Q&A: Helen Clark on cracking the glass ceiling and life post-UNDP

Helen Clark, former head of the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Freya Morales / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

It has been less than two months since Helen Clark finished her time at the head of the United Nations Development Programme. But never one to rest or shy away from controversy, Clark is already approaching new challenges head on — including highlighting the United Nations’ lack of transparency in the election of its secretary-general.

At the 2017 Research for Development Impact conference in Sydney on June 13, Clark gave a keynote speech discussing her experience on the value of broad partnerships to deliver sustainable development outcomes. Clark made time to speak with Devex about life post-UNDP and creating chips on the glass ceiling for other women to pierce through where she did not.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

You are here in Sydney not just for the Research for Development Impact conference but also the Sydney Film Festival, where they are screening the documentary My Life with Helen about your campaign for U.N. secretary-general. From that experience, does it bring home how important you have been in breaking the glass ceiling for women?

“If you pull out, what signal do you send? You send the message that all women will pull out when it gets tough ... So you stay in ... and hopefully this makes it easier for the next person.”

The filmmaker, Gaylene Preston, is one of New Zealand’s best known filmmakers. When she approached me, I said “yes, why not.” At that time, I had made no decision to run for the secretary-general job, so she started because she was interested in me as a change agent.

We started in Botswana and then of course the secretary-general story started to overtake the documentary.

There is always a lot of interest in New Zealand on what Helen is doing, and I think the movie will be of great interest to them. But it is also of broader interest — it sheds light on the opaque processes of the U.N. And that’s something worthy of wider debate.

Influential women such as former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard have openly discussed challenges of being a woman in a position of leadership, with the hope that their struggles will make it easier for the next woman and the woman after that. Do you see yourself as being in a similar position?

Very much so. I think all women who went into the contest [for the U.N. secretary-general] and stuck right through — there were a number of us who did stick right through — were really confronting the issue that it was time for a woman secretary-general. There were competent candidates, so why were they being marked down?

Hopefully, next time it will be possible to get some convergence around a single woman candidate to help them really break through. Each time someone has a go, you take some more chips out of the glass ceiling and make it easier for women next time.

In a way, that is why I hung in towards the end. I could tell in August this was going to be pretty tough. But if you pull out, what signal do you send? You send the message that all women will pull out when it gets tough. Well, that’s not me. So you stay in, and you confront it, and hopefully this makes it easier for the next person.

What have you learned from this that might offer advice and recommendations for that next person?

There are a couple of issues: Who is making the decision, and whether that can change, and secondly, what they are looking for. The radical thing to do would be to throw the decision open to the member states with a system of progressive balloting until a winner is determined. This would be much more transparent than the closed room security council, where there is a closed room inside the closed room.

This process last year gave the appearance of transparency, but it wasn’t transparent. What it did was show who were the candidates, and people got to hear them speak, present and so on. But did that have any impact on the outcome? No.

The conventional wisdom has been that the great powers don’t want a strong-willed person. As someone who has a track record of coming with an independent mind from a small country, with well-established values and acting according to them and on the evidence, maybe I just was not what they were looking for. But I can’t go into a contest pretending I am something I’m not.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced at the start of your tenure at UNDP and what achievements would you highlight?

The UNDP was siloed — you have people working on poverty, people working on environment, people working on governance and people working in crisis response. I used to say “governance for what?”

We were able to reshape UNDP so it was fit for the sustainable development era, which recognized we can’t eradicate poverty if the environment is going to hell in a handcart, because a healthy environment underpins living standards. If the water is not clean or resilience to climate change is not there, you are just going to go backwards.

With governance, we needed to ask what was required to really push sustainable development. Breaking down the silos and making it more collaborative in thinking and working was important.

We also made significant advances in strategic direction that weren’t there before. And transparency — we made UNDP the most transparent aid agency in the world. Accountability, integrity and clean audit reports for 11 years was quite a big achievement, especially given the risky environment in which we work. All of these have been extremely positive changes and achievements.

During your time with UNDP the world changed  there are more protracted crises and politics has turned inward. How did you ensure UNDP maintained its relevance?

You have to continue reinventing yourself. There is still a UNDP presence in all of the middle-income countries. Why? Because they see us as relevant. UNDP adapts itself to work because we respect national ownership and leadership. We don’t come with a cookie cutter approach, telling them how to do things. You work to the national context and the national agenda, and to support the adoption of the global agenda.

Protracted crises have been very challenging and have required quite a reviewing of UNDP. As the Syria conflict went on, donors started to appreciate that a relief-only response was not appropriate. You had to do something that would not only lift the burden off relief, but would give people some dignity, some hope.

“If you don’t have UNDP, you are going to have a U.N. country team each representing a silo.”

When I was at UNDP and Tony [António] Guterres was at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, he was keen to have the development people working with him. He could deal with Syria as a refugee crisis. Someone had to come in for the livelihoods creation, training youth and empowerment of women. Even in the middle of war and crisis, life has to go on, and people do want the dignity of being able to provide their families with a home, water and basic services.

We had to really move away from the old kind of early recovery, because there is nothing to recover from. There were development needs and I would instead talk about emergency development. In the parlance, it became relief and resilience development. But in essence, it was early stage development to try and get people back to work.

Do you have any regrets about your time with UNDP  any missed opportunities or action items you would have liked to push over the finish line before completing your tenure?

The one frustration was in the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review, a resolution passed every four years. The future of UNDP and its role in the system needed to be nailed down, but a little bit too much was left open to review.

It is a destabilizing period for UNDP. While you’re being forced to justify what you are and what you do, it is a distraction from the work that must still be done.

There have always been donors that ask why we are in middle-income countries — because they pay us to be there! It’s not costing donors anything, but it is responding to an expressed need of these countries to have UNDP involved.

After leaving UNDP, will you remain a vocal advocate for its work and value?

Big time. If you don’t have UNDP, you are going to have a U.N. country team each representing a silo. Who will pull it together? UNDP has been the big connector agency. It is the one with the overarching mandate. It was set up that way when U Thant was secretary-general — that UNDP would lead the global fight against poverty. That was in its DNA, to see the bigger picture and join the dots and coordinate the system. Without UNDP you would be left with a very fragmented system.

The next challenge for Helen Clark  what will it be?

I say I am on my fourth reinvention. I started life as a university teacher for eight years, was in the New Zealand parliament for 27 and a half years, UNDP for eight years.

Now I can choose what I do next. I have got an interest in so many arms of public policy, and I have received a lot of approaches to do things, particularly around sustainable development and health. I will always be there for a good cause.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.