Helen Clark's Global Influence

2015 has been her biggest year at the United Nations yet. But Helen Clark says it’s just the beginning


Helen Clark, the Administrator of the UNited Nations Development Programme. Picture / Supplied.

Working at the United Nations doesn’t make you a superhero. But if there’s one job that purports to save the world, perhaps you’ll find it at the organisation’s New York headquarters. Where else would you encounter an agenda aiming to eradicate extreme poverty, fight inequality and fix climate change by the year 2030?

Leading the progress of this extraordinary list, which would put most of our New Year resolutions to shame, is Helen Clark. As chairwoman of the United Nations Development Group and administrator of the UN Development Programme, a role she has held for six years, she is the organisation’s third most powerful person, not to mention one of the most influential Kiwis in the world. She is frequently touted as a potential contender for the top UN job when Ban-Ki Moon steps down as Secretary-General next year.

As she tells Viva while waiting for a flight from London to Bahrain for a conference, the last 12 months have been the most significant of her diplomatic career. “2015 is the biggest year in development since Ben-Hur,” she says, her distinctive voice laughing down the line.

This year saw the launch of the 17 sustainable development goals, that aim to solve seemingly insurmountable problems: providing clean water and sanitation to all corners of the globe, ending hunger and fostering peace and justice. Just how realistic are they?

“Well they’re realistic if you can stop the terrible conflicts that hit people so hard,” says Clark, referring to those that have dominated the past year, including Syria; (our chat is before the terrorist attacks in Paris). “If conflicts are still raging, it’s impossible to get out of extreme poverty ... If countries get a straight run at development without a war, yes it is an achievable goal. The concern will be, can we get to that point?”

Another of the most significant goals — replacing the ougoing Millennium Development Goals — is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Clark refers to Hillary Clinton, who said gender equality is not only the right thing to do — a basic human right — but the smart thing.

“So any country determined to really move ahead and reach high income developed status, high education, women have to be part of that story. Otherwise the progress is well under potential.”

For someone who has held leadership positions throughout her career, starting with her early days as a junior university lecturer in 1973, how does she relate to the struggle experienced by those the goal is designed to help?

“It never occurred to me that girls couldn’t do anything,” she says, of growing up on a farm with three sisters, her mother and teachers her role models. “Then I went to an all girls high school and there wasn’t anything in the way. And then I went to university and actually there wasn’t anything in the way there, either.

“It was very obvious that not many senior staff were women … And then moving on into the Labour Party, there was a woman vice-president but women weren’t really able to be present at the top tables. I was part of knocking doors down and ensuring that women could walk through them.

“The other thing I had to overcome was a lot of preconceptions of what an MP looked like. Conventionally an MP had been a man, with a wife who did all the housework and a family and that, of course, wasn’t me.”

It’s only a matter of time before we’ll see the world’s first female Secretary-General, says our former Prime Minister, but she wouldn’t be drawn on the outcome of the 2016 election. In any case, she and her colleagues will have their hands full next year, implementing the global goals.

Part of her work involves regular travel to developing countries. Several weeks ago she went to Peru on an informal visit to a coastal community, finding out how they’d prepared for a tsunami, as part of the UN’s disaster risk reduction programme.

“It was really very well organised. It’s good to get out and see what is happening in a community around something very important in development.”

Notwithstanding the constant stream of ambassadors and dignitaries, the endless meetings while in New York, the relationship-building and the constant travel, there’s no such thing as a typical day at the UN. Plans can easily be disrupted when disasters occur.

“During my time at the UN there have been occasions of shocking bombings, where staff have died, and thus we must immediately reach out, give necessary support and see that everything that needs to be done can be done.”
Since the beginning she has reportedly been living at the Trump Towers — ironic perhaps, for a socialist — although for security reasons she won’t confirm her address. Suffice to say, she’s perfectly happy in her apartment — “when I see it. I’d like to see more of it.”

When she is at home, she tries to make the most of what New York has to offer. “I like to get out and do some walking and, in the winter season, quite a lot of cross-country skiing. I really like that.”

Ever-efficient, Clark focuses on New York’s  opera and theatre scene, recognising that
she gets to listen to a lot of classical music in New Zealand, so she saves the other for the Big Apple.

Even her arts choices are related to world issues. A week earlier she caught an “extraordinary” play called Eclipsed (starring Lupita N’yongo), set during the Liberian civil war.

“I saw a play not dissimilar when I first came to New York, called Ruined, set in the democratic republic of Congo which experienced exactly the same issues and had a similar theme.”

She says she never feels far away from New Zealand; thanks to Skype she is able to connect frequently with her husband Peter (who lives here) and family are always passing through. “I’ll be back,” she says. “I wouldn’t retire anywhere else.”

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