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The Maastricht Diplomat

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The UN and the Future We Want: A Conversation with Helen Clark

Helen Clark is one of those women, and sadly one of the few, who have been able to reach the highest positions within the world’s social, political and cultural order. Helen Clark is, in few words, a powerful woman sitting at the very top of the hierarchical pyramid, pursuing a healthy leadership based on compromise, bargaining and finding the middle ground, but always bearing in mind a long-term vision and ambitious goals. According to the US magazine Forbes, Clark ranks as the 25th most powerful woman in the world. Mrs Clark has served as the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 until 2008, serving two mandates. According to the Transparency International, the country of the native Maoris ranked the most transparent country around the globe. The standards of accountability and good governance of the government led by her represent an achievement of which Helen is (rightly) really proud of. But Helen is also a globalist, an internationalist. She really cares about the world’s problems, such as poverty, inequality, the gender gap and sustainability.

Within the framework of the UN General Assembly, she worked with other world’s leaders and policy-makers to establish the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first 6 of them, defined by Helen as “ambitious” targets, read as follows:


Her deep commitment to global issues has been proved by her Administrative role as the Chief of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), between 2006 and 2015. The interviewer was Ibrahima Kaba, a PhD researcher at the UNU-MERIT University in Maastricht with Guinean origins, who displayed his high level of expertise in the topics presented throughout the whole lecture. In the academic conversation, Helen spots a declining role played by multilateralism. The main reason for this trend is the inefficiency of the international organisations such as the UN to tackle the planet’s urgent needs, i.e. poverty, hunger and lack of adequate health care. The world shaped in an increasingly polarised fashion, leading to the rise of inequality within and among countries. As a matter of fact, 10% of the world’s population still lives below poverty lines, with limited edible resources and damages to the environmental processes and ecosystems which could be irreversible. The SDGs are composed of three main pillars, namely sustainable economic development, the relationship between migration flows and economic development, and social security for all of the people. The new agenda, according to the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, has “a different gestation” and a holistic structure. The set priorities to secure for the people are jobs, health, education and good governance. No one can be left behind. All the countries have been consulted, all the countries set aims. The SDGs, however, are “very complex, long and ambitious”. Utopian idealism, however, can function as the guiding model to shape everyday actions driven by good intentions.


The main critique addressed to them is that they cure the symptoms rather than the roots and causes of world’s poverty. Responding to that, Clark said that all the countries involved were reached out to and streamlined in the development process. Then, it is up to the governments to be conducive or non-conducive to implement these policies. The main critique reported by Caba in the African Union was also that the SDGs are too difficult and distant from the solutions of imminent problems. Nonetheless, according to the former politician, “countries are missing out because women are missing out”. It is estimated that in Sub-Saharan African countries, 95 billion of USD have been lost due to the gender gap and barriers faced by women in entering the workplace. It’s a “no-brainer”, as she phrases it. And so is sustainable energy, a “catalyst for so many other sectors”. On the topic of accountability provided by the private and individual sectors of society, Helen points out that the problem of many corrupt countries whose resources are poorly managed. On the discussing table, migration and the refugee crisis compose a big part of the responsibilities that are to be shared among world’s countries. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2014, there have been 5.59 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The global agenda, however, as she claims, does not tackle immigration. “We have uncomfortable truths to tell”, Helen reveals. Within our contemporary societies, immigrants are the most discriminated people and migration represents a particularly sensitive topic, although we are witnessing the largest migration flows since the post-World War Two period.

And then, of course, it comes the ‘hot’ topic: global warming. Commenting on the Paris Climate Accord stroke in Paris in November and December 2015, Clark says that “the Agreement is ambitious, but the UN members are not ambitious enough”. Her overall assessment portrays climate change as a very urgent issue to tackle. According to projections, there is a 5% chance that the plant will not exceed the +2 Celsius degrees increase of temperatures in the post-industrial era by the end of this century. By 2014, it already amounted to +1,5, which makes this prediction reliable. This structural immobility, whose rationale can be considered the reactive rather than pro-active of the UN and the Security Council and the latter’s narrow policy-making scope of actions, brings about an inability to respond quickly to emergencies, for instance. In December 2013, in Liberia, where the interviewer comes from, there was the first case of Ebola, which then became an international health emergency a few months later. The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, was very underfunded and suffered from structural problems. Indeed, the Director-General does not appoint its Regional Directors, as the latter are appointed by UN members and these nominees are highly politicised. The early responses to this urgent health issue were, therefore, inappropriate. The situation was aggravated as the dead bodies played a ritualistic role in the indigenous people’s traditions. Moreover, in countries hit by Ebola, namely as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea, civil wars were ongoing and cruel dictators were in power, determining a very low degree of trust in the authorities in tackling this problem effectively. The main dilemma is: How do we carve up the cake for all, given that the globe’s resources are of ‘limited use’? Only the government and the international organisations, cooperating closely with one another, can even things up. However, this has to be as much bottom-up as it is a top-down and institutional process. Climate change has to be put on the top of the world countries’ agenda. Nonetheless, in a study which asked the interviewed people to state the top priorities, climate change ranked as a low-scaled priority. Citizens should take the responsibility and be empowered to hold their governments accountable. People need to change their behaviours and take an active role, without simply waiting for the state to get things done. Costa Rica, for instance, is a remarkable example of a state that has practised good behaviours; 78% of its energy supply comes from renewable energies and it’s the only country in the world that has no army. So the question is: How can we give the people tools to have dreams? If the world’s leaders had found an answer and solution, we’d be already much better off.

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