Remarks by Helen Clark at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

30 Mar 2010

I am very pleased to be able to address students and faculty of the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

At the outset, let me thank Elisabeth Lindenmayer, Director of the United Nations Studies Program, for inviting me to be here this evening.

Coming from a background of student and academic life, followed by many years in public life, I very much appreciate the role universities play in encouraging informed debate about global issues.

This month has been particularly busy with university speaking engagements for me.  I addressed Oxford University and LSE in the UK, and on Friday in Washington, D.C I delivered the annual ANZAC lecture at Georgetown University, organized each year around New Zealand’s and Australia’s annual memorial day.

One of the many reasons for speaking to university audiences on development issues is my hope that it may interest young people in careers in development, or in the UN more generally.

Today I am pleased to speak at SIPA, which has such strong ties to the United Nations and its funds and programmes.  Just being in this Dag Hammarskjold conference room bears testament to that!

The work of the United Nations Studies Program, and of SIPA more generally, helps foster a greater understanding of the multilateral system, its strengths and weaknesses, and the roles it plays in tackling global challenges.

There are many such challenges.  In my view, the world needs a reinvigorated multilateral system to tackle them.

For, a decade into this century, the world is struggling to cope with a raft of often interconnected problems which affect us all, and which do impact adversely on development.

We have just experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  In 2007-2008 there were sharp increases in food and fuel prices.  There is the ongoing need to respond to climate change.

Then there are the many natural disasters, like the recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Turkey, which collectively cause such huge destruction and loss of life.  There are also the wars and conflicts which throw development into reverse.

While many of the multiple crises impacting on our world also impact on the developed countries, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people who are generally most adversely affected in the long term.  Among them are many of the world’s women.

If we are to build sustainable routes out of poverty, then women too have to be full beneficiaries of and contributors to their country’s progress.

If women are sidelined in development, then countries will struggle to meet their development goals.

Yet, given a fair go, women will be tremendous agents of change and forces for peace and development.

In September, there will be a high level summit at the UN here in New York on the eight Millennium Development Goals – those development benchmarks world leaders committed to achieving by 2015.

This summit, ten years after the MDGs were agreed to, will be a major opportunity to generate renewed commitment to reach the goals, and identify remaining gaps in their achievement and how best to fill them.

With five years left until 2015, at the global level there are positive MDG results to report.

There have been sizeable reductions in poverty and child mortality rates, and increases in primary school enrolment and access to clean water.

Yet, significant challenges to the MDGs remain beneath the progress at the global level.

If we set aside for a moment the extraordinary achievement of China in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, the number of people elsewhere living in extreme poverty is actually estimated to have increased between 1990 and 2005 by about 36 million.

The World Bank now estimates that around 64 million more people around the world will be living on under $1.25 a day by the end of this year than would have been the case had there been no economic crisis.

Hunger is on the rise too.  More than a billion people were estimated to be chronically hungry in 2009 - around 130 million more than was the case just before the food crisis hit two year before.

In the lead up to the MDG Summit, UNDP is working with partners to identify what actions will be needed to accelerate progress on the MDGs. 

That bring us back to issues of gender. Where the MDGs struggle the most is where the needs of women and girls are given low priority.

Investing in women and girls could well be the breakthrough strategy we need to accelerate progress on the MDGs.

The benefits would be intergenerational.  A mother’s level of education, for example, is a significant variable affecting her children’s education attainment and opportunities.

The flow on effects of education for girls also include a reduction in child and maternal mortality, better child nutrition, and a greater ability to protect women and girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse, and exploitation.  They will also increase women’s ability to move out of poverty.

The good news is that the gender gap in primary school enrolment has narrowed over the past decade.  In 2007, 95 girls of primary school age were in school for every 100 boys in developing countries, compared to 91 in 1999. 

Progress towards gender parity in secondary schooling, however, has been slower, and the gaps are widening in some countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the ratio of girls’ to boys’ enrolment in secondary education fell from 82 per cent in 1999 to 79 per cent in 2007.

MDG5 focusing on maternal health is where progress to date has been the slowest.  Between 1990 and 2005, maternal mortality declined only marginally from 480 deaths per 100,000 live births to 450.  At this rate, the target of reducing to 120 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015 could not possibly be achieved.

