"The UN and New Zealand- Peter Fraser's Legacy”

12 Aug 2010

Statement by Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme in Wellington, New Zealand.

It is a great pleasure for me to be addressing you here in Wellington on “The UN and New Zealand – Peter Fraser’s Legacy”.

Peter Fraser was one of my illustrious predecessors as Labour Prime Minister and an international statesman. He passed away in the year of my birth, and I grew up in a New Zealand which owed a great a deal to his dedication to public life.

As the title of this address implies, however, Peter Fraser’s influence was felt far beyond the shores of our small country.

In my current role as head of the UN’s Development Programme, Peter Fraser’s contributions to multilateralism and the founding of the UN, and his commitment to fostering international co-operation on issues of global concern, resonate especially strongly with me.

In San Francisco in 1945, Peter Fraser himself led the New Zealand delegation to the UN’s founding conference. There a mere fifty nations - far short of today’s total of 192 Member States – gathered to produce the UN’s Charter. So many of the nation states which exist today were still colonies at that time.

During the two months of deliberations in San Francisco, Peter Fraser argued strongly against granting the great powers a veto at the Security Council.

While there were limits to what he could achieve, he pressed hard for the rights of smaller nations to be expressed through the General Assembly, and he contributed to the establishment of the Trusteeship Council, which was tasked with supervising the administration of trust territories.

The world has changed in countless ways since 1945. Today’s technology, geopolitics, environment, societies and economies are in many respects unrecognizable from those of a few decades ago.

So is the United Nations – which in the last sixty five years has spawned a myriad of organisations, including the multi-billion dollar per annum Programme which I now lead.

The Trusteeship Council itself - which Peter Fraser worked to establish - suspended its operations in 1994, when Palau, the then last remaining UN trust territory, changed its status.

But many of the challenges the world faced after World War II, especially by the poorest and most vulnerable people and countries, unfortunately endure to this day.

Take the very topic example of the human tragedy unfolding in the eastern Sahel today, where many millions of people have exhausted their food supply and their assets. Niger has been particularly badly affected.

Overcoming such challenges is at the heart of the mission not only of UNDP, but of the whole UN development system. One can’t help thinking that those visionaries like Peter Fraser who gathered in San Francisco would have envisaged overcoming such abject poverty long before now.

At the beginning of this century, Heads of State and Government, including me, representing New Zealand, gathered in New York at the United Nations to make another commitment to addressing development challenges.

There we signed the landmark Millennium Declaration, which enshrined the Millennium Development Goals.

These eight goals provided a blueprint for creating better lives for billions of people by 2015.

It is for good reason that the UN Intellectual History Project credits the MDGs with being one of the great ideas to emanate from the United Nations system. They are the most broadly supported, comprehensive, and specific poverty reduction targets the world has ever established. They address: extreme poverty and hunger; access to education and health services and to clean water and sanitation; gender equality; environmental degradation; and the deadly diseases of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Important also, they call for greater global partnerships for development.

The MDGs have since inspired a decade of concerted efforts to lift the living standards of hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

In that time, many impressive advances have been made towards the MDGs. Despite a series of recent crises, about which I shall say more shortly, the developing world as a whole remains on track to achieve the MDG poverty reduction target by 2015.

Significant advances have been made in getting children into primary school in many of the poorest countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa.

The world is now on track to meet or even exceed the MDG drinking water target by 2015.

Between 2003 and 2008, the number of people in low-and middle income countries receiving antiretroviral therapy increased tenfold—from 400,000 to 4 million. But, HIV remains a devastating problem, and the rate of new HIV infections continues to outstrip the expansion of treatment.

Deaths of children under five have been reduced from 12.5 million in 1990 to 8.8 million in 2008 – a huge achievement.

Yet, the number of deaths is still far too high, especially when one considers that most of them are preventable or the conditions which caused them were treatable. As well, the rate of reduction of child mortality would need to speed up to meet the 2015 goal.

The same is true of a number of other goals. For example, preliminary new data do show signs of progress in reducing maternal deaths, but the rate of reduction is still far short of what is required to meet the MDG target of cutting the maternal mortality rate by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.

On top of the pre-existing challenges of underdevelopment, the multiple crises the world has experienced in very recent years haven’t made achieving the MDGs any easier.

The food and fuel crises, catastrophic natural disasters, and the global recession have all taken their toll.

Newly updated estimates from the World Bank suggest that the economic crisis will leave an additional 64 million people in extreme poverty by the end of 2010, relative to projections before the crisis.

In some parts of the world, the number of people who are undernourished has continued to grow, and slow progress in reducing hunger prevalence had stalled even before the global economic crisis hit.

