Helen Clark: The role of the UN in overcoming development challenges

04 Mar 2010

Special Address by Helen Clark
Hosted by Oxford’s Global Economic Governance Programme
“The role of the United Nations in overcoming development challenges”

Thank you for the invitation to deliver this special address today.

My topic is the role of the United Nations in furthering the Millennium Development Goals and overcoming development challenges.

This is of central interest to me as the Administrator of UNDP, the UN’s largest development organization and as Chair of the United Nation’s Development Group, with which twenty eight UN organizations are associated.

In these capacities, I do appreciate the thoughtful articles, op-eds, papers and debates emerging from Oxford’s Global Economic Governance Programme.

You have generated discussion on critical issues around aid, trade, and global governance which are too often left unexamined or captured only in politically charged sound bites. Even a simple scan of your website reveals a number of stimulating ideas, from that of reversing the psychology and power dynamics of aid negotiations by encouraging recipient countries to set aid-enhancing conditions on donors, to ways of using aid to improve governance by designing and building incentives, skills, and shared understandings.

Clearly there are synergies between the work of UNDP and this programme, and I would be pleased to explore ways we could interact more.

This is not an easy time for the UN development system or anyone else to be pursuing a development mission.

We are all grappling with the fallout from the global recession, the anticipated impacts of climate change, the lingering effects of the food and fuel crises, and the spread of deadly diseases. The impasse in world trade negotiations also does nothing for development.  

Our increasingly multi-polar world is struggling to come to terms with what it will take to address these complex multi-faceted issues – and more - in the face of divergent perspectives, fragmented institutions, and abundant rivalries. While personally I am always an optimist, the question which must at least be asked is whether we as human beings have the collective capacity and will to deal effectively with these challenges.  That proposition is explored in a fascinating new book by Australian academics, Joe  Camilleri and Jim Falk, entitled “Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet”.

There can also be heartbreaking setbacks to development from natural disasters, like that in Haiti, where hard fought progress and the aspirations of millions were undermined by the earthquake that took the lives of so many. Chile also has been hit hard by nature’s destructive forces within the last week.

These tragedies leave us not only immensely sad, but also with an appreciation of how compassion transcends borders. It was humbling to see the world’s least developed countries dig deep in their pockets for Haiti. Overall, the international community reacted quickly and continues to do so. In our globalised world, we are becoming more conscious of our interdependence - as we need to be.

We have seen how the financial collapse in the markets of the North affected countries around the world. 

We have seen how heavy carbon foot prints in industrialized countries have led to changes in our climate which affect the least developed the most.

We see how unsanitary farming practices in one community can start a global pandemic.

We are all exposed to unmanaged risks in our globalised world. Thus, our interdependence demands that the developed world pay attention to the countries and populations least able to recover from recession, adapt to rising sea levels and drought, combat epidemics, and deal with a range of other disasters and shocks.

The case for a renewed multilateral approach to development, however, is not only about risk management. Over the long term, we all benefit if developing countries have vibrant economies, are well governed and peaceful, have educated and healthy populations, and can support the fight against climate change by pursuing low carbon routes to development. 

There simply cannot be a growing and stable world economy when so many continue to live in poverty , severely constrained in their efforts to build a better life for themselves and their children.

The fight against poverty and hunger has undoubtedly become harder in this era of multiple crises, and demands a stepped up response at the very time when traditional development donor countries are most hard pressed.

In 2007, just before the global food crisis hit, the number of chronically hungry people in developing countries stood at around 850 million. The FAO estimates that in 2009 the number exceeded one billion. 

The impact of chronic hunger is long lasting. Children can feel the effects of poor nutrition long into their future, both because of the impact on their cognitive skills and on their productive potential. We also know that many families cope with economic setbacks by pulling their children out of school, and governments may cut budgets, including on education. In developing countries this may mean that the children affected will never get a second chance at education. 

It is also an unfortunate truth that many of the countries least responsible for the global recession were hit by a double blow: bearing the heaviest burden with the least ability to respond.

Without the ability to stimulate spending and protect the most vulnerable, the consequences of the global recession in such countries could take many years to remedy. Long after we stop talking about the global recession in the developed world, there is likely to be a lingering impact on these countries’ ability to progress - ultimately at a much greater cost to the international community than if there were timely support right now.

Like the recession, climate change hits the poorest the hardest - whether they dwell on the dry-lands of Africa, by the great river deltas of Asia, in the world’s small atoll nations, or elsewhere. It has been projected that in countries with per capita annual income below US$6,000, the burden of diarrheal diseases from climate change alone is likely to increase by up to five per cent by 2020.  Yet the climate agreement the whole world needs remains strangely elusive, despite the UN’s own best efforts and commitments.

Least developed countries have done the least to cause climate change, and they can least afford to bear the cost of action to adapt to and mitigate its impacts. It is widely acknowledged that countries will need support to build greater resilience to climate change, as well as to follow a low carbon route to development.

