Last year Foreign Policy declared Helen Clark to be the most powerful woman you’ve never heard of. Clark, the administrator to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), served three successive terms as New Zealand’s prime minister, from 1999 to 2008. Her tenure was marked by significant successes: a decade of economic growth, low levels of unemployment and important investments in education and health. Clark promoted the establishment of a multi-faith and multicultural society while working to establish New Zealand as being among the world’s leading nations in tackling climate change. As administrator of the UNDP—the first woman to lead this UN agency—Clark oversees more then 8,000 employees, working in 177 countries. Clark is also the chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of the 32 UN funds, programs, agencies, departments and offices focusing on development issues. Clark has stated that her goal as administrator is nothing less than the elimination of extreme poverty around the world. An ambitious objective, but Clark appears undaunted by the task.

In an interview with The Nation, Clark discusses the work of UNDP, the launch of the 2013 Human Development Report in Mexico, the Millennium Development Goals and the many challenges that the UN will face in the future.

Catherine Defontaine: Could you briefly describe the role and the work of UNDP?

Helen Clark: UNDP is the lead agency in the UN development system and it’s a very big program in its own right, with something like $4.5 to $5 billion going through its books every year. But it also has the role of coordinating and leading the UN development system, and so when you are the leader of UNDP, you also chair the UN development system of all the agencies and the funds and the programs for the UN. It’s a very important agency and a big partner for developing countries and a big partner of traditional donor countries, like the United States, which sees the utility of working with us and through us.

CD: UNDP represents the UN in the field and its different representatives act like diplomats. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? What role do they play in trying to mediate and prevent violent conflicts?

HC: UNDP’s people are development people, so they are in the country with a development mandate. That is to work alongside the country in line with the national development strategy and look at where we can add value, which may be in inclusive economic growth—when the countries get growth but they don’t get jobs or poverty reduction or inequality reduction out of it—so we have a real role there to see that human development actually is achieved. We also then work in the environmental areas, because a wrecked environment cannot sustain progress or human development. We work on the arrangements for government in the country, because if governments are not very effective, they cannot really drive development either, so government’s important. And then we have this role of supporting countries to recover from profound crisis, and a number of countries are in profound crisis, towards war and conflict or recovering from major disasters. So the key thing is the development focus. Of course our people are accredited as having diplomatic status, but their prime focus in not diplomacy. Their prime focus is development.

CD: Could you talk about your work more specifically? What do you focus on and when you travel, what are your main tasks? Could you give us some examples of your travel schedule?

HC: I was just in the last three weeks or so in Colombia, which has suffered from a civil war for the last half century, but there is at the moment a series of negotiations to end the conflict between the government and the FARC guerilla movement. There is some hope, some optimism in Colombia that what has been a very, very debilitating conflict might end. So what is UNDP’s role in that? Our role has been, at the request of the Congress of Colombia, to hold or facilitate the holding of the civil society meetings, to enable Colombians at the grassroots level to say, “What do we want from these peace-talks? What would we like to see for the future?” And then, also at the request of the government and the FARC negotiators, we convened a very big civil society meeting on agrarian reform, because agrarian reform—land issues, land rights—is at the very heart of the conflict. So that gives you an insight into UNDP’s unique role. It does have a position of trust in the country. It is seen as politically neutral. It is seen as there for the people. It is seen as there to help. And when I travel, I go really to support these efforts, put my weight as leader of UNDP behind the role that UNDP is playing in a country.

CD: You just came back from Mexico where you launched the 2013 Human Development Report, “The Rise of the South.” Could you talk about the report’s main findings?

HC: The report looks at the reality, that there are quite a significant number of fast-emerging economies, which have also managed to lift the human development of their people. So it explores this phenomenon. What made this possible? What made it possible to get the growth but also see people lifted out of poverty as a result of that? It comments on the range of policies that made that possible. The reality is that most of these economies have been open to the world, to trade, to investment. They haven’t been shy of having industry policies, really making it possible for their domestic industries to thrive. They have invested back into education, into health and, very importantly, into social security systems so that people don’t fall down very, very deep cracks when something goes wrong. You put that basic floor below which any citizen would live. That’s really been the story of quite a number of these countries. Latin America is well known for its cash-transfer schemes for families, for example. China has been putting in place a higher minimum wage system. India has its national rural employment guarantee scheme, which guarantees work at a certain level of pay to poor people in rural India. So there’s a mix of policies. It’s not just about growth: growth [that] is jobless, growth [that] doesn’t reduce poverty and inequality doesn’t help human development. And our focus is on human development.

CD: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set out eight targets or goals to be achieved by 2015. What has been achieved so far and what are the main challenges that the world will face in the coming years? What happens after 2015?

