Helen Clark: “Meeting Development Challenges in the 21stCentury”

Mar 12, 2010

Thank you for the invitation to address an audience at the London School of Economics once again.

During my time as New Zealand Prime Minister, I spoke here twice – in 2002 on the topic of implementing a progressive agenda in my country after fifteen years of neo-liberalism, and in 2006 on the subject of modern New Zealand in a changing world.

Now, in 2010, I seem to be fulfilling an informal compact to speak to you in every Winter Olympics year, regardless of the position I hold. On that basis you can count on me being back here in 2014, sometime around the Games in Sochi in Russia !

2010, however, is an important year for reasons related to the subject of my remarks today : meeting the development challenges  of the 21st century, which are both numerous and daunting, but which it is important to tackle with determination in the interests of billions of people who stand to benefit.

Nearly ten years ago, I was one of the many heads of government who went to New York in response to Kofi Annan’s invitation to attend the Millennium Summit of the United Nations.

There I put my name on behalf of New Zealand to the Millennium Declaration. Enshrined in it were the eight Millennium Development Goals, and the international community’s commitment to reduce poverty and hunger; empower women; increase access to education, healthcare, clean water, and sanitation; and forge strong global partnerships for development.

The UN Intellectual History Project, led by Sir Richard Jolly and colleagues, credits the MDGs with being one of a number of great ideas which have emanated from United Nations circles and have helped change our world for the better.

This September in New York, there will be a ten year review summit on the MDGs at the UN. The aim is to renew the international commitment of ten years ago, and strive for agreement on how to reach the Goals. Yesterday here in London, DFID, Britain’s Department for International Development, held a conference to mobilize support for the Summit.

But to achieve the MDGs and other international development goals, we will have to overcome a number of challenges.

The global economic crisis, coming on top of the high food and fuel price spikes of two years ago, has placed additional pressure on many developing countries and on sustaining the progress which had been made on the MDGs.

As well, there are the challenges which flow from frequent natural disasters. Some are climate related; others - like the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Turkey - are not.

Then, there are the ongoing conflicts in many countries, and, in others, governance which is not conducive to generating development momentum.

At a global level, our world had been moving closer to meeting MDGs like that for universal primary education, although not yet fast enough to meet the 2015 MDG target.

The deaths of children under the age of five have been declining steadily worldwide — down from 12.5 million in 1990 to under 9 million in 2008 – although progress is not fast enough yet to meet the relevant MDG.

A number of countries, including some of the poorest, have recorded impressive results in combating extreme poverty and hunger; and expanding access to clean water and HIV treatment.

But the progress which had been made was uneven across and within countries and regions.  The MDG global target on reducing the numbers living in poverty, for example, will be achieved because hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in China.

But if we took China’s figures out of the equation, the number of people living in extreme poverty is actually estimated to have increased between 1990 and 2005 by about 36 million.


On current trends several of the MDGs are likely to be missed in many countries, and some could miss them all. The challenges are most severe in the least developed countries, in a number of small island states, in those vulnerable to natural hazards, and in those either in or emerging from conflict.

Overall, where we see progress towards the MDGs lacking the most is where the needs of women and girls are not prioritized.

MDG 5, which seeks to improve maternal health, calls for a reduction by three quarters in the maternal mortality ratio from that of 1990, and for the achievement of universal access to reproductive health.

Alas, this is the MDG on which there has been the least progress so far. Somewhere in the world a woman dies every minute from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Now, on top of the uneven progress on the MDGs, we have to factor in the impact of the global recession, which will linger in a number of developing countries long after the developed world has moved on from it.

There are long term impacts on individual and national potential when education and health budgets are slashed, jobs are lost, children are pulled out of school, and there is not enough food to put on the table for the family.  Those often are the consequences in developing countries which suffer a drop in revenues and remittances and have little fiscal space or access to credit lines.


A particular concern is that profound economic crisis in vulnerable countries can turn into an humanitarian crisis, and in extremis into a security and stability crisis.. The consequences then are long lasting and expensive to address, eventually at much greater cost than well-timed support would have been. It is always more effective to build a fence at the top of a cliff than it is to place an ambulance at the bottom.

War and conflict have lasting negative impacts on human development, destroying lives, livelihoods, communities, and infrastructure.

