It was a historic occasion, a televised debate between the candidates for the position of Secretary-General of the United Nations, due to be vacated by Ban Ki-moon at the end of this year. The five candidates on stage represented Slovenia, Costa Rica, Montenegro, Bulgaria and New Zealand. Up on that stage, Helen Clark proved herself a true contender, holding her own against the others, even sharing a laugh or two with the audience. Asked whether Eastern Europe should hold the role, she replied that her country is part of the “Western Europe And Others Group”, or WEOG. Adding, “I’m part of the ‘Others’ and sometimes I think WEOG should stand for ‘Western Europe and Orphans’.” After laughing with the audience, she continued, “I really think when we’re looking at the scale of the challenges the world is facing, we need a global search for the best talent.” And it’s quite possible Clark will be that talent.
By the end of October she should know if she’s secured one of the most powerful and influential jobs in the world. If she is successful, it will complete an impressive hat-trick of “firsts” that began in 1999 when Clark was the first woman to be elected as New Zealand’s prime minister. She served for three consecutive terms before she was appointed administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2009, becoming the first woman to lead the organisation.
When Clark spoke to MiNDFOOD, she had completed a whirlwind round of visits to 13 of the 15 Security Council capitals, met with the permanent representatives and different groupings of member states in New York and completed a demanding two-hour “job interview” at the UN’s General Assembly where she faced no less than 109 questions. The hearings were introduced to counter criticism of the UN’s past decisions, largely made behind closed doors, with the new process, says Clark, now “transparent to a point”.
If anyone should know it is Clark, who has made a virtue of transparency at the UNDP to the extent that the organisation has topped the 2016 Aid Transparency Index for the second consecutive year. One of her most impressive achievements has been overseeing the transformation of this US$5 billion a year organisation into an effective, efficient, accountable and results-driven agency.
“It’s very important for our funders and partners to see we know what we’re about. There’s no point in putting in a lot of effort and have nothing come of it, so on transparency and value for money our record is very strong. I think we have a much better strategic plan and the UNDP has looked hard at budget and structure, reduced the number of management positions and put a lot of staff and expertise into regional hubs. On substance, the UNDP is clearly regarded as one of the world’s leaders on development with its reports, its policy expertise, its practice and the broad mandate we have across poverty eradication, climate and environment, disaster risk reduction, democratic governance and, sadly, emergency development.”
Introducing similar processes to the UN is high on Clark’s list if she gets to move into the Secretary-General’s office. “What I would need to do from the 38th floor of the UN building, is look at how to give the UN itself a reputation for transparency and openness. Part of it is being a modern and effective communicator, being out there, being accessible and having a social media profile so you can be very engaged with wide audiences.”
Social media support
Clark is extremely active on social media with 130,000 Twitter followers and 90,523 on Facebook – she recently joined Snapchat as well. These platforms have attracted a lot of support for her Helen4SG campaign, especially from NZ fans who have designed an “Auntie Helen for #SG” T-shirt. Clark only wears clothes by Kiwi designers – so the T-shirt qualifies for her official wardrobe – but says she is waiting for “an appropriate time to wear it”, adding with a chuckle that “it won’t be at a diplomatic reception”.
The Security Council’s shortlisting process began on July 21, but it’s likely to be October before one name is put forward for Secretary-General. There are 11 other declared candidates vying for the post, five of them women. Clark is one of only two people from the Western European and Others Group. Apart from the Argentinian candidate from the Latin American and Caribbean Group, the rest are from Eastern Europe, largely favoured because of the UN’s regional rotation scheme. Indeed, this was the reason former Australian PM Kevin Rudd gave for not throwing his hat in the ring, exclaiming, “Last time I looked, my name is not Ruddovich.”
This has not put off Clark, though she acknowledges there will be an element of geopolitics in the decision. However, her formidable experience makes her a strong contender for this challenging job. “Everything I’ve ever done has involved another set of challenges. I like a challenge and unquestionably the peace and security challenge is one of the biggest as the lives of a lot of people are at stake.”
Focus on action
Indeed, Clark believes that if the often slow, clunky and bureaucratic UN is to address the global challenges of climate change, pandemics, violent extremism and civil wars, it needs to adapt and become more proactive.
“If you look at the pillars of the UN mandate, I think on development and the environment we now have big ambitions and agendas, the key thing is to get them implemented. Action has to happen through our UNDP teams at country level and we’re confident of driving that forward. However, in my opinion, the UN is struggling with peace and security. By the time they’re addressing the issue the worst has happened – 90 per cent of peacekeeping is in countries that have gone over the cliff. What can we do to stop the spillover into horrible conflict?”
