about it to keep on the agenda or write a Facebook post about it, and people are always shocked and say, “Why don’t we know about this?” But it’s truly a forgotten issue, and we need to keep a spotlight on it.