My own agency, UNDP, works in crisis zones around the world, from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Liberia to Iraq, on early recovery, rebuilding livelihoods; building government structures and systems; promoting the rule of law; disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating former fighters where possible; and helping to tackle the scourge of  sexual violence against women in conflict zones.

The recovery from catastrophic natural disaster can be just as challenging as recovery from conflict.

I visited Haiti a few days after the earthquake struck, and will forever remember the sea of collapsed buildings and the silent vigils being held by those waiting to see if their loved ones would emerge alive from the ruins.

UNDP has led on early recovery in Haiti, focusing on a “cash for work”, job creation programme which puts money in people’s pockets and tackles essential work like rubble removal.  Our aim is to create several hundred thousand jobs over the coming months to help Haiti get back on its feet and regain development traction.


Then there is the challenge of getting adequate resources for development, especially in tough times. While money isn’t everything, it certainly helps.

Strong global partnerships for development are needed – especially at this time when developing countries have been disproportionately affected by years of crises.

Many pledges have been made in the past to increase funding for development. When the G8 met in Gleneagles in 2005, it pledged to double aid to developing countries by this year, compared to 2004 levels.   Within that, it pledged to double aid to Africa in the same time frame.  But that pledge to Africa falls far short of delivery


Now the donor countries themselves are under fiscal stress, with few guarantees that aid budgets will be maintained as they exit from their fiscal stimulus packages.

Those many donors which have maintained their commitments in these austere times are to be commended.  That includes Britain, where both major political parties have committed to protecting Official Development Assistance from future Budget cuts.

The most likely source of new funding for development will be the climate finance stemming from a new climate agreement when it is reached.

The least developed and low income countries in particular need significant support, above and beyond existing ODA, to meet the costs of adaptation to climate change, let alone to embark on a low carbon path to development and energy access.
UNDP has built up a substantial portfolio on climate change adaptation and mitigation. We see climate change as not only a critical environmental challenge, but also as a serious challenge to development. Our world will never sustainably reduce poverty if we destroy the ecosystems of the one planet on which we dwell.

In meeting development challenges in the 21st century, however, we do have much broader global partnerships to draw on than in the past.

While North to South flows of ODA and expertise are still very important, we are witnessing the exponential growth of both South-South co-operation and the very large scale philanthropic initiatives, alongside dynamic civil society participation, and more interest from the private sector.

In the early 1960s, the share of global GDP accounted for by low and middle income countries stood at around fifteen per cent. Now it is estimated at around 25 per cent.  The rise of the mega emerging economies in particular and their growing geopolitical importance is putting real weight behind South-South co-operation

More and more of the expertise and funding which developing countries need is likely to come from within the global South in future.  The UN development system is well placed to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise within the South.

In UNDP, with our presence in 166 countries through a network of 135 country offices, we see facilitating South-South co-operation as central to our work.

So is working with the philanthropic funds and civil society organizations, and alongside those in the private sector who want to pursue inclusive business strategies which deliver for development.

UNDP-commissioned research suggests that including the poor in core business strategies works both for businesses and for development.

There are many examples of local and international companies which have successfully integrated the poor into their business models to create wealth and spark social change.

Britain is a partner of UNDP in the “Business Call to Action”, an initiative which enlists the private sector as an active partner in achieving the MDGs.

The workings of the market alone will never end poverty. I am firmly of the view that markets do not deliver either equity or justice – nor is it their function.  Those public goods are the outcome of deliberate public policy, which ensures that economic progress is harnessed to social progress.

Given that I have spoken at LSE in the past, I will anticipate a question you might well ask :  what is the biggest difference you have found between the context in which you worked before and now ?

The biggest difference I find is in the capacity to get a job done.  In a developed country, one expects to see results flowing from well designed policies and delivery systems.

In many developing countries there are often very good strategies and policies – but less often the capacity to implement them.

That means that a major task for all of us in development is to support the building of capacity to deliver.

Another difference which is stark to me lies in the level of resilience to external shocks.  In many ways the essence of development is about building resilience to the shocks which will inevitably come along – whether they be the low points of the economic cycle or natural disasters.

While this is not the easiest of times to be on a development mission, I do not believe it is a time for despair.

Tough times encourage fresh thinking and innovation.  And there is abundant evidence of development best practice and of results achieved with modest investments which have made a huge difference in moving towards the MDGs and other development goals.