For Clark, there are several ways of dealing with these situations, more often than not through the sustainable development agenda: the building of institutions and better, fairer societies where people don’t feel marginalised or excluded. However, she believes that one of the problems facing the UNDP is the “tidal wave of humanitarian needs” that tend to starve long-term development. This is why she is keen to get ahead of the curve and ensure agencies are more alert to warning signs, engaging early through UN country teams to prevent crises.
“You need to be, as Secretary-General, very engaged. You need to pick up the phone, send envoys in, try everything you can to have ‘jaw jaw’ and not ‘war war’. Once things tip over into conflict, it can be very, very hard to stop. Syria is an obvious example, but think of South Sudan, where the new state was launched with bells and whistles in 2011 and international donors pouring heaven knows how much into the country.
“But somehow people didn’t get the point that the place could explode and it exploded spectacularly in December 2014. Now the country has been through two and a half years of hell.”
Admittedly, the world today and the conflicts it faces are very different from those in 1945 when the UN was established. Back then the aim was to avoid another world war, and while Clark concedes that has been achieved, she argues that conflict continues through civil wars, trans-border terrorism, jihadism and the organised and violent crime that blights people’s lives.
“You have to have the tools to deal with these conflicts, which is where development comes in to close the circle. If you have societies where people are more fully employed and not marginalised, where the reach of the state and its services goes out to the furthest corners, you’ve got a chance of developing in an orderly manner. But often some of these problems start in places that are far from anywhere – think of the Lake Chad Basin – in the badlands and border lands where schooling is not there and the economy is not operating. You get these no-go zones where extremists groups can take root and flourish, so addressing the causes of violent extremism and terrorism brings us back to these development investments.”
Ten million responses
Following the eight 2015 Millennium Development Goals and 29 targets, which Clark inherited with the job seven years ago, the UNDP recently outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 along with 169 targets and numerous indicators. The first three goals are: no poverty, zero hunger and good health and wellbeing. What is interesting about the design of these goals, says Clark, is that they were the result of not only face-to-face engagement but social media interaction.
“There were 10 million responses to our online platform, with people ranking what they would like to see on the new global agenda, and of these 77 per cent were from people under the age of 30.
“Young people are very interested in global affairs, they are idealistic and want a better world, so engaging youth is critical to make the work of the UN relevant to them. You have to continually renovate, reinvent, innovate and take new generations with you. The UN was born before I was and decades before these young people. In my parents’ generation, young people were sent away to war or the home front and I grew up with all those stories, but it’s ancient history to today’s youth. We have to make the UN something that engages with them, it’s part of building a better future.”
From her social media interactions, Clark found that the three preoccupations for young people are jobs, education and health. “The formal job is under a lot of pressure, so youth entrepreneurship – whether it’s being able to make something of the family’s plot of land or an IT start-up in a developed country – has to be a big thing for the future. Also quality education that will help them participate in the economy and society.
“In the Arab world, there’s a lot of frustration as young people don’t feel they have the quality of education to set them up for anything. Across youth in developing countries the ‘biggies’ are: where is my livelihood going to come from, can I finish my education and what about access to health services?”
The gap between young and old came into sharp focus in the recent UK referendum to leave the European Union, with many elderly people who voted to leave castigated by a younger generation who wanted to remain. Clark maintains that Brexit won’t affect the UN, given that Britain, as a founding member of the UN Security Council, has a certain status through the 1945 charter, which she doesn’t see changing.
While NZ has offered to send its top trade negotiators to the UK, Clark would not be drawn on giving any advice to the UK government. “I think it’s a step at a time in Britain at the moment. This is an ongoing matter, as we say.”
If Clark does get the UN’s top job, it will mean a commitment to more time in Manhattan, though she will always make visits home. “I’m an outdoors person and I miss the New Zealand coastline and the bush, both of which are pretty special.”
‘I will always cook curries’
New York City has its compensations, though, particularly the variety of restaurants. Clark rarely cooks unless she is home in NZ freezing “dozens of meals” for her father, but she is a fan of Indian food. “If left to my own devices I will always cook curries,” she says. “I have a large Indian cookbook and will make a lamb curry, something with spinach or I’ll do curried potatoes. There are really nice Indian restaurants in New York, in particular a small, very cheap and fast one near me I often patronise, along with a Lebanese restaurant on 53rd Street.”
Meanwhile, until the Security Council announces in October on who will be the next UN Secretary-General, Clark is getting on with her day job at the UNDP. If she isn’t appointed, what will she do? She is single-minded about her ambition. “I’ll devise a Plan B if I need to. At the moment there is only Plan A.”