But surely we cannot passively sit by and observe that dismal trend become prophecy?  It is appalling that somewhere in the world a woman dies every minute from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Meeting a woman’s need for sexual and reproductive health services can increase her chances of finishing her education, and breaking out of poverty.  We know that being able to give birth in a clean place with a skilled birth attendant present will greatly increase a woman’s prospect of survival.

For development to be sustainable, it must meet women’s needs. More needs to be done to expand women’s economic opportunities; to strengthen the legal status of women; and to ensure that women’s voices are heard in decision-making.

A few weeks ago in India I launched UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Human Development Report on gender.  It states that the under representation of women in the workforce has significant negative economic consequences for countries.  It suggests that raising the proportion of women in the paid workforce to the high rates seen in many developed countries would increase annual GDP in a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific.

When women have decent work, it is not only they who benefit. Their families and communities benefit too.

It is also important to unleash the tremendous potential of women entrepreneurs and to address the obstacles they may face, such as access to finance, or inability to inherit or hold title to land. Removing those barriers helps to provide women with the economic base from which to transform their own and their family’s prospects.  Supporting women to start their own businesses, or expand existing ones, will reduce inequality and stimulate economic growth.


UNDP has been carrying out programmes around the world to narrow gender inequalities and tackle discrimination in the economy.

This work ranges from having women’s needs reflected in national development plans, to helping establish why unpaid care work matters for development and what interventions would lessen the load women carry.

It is important that these types of interventions are accompanied by legal empowerment too.

Where women cannot inherit land, they and their children may be evicted from their homes upon the death of their husbands or fathers.  The HIV/AIDS epidemic has exacerbated this problem.

UNDP is working with governments to strengthen women’s legal rights, so that they are consistent with international norms and standards. Our Legal Empowerment of the Poor initiative works to expand poor people’s access to justice, so that they can use the law to advance their rights and interests.

 In Liberia, Mozambique and Uganda, for example, UNDP is supporting community land titling initiatives with special measures to protect the land claims of vulnerable populations and women. 

I know from personal experience that increasing the voice and participation of women in politics is vital for getting women’s issues taken seriously on national agendas.  Being out of sight in decision-making circles is truly to be out of mind.

So, I was pleased to learn when I was in Papua New Guinea last month of the efforts underway there to increase from one to 22 the number of women parliamentarians. UNDP has been helping with the preparation of Papua New Guinea’s bill to reserve seats for women, as it has in other countries.

In Albania, we assisted in the implementation of the first legislative quota for women in the recent parliamentary elections.  They resulted in an increase in the level of women’s representation from seven to 16.4 per cent.

These are the types of changes we in development can be part of promoting with national counterparts around the world.  They are changes which help to shatter glass ceilings and pave the way for other women to follow.

Women’s voices need to be heard more on the wide range of issues confronting the international community, from climate change and the environment to peace and conflict resolution.

Through a partnership with the Global Gender and Climate Alliance, UNDP has supported women participants in the international climate change negotiations, and advocated for government delegates and practitioners to take the gender dimensions of climate change into account in their work.

The role of women in peace building and recovery from crisis needs greater attention too.

The Beijing Platform for Action, agreed on at the UN´s Fourth World Conference on Women fifteen years ago, recognized that the active participation of women in decision making was a prerequisite for equality, development, and peace.

In the conflicts of today, civilians - especially women and children - are the most affected. The majority of refugees and displaced persons are women and children.

Yet women have repeatedly been marginalized in the recovery from conflict and disaster.  Keeping the peace has traditionally been seen as something men do.  Women have been given few seats at the negotiating tables, and too often too little say in the planning and implementation of reconciliation processes.

For peace and recovery to be sustainable, women must be empowered and included as active participants.  Enduring and appropriate solutions will not be found if the views, needs, and concerns of half the population are not properly represented.

There are good examples of where women have played critical roles in conflict-ridden nations as agents of change.

In Liberia, women made major contributions towards the peaceful resolution of years of conflict, pushing for the disarmament of the fighting factions even before the signing of a peace accord.  That country went on to elect Africa’s first female President.

