Helen Clark: The woman behind development [Profiles in Leadership]

EPA, United Nations

Helen Clark, director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), speaks during an interview in Berlin, Germany, 16 September 2015. Clark will attend the D7 women's dialogue forum at the German Federal Chancellery in Berlin.

Helen Clark: The woman behind development [Profiles in Leadership]


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As the United Nations passes and moves into the Sustainable Development Goals in this years United Nations General Assembly, it is the culmination of years of work by many brilliant thinkers in and outside the United Nations. However, none have been more influential than United Nations Development Program head Helen Clark. Clark has led the UN development group  and describes the necessity of the SDGs going forward:

Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change, and the first generation with the wealth and knowledge to eradicate poverty. For this, fearless leadership from us all is needed.

In spite of her important position Helen Clark is a relative unknown on the international stage. Much of her work has happened behind the scenes, but Clark has been a leader on both the national and the international stage. So as we ponder the Sustainable Development Goals and their ability to shape development in the next 15 years, lets take a look at the woman who helped pioneer them.

From New Zealand to UN

Helen Clark was the Prime Minister of New Zealand for 9 years before she was named the head of the UN Development Program, and it was back in New Zealand that Clark learned how to make the hard decisions and to make it on her own. Clark grew up on a farm in rural New Zealand and describes how she and her family descended from generations of people accustomed to surviving on their own:

We slaughtered our own meat, we grew our own vegetables. I think I come from generations of extremely resilient people who tend to survive through thick and thin,

From there, Clark would gain a fearlessness that would allow her to take traumatic events like a near plane crash in 2005 with a nonchalance that serves as an explanation for her dominance in both New Zealand politics and in international politics.

 

ANK03-19990421-ANKARA, TURKEY: New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark meets with Turkish President Suleyman Demirel in Ankara Friday 21 April 2000. Clark arrived in Turkey for a six-day visit which will also include 85th anniversary commemorations of the World War 1. battle of Gallipoli during which thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers were killed. EPA PHOTO EPA/TARIK TINAZAY

Focus on reform

As the PM of New Zealand Clark made sustainable development a strong priority in her legislative agenda, as well as reconciliation with the native peoples of New Zealand who had long suffered at the hands of the government. It was her goal to make New Zealand a world leader on issues of environment, women’s rights, and sustainability and it was this focus that made her so attractive to the United Nations Development Program after in time in office was over.

Perhaps Clark’s greatest success in her tenure at the UNDP has been in the field of sustainable development and conservation, working with countries around the world to preserve their natural resources and cultural heritage whilst still maintaining economic viability. Clark has helped pioneer projects to increase wildlife habitat in Turkey, Georgia, and even South Sudan whilst helping boost poverty reduction in the Asia Pacific region through investing close to 2 billion in startups and innovative projects in the region.

Helen Clark quote

Belief in gender equality

Clark has never been shy about her belief for gender equality in the world today, citing gender equality as:

Catalytic for development. The education of girls, for instance, yields some of the highest returns of all development investments. Providing a woman with just one extra year of schooling means that her children will be less likely to die in infancy or suffer from illness or hunger. The inter-generational benefits go further still as a mother’s education significantly affects her children’s education attainment and opportunities. The flow on effects will also include reduction of child and maternal mortality, better child nutrition, a boost to economies, and greater ability to protect women and girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse, and exploitation

Clark herself has had to make hard choices in her own life in regards to gender, such as choosing to remain childless in order to sustain her career at the rate that she wanted to describing having a child as being “impractical” for her goals. However, she is equally brazen in the need for women to be able to balance their desires to hold high public office along with their family life. She describes the need to change the paradigm for expectations of both boys and girls in their youth, saying:

It really points to the need for a lot more discussion of families and of the role of boys and girls, women and men, so that the boys grow up with an expectation to be an equal in the household.

These beliefs have propelled her throughout her career and have allowed her to have a life of significant influence, but will they be enough to propel her to the top of the UN?

Helen Clark UNDP bio pic

Helen Clark? Next Secretary General?

There is a good deal of speculation that Helen Clark may become the next Secretary General of the United Nations, but at this moment she has yet to enter the race. Technically, the next head of the UN should come from Eastern Europe, but with tensions mounting with Russia a non regional nominee from New Zealand might serve as a suitable compromise as the East and West battle for power.

Clark has been vocal about her need for UN reform, and has said that after 70 years of existence the U.N must continue to bring developing countries into the fold, lest they move onto other sources of funding and influence outside of the UN. In her belief, institutions like the World Bank and IMF must be redesigned for a post Cold War mindset, and that with a global rise in conflict the tools for development must be sharp in order to remain relevant. When asked about running Clark jokes,

Is it more secretary than general? Because there’s no army, right, and you have a board of 190-plus member states. But of course the person of the Secretary-General is important in leading people and setting directions

So while she does believe in UN reform, she is well aware of the challenges that come with the job, and is perhaps still weighing the pros and cons of it. However, if Clark is interested in the job, it seems likely that there will be those who are willing to back her. She’s always been a woman on the rise, and if she wants to continue that trajectory, the opportunity will be there for her.

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