Developing countries also bear the brunt of the stalemate in the WTO’s Doha Round. They have the most to gain from accessing currently protected markets, and they have fewer cards to play in bilateral trade negotiations. The emerging patchwork of bilateral agreements risks adding layers of complexity to the trading system, and increasing transaction costs. The fairer trade of the future must recognize and allow for the very different starting points of developing countries – in particular the least developed. A renewed commitment to multilateralism is badly needed on trade.

The many challenges to development present just some of the many reasons why we need a reinvigorated multilateral system which reflects the realities of the 21st century. That means strong support for the United Nations and its funds, programmes, and agencies, which, taken as a whole, enjoy unparallelled legitimacy. The UN needs reform, for example to the Security Council, which will enhance its ability to lead. There is, however, no substitute for a strong UN to be found in informal multilateralism.

There is a great deal of practical work being done across the UN’s development system to address development challenges in developing countries around the world.


At UNDP during the recession, for example, we have been helping many countries to analyze its human development impacts, and advising them on how best to preserve their budgets for basic services, to maintain traction towards the MDGs and to identify and invest in new productive sectors.


On an ongoing basis, we support countries to make their governance more accountable, transparent, and responsive. We help countries expand the rule of law and access to justice, and to strengthen the functioning of their parliaments.

Our work to support recovery from crisis and natural disaster, helps build the bridge from humanitarian assistance to development and stability.  In Haiti we have launched a large scale cash-for-work programme, which among other things has helped to clear rubble and salvage items for reconstruction.

We are also supporting developing countries with climate change responses which advance their development agenda.

That includes, for example, helping disaster-prone regions in Uganda adapt to a changing climate, exploring the potential of climate resistant crops for Africa, and identifying new sources of climate finance so that Uruguay can meet local development needs with low carbon methods. We currently support adaptation activities in 75 countries.

Our work is made more difficult by the absence of global deals on climate change, development financing, and trade – but it must continue and strive for continuous improvement.

From its inception, the United Nations has been an incubator of new ideas with global application, as the UN Intellectual History Project’s many published volumes have amply demonstrated.

Over the course of decades, the most powerful of those ideas have both changed and shaped policies at all levels, including on development, the environment, human rights and gender.

The UN’s push for ‘development with a human face’ in the 1980s drew attention to the hardship imposed by structural adjustment measures. It led to the now widely embraced human development approach, which emphasizes that development is more than increasing GDP per capita, and that it must be shaped by an effort to improve people’s ability to shape their own lives. Enhancing human dignity and capabilities is essential for building sustainable, developed, and stable societies.

A decade ago, the UN led the world to agree on the Millennium Development Goals – those simple but powerful targets, which capture a global consensus around the need to reduce poverty and hunger and improve gender equality, health, education, and the environment.

In 2000, I was one of the heads of government who travelled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and signed the Millennium Declaration.  That document sealed a collective commitment to create a better tomorrow for billions through the Millennium Development Goals.

The opportunity now to make a contribution to MDG achievement through the UN’s development system was certainly a motivating factor for me in seeking the position of UNDP Administrator.

Given the deadline of meeting the MDGs by 2015 there is an urgency to make the most of this opportunity.  The UN and its funds, programmes and agencies cannot achieve those goals on their own, but through our leadership role and convening power we can help to focus international attention on what needs to be done.

Now the UN and its member states are preparing for the 2010 High Level Summit on the MDGs in September. The Summit is an opportunity to examine progress made to date, identify the gaps which remain, and agree on the concrete actions required to reach the goals by 2015.

According to the latest data there has been progress.

The worldwide target of reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015 could be achieved, greatly assisted by China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The world is also getting closer to meeting the universal primary education target, although too slowly to meet the 2015 deadline.

The latest figures on child mortality released by UNICEF estimate that the number of child deaths in 2008 declined to 8.8 million from 12.5 million in 1990, the base line year for the MDGs.

It is still utterly unacceptable, however, that so many children die before their fifth birthday, and the global rate of reduction of child mortality is still insufficient to reach this MDG.

Other sobering challenges also remain.

No country in sub-Saharan Africa is on course to achieve all the MDGs.

Four years after the target date which was set for reaching gender parity in education, it has yet to be achieved.

Alas, the goal towards which there has been the least progress so far is that which seeks to improve maternal health.  This bears striking witness to the low priority all too often given to meeting the needs of women, and in particular to meeting their sexual and reproductive health needs. 

We know from experience, though, that with adequate resources and concerted effort the MDGs can be achieved. Remarkable successes are apparent, including in some of the poorest countries:

  • Increased agricultural productivity in Ghana contributed to a 50 per cent reduction in hunger between 1991 and 2004.
  • Ethiopia has reduced the number of out-of-school children by over 3 million since 1990.
  • The under-five mortality rate has fallen by at least 40 per cent since 1990 in Malawi, Mozambique, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Niger.

So, how can we collectively accelerate such progress more widely and towards all the MDGs ?

In my view we must apply what we have learned about what makes development effective, and we must expand global partnerships for development.
On the first score, UNDP offers the following insights into what we have learned in the ten years since the signing of the Millennium Declaration:

• We know that well targeted assistance can help deliver development results. UNDP and the IMF have worked closely with a number of African countries to develop “Gleneagles Scenarios”, which show the development results which could be obtained if ODA were scaled up to the levels pledged by the G8.