At UNDP, we have made gender equality and women’s empowerment in crisis prevention and recovery a top organizational priority

In Somalia, UNDP has supported women to engage in national reconciliation processes such as the drafting of the constitution. A task force was established under the auspices of the Transitional Federal Government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs to ensure that  Somali women’s voices are heard in the deliberations.

For far too many women, war does not end when a peace agreement is reached.

This October marks ten years since the UN Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 on women and peace and security.  It recognized that a majority of civilians affected by armed conflict are women and children, and endorsed women’s full and equal participation in post-conflict decision-making processes.

Other important resolutions have followed, strengthening this commitment and also addressing the systemic use of sexual violence as a tool of war.  They included Resolution 1888 on sexual violence in armed conflict, put forward by the United States.  I understand Elisabeth Lindenmayer took students to the Security Council to witness its passing.

Recently the first ever UN Under-Secretary General with a specific responsibility to work against sexual violence in conflict was appointed.

For its part, UNDP has established comprehensive rule of law programmes with a focus on access to justice and security for survivors of gender-based violence in twenty countries, from Chad, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to Sudan, Timor-Leste, and others.

These programmes help provide mobile courts, legal aid programmes, and support to police, prosecutors, and the judiciary.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNDP has trained paralegals and advisors who aid survivors of sexual violence in their interactions with the police and the courts, and engage with traditional community leaders to help reintegrate survivors of sexual violence into society.

There, and in Timor-Leste, UNDP, together with UN peacekeeping missions, supports specialized units within police forces to prevent gender-based violence.

Our work in crisis settings also extends to recovery from natural disasters.

In this context, I would like to make some comments about Haiti, and acknowledge the strong ties of this School (SIPA) to Haiti. This is especially pertinent to the pledging conference for funds for Haiti’s recovery which will be held at the United Nations here in New York tomorrow.

I understand that in the Fall of 2008 students undertook a research project looking at how MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission there, was responding to the pressures of food price increases and the aftermath of the damaging hurricane.

I am also told that ten SIPA students and faculty were in Haiti when the earthquake struck, most of whom were carrying out research on the role of the private sector in social and economic development.  Nine of them spent the night in the UNDP compound parking lot, and luckily all were able to leave the country unharmed.

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.

Within a week of the earthquake, UNDP’s cash for work programme had started in Port au Prince.  It provides short-term jobs to Haitians to clear rubble and rehabilitate essential social infrastructure, such as street repairs and electricity.  It also focuses on clearing sites for safe re-settlement, repairing surface water drainage, and improving road access to and through affected areas.

The programme empowers affected populations, helping them earn a living and injecting urgently needed cash into the local economy.  That speeds up the resumption of micro businesses and market activity.

Another critical area of focus for UNDP is strengthening the Government’s capacity to address the crisis, which has been further weakened by the earthquake.  This would allow the Government to plan and implement reconstruction activities.

Over the last few weeks UNDP and other UN agencies have been supporting the formal post-disaster needs assessment, and helping to ensure national ownership of that process.

Fundamental to sustained recovery in Haiti is building back better to build greater resilience to future seismic and weather shocks.

One of the key objectives must be to ensure that that future disaster risk reduction measures are gender-sensitive; that women and girls and other vulnerable groups are afforded the protection and security they deserve and need; and that women are fully involved in the recovery and reconstruction.

About forty per cent of the workers employed through UNDP’s cash-for-work programmes are women.  That helps them meet not only their own immediate needs, but also those of their children and families.

The General Assembly decision six months ago to create a composite UN entity on gender provides an opportunity for the UN to improve its effectiveness in supporting the empowerment of women around the world and achieving the MDGs.  By providing a strong voice for women at the global level and practical support for the systemic changes needed at the country level to transform women´s prospects, the new entity will be able to make a real difference for the better.

Empowering women is not just the right thing to do, but it is also critical for meeting the MDGs, for promoting sustainable development, and ensuring peace and recovery after crises.

I hope this is a message which you will take with you as your complete your studies at SIPA, and as you look to make a real difference for the better of our world in your post-university lives.

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