HC: Quite a lot has been achieved. There are people-centered goals and they were target-set to halve the number or the proportion of people living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015. That’s been achieved, but of course in 2015 there will still be a billion people in our world living under $1.25 a day. There will still be a billion people who don’t have as much as an electric light switch in their home. There will still be a lot of people who are chronically hungry. So there’s unfinished business from the MDGs and that has to be reflected in the next global development agenda, which we hope will be decided in 2015 for what comes after. Now, critically, this next set of global development goals and targets has to much more consciously integrate environmental factors in, because the world is on a course to ruin if it carries on depleting its natural capital the way it is. With climate we’re pushing right up against the planetary boundaries and we’ll go over them if we can’t get some breakthroughs on that. This is not something just for developing countries. The developed world has to produce and consume and live differently as well. This is leading to a rather profound conversation now about how to make the spirit of the Earth Summit—the Rio+20 Summit—permeate the whole development agenda, affecting both developed countries and developing countries.

CD: You are very committed to reducing inequalities in order to stimulate sustainable economic growth and reduce poverty. The MDGs promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. Do you see some progress on these issues?

HC: Yes, but not yet enough. Yes, there has been some progress on the equality of women and the empowerment of women, but not yet enough. The target was set, for example, for 30 percent of the membership of national parliaments to be women’s membership. It’s about 19 or 20 [percent]. It’s not yet any way near the goal. We have pretty well reached parity between girls and boys in primary education, but girls completing their education, going on to secondary education, transition to further education skills training—no, we’re not there. And there’s not a day goes by when I don’t see a tragic story about a girl forced into marriage at a young age, at puberty or before puberty. Girls who just haven’t been given a chance at all. We’ve got a long way to go on ending child marriage, on giving women the access to the services they need, the education they need, the status in the society they need to be truly empowered and take their place as equals around the world.

CD: In a recent interview to The Guardian, you underlined the importance for women to have access to reproductive health services. This year at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, that closed last Friday [March 15], some conservative governments tried, again, to remove this phrase from the final document. How do you view these attempts to roll back on women’s rights?

HC: I think in 1994 in Cairo, the big UN population conference was a very important high water mark. And the Beijing conference on women in 1995 was very, very important. Actually I was at the 1985 Conference in Nairobi, in the decade conference for women. That established very important benchmarks. We must never go back on those benchmarks, and it’s important that the Commission on the Status for Women never goes back on them. Fortunately it didn’t go back on them, but we have to make what these great conferences and outcomes are saying reality for women. I do go to quite a lot of countries where the women when surveyed—significant proportions are saying that they do not have access to the sexual reproductive health services they want. If you are not able to get access to those services, you lack the most basic choice of your life, which is how to space your children, when to have your children. And I really believe that women need those services and they need their choice.

CD: Often, the UN adopts lofty goals that turn out to be very difficult to implement in the field. You always stress how important the implementation component is. Could you talk about that? What are the main challenges that UN agencies face? Are there problems of coordination and even competition between UN agencies?

HC: The job of a development agency is to take the lofty principles and the outcomes and to turn them into policies, which might make an impact on the problem, and that’s not easy. Take, for example, getting every child into education. There will be reasons why children are out of school. Maybe the family is so poor that child labor has become extremely important and the family can’t see past that. Maybe girls aren’t at school because there aren’t proper toileting facilities for them. Maybe they have to walk over landmine field to get to school, which was found to be a significant constraint in Laos, for example, in Southeast Asia. We have to always acknowledge the complexity of the obstacles and then look at working with countries, all the stakeholders, the civil society groups, the government, private sectors.… What are the obstacles here and what would be the practical ways of dealing with them? I’d like to see us as the people who are focused on finding the solutions with people. Not telling people what the solutions are, but supporting people to identify the context, the problems and then what would overcome this, and be practical about it.

CD: Development aid is often criticized and viewed as an imperialist tool used by developed countries and even the UN to assert their control over fragile states. For example, in Haiti, foreign aid has failed and is seen as preventing the country from recovering. How do you respond to such criticism?

HC: It’s well acknowledged internationally that countries must lead their own development. They must define what their goals are. And then, the role of us as partners is to look at how can we support the achievement of those goals and the internationally agreed development goals, because everybody’s embraced the development goals. That also gives us the focus as to what’s important. But we should not be telling, as development practitioners, developing countries what is good for them. We have to support countries to find their own way to better living standards, better opportunity for the people.

CD: You are the first woman to lead UNDP. Today more and more women become head of UN agencies. Don’t you think time has come to have a woman as Secretary General of the United Nations?

HC: There are still a lot of great offices around our world which women haven’t held. One of them is the UN Secretary General position. Another is the Presidency of the United States. I hope that in my lifetime we will see these citadels of power, if you like, able to be occupied by women. My own country has had two women prime ministers. We’ve seen many women leading around the world. Everyone knows women can do the job as well, but we have to keep supporting women to come up through the systems and be able to aspire to the top positions.

Read Barbara Crosette on women’s rights and the UN.