Helen Clark: Remarks at Launch of UN Ideas that Changed the World

14 Sep 2009

Remarks by Helen Clark, Administrator of United Nations Development Programme
Launch of UN Ideas That Changed the World
United Nations Headquarters, Trusteeship Council

Let me thank the Secretary-General for his remarks setting the stage for an open discussion of the issues raised in this very important final volume of the UN Intellectual History Project.

Before I introduce the panelists, let me also say a few words on the importance of this morning’s discussion.

The world today is faced with a major and ongoing debate about the future of multilateralism.   This debate is far reaching, touching on every area of multilateral endeavor, from the global financial infrastructure to climate change and how to respond to complex security challenges.  The role of the UN is at the core of this debate, as member states, policy makers, and the public ask the question: “what can the UN do?”

In this debate it is critical that the UN is fully appreciated as a driver of and contributor to the intellectual and policy discourse.    That is why this last volume of the UN Intellectual History Project plays a critical role in reminding us all of the tremendous record of intellectual contributions made by the United Nations which have made such a difference to peoples’ lives. 

As Part 2 of the book recognizes, the UN has consistently served as an incubator of new and powerful global ideas, which, over the course of decades have changed or shaped policies at all levels. 

Indeed the ongoing global economic and financial crisis reminds us of the need to re-think and re-formulate paradigms which until recently may have appeared as intellectually unassailable. 

This book demonstrates that the UN has a track record of alternative thinking, and of producing global ideas and proposals which are not abstract but, rather, translate into policies capable of implementation.  

Allow me to mention a couple of these in the area of development in particular, ideas which the book rightly lists as credits in its “intellectual balance sheet” of the UN. 
One is of course the Millennium Development Goals initiative, to which Chapter 5 is dedicated.  This is an example of the role the UN can play in setting global, specific, and measurable targets.

There is tangible progress to report on the MDGs, in spite of the new challenges of the global recession.  Even in the current economic climate, it is more important than ever to achieve these basic development benchmarks, with their promise of a better tomorrow for billions of people.

But, well before the MDGs were conceived of, there was the formulation of the seminal  Human Development paradigm, which Chapter 11 of the book identifies as having the potential to be a driver of coherence  for the whole  UN system.   

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Human Development Report (HDR). It is therefore very timely that the Intellectual History Project should honour the concept of human development and of those who provided its inspiration, Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen. 

The Human Development Reports have attracted tremendous attention and have been influential in shaping debate and policy in many parts of the world.  They are tools for policy analysis reflecting people's priorities, strengthening national capacities, engaging national partners, identifying inequities, and measuring progress. This year’s Human Development Report is on the theme of migration, and will be formally launched in Bangkok on 5 October.

Let me conclude by saying that with this latest publication of the UN Intellectual History Project, we now have a series of volumes which decisively refute the unfair and, alas, all too common dismissal of the United Nations as a static, uncreative bureaucracy.  This book presents ample evidence of the UN as a vibrant and leading intellectual force, contributing substantial ideas – as well as promoting ideals.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing global debate on multilateralism, this is a welcome reminder of the crucial role of the UN.  I very much hope that representatives of the UN, throughout the system, will leverage this intellectual inheritance, continue to expand it, and use it to engage all stakeholders.

Let me now turn to our panelists and discussant.   Before broadening the discussion, I will first ask the authors of the book, Sir Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, and Professor Thomas G. Weiss to summarize its central conclusions, and the Jose Antonio Ocampo to provide his comments.