Next week the United Nations Secretary-General’s report on the MDGs to the General Assembly will be formally launched.  It is entitled “Keeping the Promise: A forward looking review to promote an agreed action agenda to achieve the MDGs by 2015”. UNDP has been involved in its preparation, and we hope it will get all stakeholders thinking about what they could do to meet the Goals.

We are also taking other initiatives to prepare for the MDG Summit in September :

  • Together with others in the UN’s Country Teams, we are working with thirty developing country governments to prepare in depth national MDG reports. They will highlight the advances which have been made and identify what more needs to be done to achieve the Goals. The aim, is to place strong, empirical, country-based evidence of what works before the Summit.
  • We are leading the  preparation of an international assessment of what it will take to achieve the MDGs. Last year the G8 Leaders meeting at L’Aquila in Italy called for such an assessment, and the report we are preparing will be ready for this year’s G8 Leaders’ meeting in Canada in June.
  • With other organizations in the UN Development Group, we are bringing together an MDG Breakthrough Strategy, informed by both the thirty country reports and the international assessment. The aim is to have an acceleration framework which will help countries identify what is holding back MDG progress, and, then, to address those constraints, drawing on proven interventions and lessons learned.

We believe that the MDGs are achievable.  Progress can be accelerated if the evidence of what works is applied to the task.  The aim of the September Summit must be to build a consensus for the actions required to meet the Goals by 2015.

In that context, I also offer the following observations of what else may be helpful in meeting development challenges.

  • Lasting development results call for strong national leadership, and ownership where developing countries drive their own development solutions.  No amount of ODA can substitute for national leadership and action.
  • Development will thrive where there is wise leadership which invests in people, institutions, and infrastructure. It will thrive particularly where domestic resources are allocated effectively and where governments are responsive, transparent and accountable.
  • For ODA to be effective, it needs to be catalytic in supporting developing countries to access the best strategic and policy advice possible and to build the capacity to deliver. A small project approach to development by partners does not support the systemic and transformational change to which developing countries aspire.

I have just come from India, where UNDP has helped design and implement the world’s largest job creation programme.  It reaches 46 million households, and is having a real impact on poverty reduction.  That’s what I call scale up !

  • Breakthroughs on those elusive international agreements needed on trade and climate would be enormously helpful in making the rules around both more just and fair.
  • The most likely substantial new source of finance for developing countries will be climate finance. The sooner an agreement is reached which could release those flows, beyond the starter US$30 billion over three years promised in the Copenhagen Accord, the better. Many of the least developed and low income countries in particular face substantial adaptation and mitigation costs which they cannot cover on their own.
  • In my view, the most critical development investments we can make with the greatest multiplier effects will be in women and girls. We cannot expect to make breakthroughs, accelerate progress, and achieve goals, if fifty per cent of the population continues to miss out on so much.
  • Providing women with just one extra year’s schooling will mean that her children will be less likely to die in infancy or suffer from illness or hunger.
  • Meeting a woman’s needs for sexual and reproductive health services increases her chances of finishing her education and breaking out of poverty.
  • Enabling women to hold land title and to inherit gives them the status in their family and community and the economic base from which to transform their own and their children’s prospects.
  • In many ways the break-through strategy on the MDGs could be as simple as investing in and empowering women.

Earlier this week in Delhi, I launched UNDP’s Asia Pacific Human Development Report on gender. It calls for comprehensive economic, political, and legal reform, and the enforcement of existing laws to empower women. The need for action on that scale is not confined to the Asia Pacific.

And how exciting it was for me to be in India on Tuesday when one house of its Parliament passed by a huge majority a bill to reserve one-third of Parliament’s seats for women.  That represents a huge step forward in giving women the voice in decision making which is so critical for women’s needs getting the attention they deserve.

Meeting the development challenges of the 21st century requires “business unusual”. All stakeholders need to be pulling in the same direction. This is not the time for turf wars or duplication of effort – there is more than enough work for all of us.

With sufficient and predictable resources; solid and innovative partnerships; and strong leadership and action in developing and developed countries together we can accelerate progress.  Meeting development challenges this century demands nothing less.

Listen to Podcast of the event (mp3; 27 MB; approx 58 minutes)

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