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.