The UN will continue to call on the G8 to fulfil its Gleneagles ODA commitments, including for a doubling of ODA to Africa by 2010 over 2004 levels. The pledges to Africa are very far short of delivery.


• We believe that development thrives on good governance and wise leadership; on making the right investments in people, institutions and infrastructure; and on fostering growth, trade, and investment, which in the 21st century must be both green and inclusive.

• To make the most of scarce ODA, we believe that development agencies should increasingly strive to use it as a catalyst to enable countries to make step changes in development. That means supporting access to the best strategic and policy advice and the best institutional and delivery system design available. A small project approach to development cannot produce the systemic and transformational change to which developing countries aspire.

• So often developing countries have good strategies and plans, but not enough capacity to implement them fully. Development partners must therefore take on the not so visible and highly complex work of supporting the strengthening of the local institutions and governance systems which can help make development happen.

Hiring more teachers, for example, is clearly a critical MDG-related intervention. Yet, sustainably improving student retention and learning will require an education ministry with the capacity to back the teachers with classrooms, equipment, curricula, and not least, adequate pay, training, and professional development.

We find that many governments have a good sense of the interventions which are needed to get good results, but that they also welcome support to identify and address the constraints and bottlenecks which are preventing full implementation of their plans.

• We see sustainable development results being best based on consultation rather than decree. Good leadership can turn good ideas into lasting results – where the local population is engaged, empowered, and motivated.
If the objective is to enhance local populations’ capabilities to improve their own lives, then they must take part in shaping, designing, and sustaining development efforts. 
• Development assistance has to be much more about working with partner governments and societies, sharing experience and know-how, and playing that catalytic role of helping make development happen. Developing countries must be the drivers of their own development solutions.
The UN can help by supporting networks which link resources and expertise with country demands for development solutions.
• Development practice should be informed by what works. Progress towards the education MDG was strong in Malawi while progress toward the maternal health MDG is weaker. In Zambia, progress on maternal health is strong, but on education it is weaker. Each has lessons to share about the ingredients of success. 

• Focusing investments on women. Women are most responsible for growing the world’s food, caring for most of the world’s sick and raising the world’s children. Research  has shown that, if a woman receives just one extra year of schooling, her children will be less likely to die in infancy or suffer from illness or hunger. Evidence suggests  that enabling and empowering women to own homes, businesses, and have more control over household budgets has significant development impact.
After the tsunami, for example, in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, India, many women (rather than men) were given the legal titles of newly rebuilt homes. The newly empowered women contributed to their now re-built and successful villages .
• It is also clear that we must integrate climate change related considerations into the centre of development planning.

By some estimates, forty per cent of development investment from ODA and concessional lending is sensitive to climate risk. That means that if climate change adaptation is not built into national development planning, scarce resources could well be wasted.

This is one of the reasons why, in the 21st century, human development and environmental sustainability must be tackled together.

This was the core of UNDP’s message at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. Climate change clearly presents great challenges; yet the process of tackling it also presents opportunities for developing countries.

In the final hours of the Copenhagen Summit, developed countries undertook to provide additional financial resources approaching US$ 30 billion for the period 2010-2012, for both support to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The details of the funding arrangement and the actual pledges remain to be determined.

This brings me to elaborate on my point about expanding global partnerships for development.

International development co-operation has undergone profound changes in the last two decades. More development financing options, foreign direct investment, trade flows, and remittances have become increasingly important. International NGOs have become global development players, regional integration institutions have become more important, the private sector is more engaged, and South-South co-operation is growing fast.

The rise of the emerging economies and their growing geopolitical importance is putting real weight behind South-South cooperation. More and more of the expertise and financing developing countries need is likely to come from across the south in the future. UNDP and the UN development system overall are well positioned to facilitate that transfer of knowledge and relevant experience.

In this new environment, “one size fits all” development solutions have no place.  Recent experiences, including the economic crisis reinforce the importance of pragmatic approaches.

Partnerships and networks which offer not only expertise but also opportunities for an exchange of experience are becoming more important. Fragmented development institutions and players can and must be more easily able to learn from each other’s experiences.

For the UN development system, this means:
• Being able to move their interventions from the small scale to the catalytic and systemic;
• Having a strong country presence linked to global knowledge networks;
• Being able to maintain impartiality in the face of competing development paradigms;
• Partnering with both “northern” and “southern” countries, as well as with the philanthropic and civil society organisations and private sector.

The United Nations’ universality and impartiality, and its comprehensive approach to development, ensure that it is well placed in this new environment. Yet global development challenges increasingly also involve global governance challenges. The question then arises: does the international community have the collective will to build governance structures and agreements which are fair, just, legitimate, and effective ?

No single actor can achieve the MDGs, or promote sustainable development, or tackle the global problems we face. In overcoming development challenges, many actors need to work in partnership: developing countries by making MDG achievement and sustainable development central to their development strategies, and the multilateral system, donors, NGOs, and the private sector. The role of the UN as a convener of nations, a contributor of big ideas with global reach, and a mobiliser of collective international will and commitment to act for development is indispensible to overcoming those challenges.

Thank you.