Last year, for the first time in history, more than a billion people were estimated to have suffered from chronic hunger – around 130 million more than before the combined impact of the food, fuel and economic crises.

In San Francisco, Peter Fraser had helped ensure that the issue of promoting full employment was reflected in the section of the UN Charter dealing with international economic and social co-operation. This too has reverberations today.

In addition to reducing the proportion of people living in poverty and suffering from hunger, MDG 1 includes a target calling for the achievement of full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people.

Yet the global recession has had a devastating impact on jobs, with the numbers of unemployed worldwide estimated to have increased from around 178 million in 2007 to over 211 million last year.


An additional 3.6 per cent of the world’s workers were at risk of falling into poverty between 2008 and 2009, reversing many years of steady progress on pushing people above the poverty line.

The Global Jobs Pact, developed by the ILO, calls for jobs to be put at the very centre of responses to the economic crisis. It has received support from the G20 and the G8, as well as from the entire UN system.

UNDP has been directed by its Executive Board to work with the ILO to operationalize the Pact in programmes in developing countries.

While the challenges facing developing countries are great, this is not a time for despair in the UN or anywhere else. Through collective endeavour, as Peter Fraser and the UN’s other founding fathers believed, the international community can build a better world.

Right now we see developing country economies leading the return to global growth. In our part of the world, we are most aware of trends in China, but it should also be noted that Sub-Saharan Africa is projected by the IMF to be the second fastest growing region in the world this year and next. Africa with its young, dynamic, and aspirational populations is very much part of the solution to the world’s problems. 

The self-evident truth is that our world does possess the knowledge, the technology, and a wide menu of possible solutions to a multitude of development challenges.

We know how to provide skilled attendance at birth, carry out successful vaccination campaigns for children, enrol girls in school, increase crop yields, and combat the spread of HIV.

Adding to this knowledge, and in preparing for the MDG Plus Ten Review Summit at the UN in New York this September, UNDP recently completed an International Assessment of what it will take to reach the MDGs by 2015.

We have identified common and underlying MDG success factors, and the constraints which exist in making progress. 

We have presented eight priority areas for action to accelerate MDG progress. They include: supporting country-led development; fostering inclusive economic growth; improving opportunities for women and girls; targeting investments in health, education, and energy access; scaling up social protection programmes; enabling effective domestic resource mobilization and allocation; and urging donors to honour the ODA commitments they have made.

An action-oriented outcome to the September MDG Summit will be very important in generating momentum to reach the 2015 targets.

Helping the poorest and most vulnerable is especially vital now. In my position I see countries and communities reeling from the effects of crises they played no part in causing – including climate change.

The risks of social and political instability will increase in coming decades, if climate change provokes large population transfers and growing tensions over the allocation of essential natural resources like water.

The lack of a new climate agreement does not help development. Nor does the stalemate on the WTO trade round. Commitments to ODA need to be complemented by what is called, in the trade, broader policy coherence. That includes fair trade rules – something New Zealand itself would appreciate on agriculture - and climate justice.

While personally I am always an optimist, the question which must at least be asked is whether we as human beings currently have the collective capacity and will to deal effectively with these and other challenges. 

So often we see our increasingly multi-polar world struggling to come to terms with what it will take to address the complex issues it confronts, in the face of divergent ideologies, disjointed institutions, and plentiful rivalries.

In tackling problems without borders, far too often we see national concerns prevent agreement on taking the action required by the world as a whole. More than ever the world needs the strong and effective United Nations which Peter Fraser and his colleagues worked so hard to create.

At its best, an effective multilateral architecture can defuse tension, overcome challenges, and promote social and economic progress.

But, such an architecture needs to be backed by the strong will of political leaders and member states, and it needs to be based on governance structures which promote inclusive, legitimate, and effective agreements.

The case for a renewed and strengthened multilateral system which reflects the realities of and responds to the challenges of the 21st century - a system which supports the delivery of improved living standards for the poorest and most vulnerable people and nations - has never been stronger.

The structure of the UN Security Council itself urgently needs updating to be relevant to today’s geopolitics. If one began on the task of designing the Council today, there would not be agreement on the current structure.

Perhaps such reform would be easier had Peter Fraser got his way in convincing the great powers not to insist on a veto at the Council.

The world also needs to update the global economic governance system which was established at the end of World War II. 

Without other formal multilateral mechanisms able to respond comprehensively and decisively to the economic crisis, the G20 – previously meeting at finance minister level – began to convene as a leaders’ summit.
Its April 2009 meeting in London led by Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown took decisive action to limit the impact of the global recession.

Now, post-crisis, the G20 leaders continue to meet, and have designated their summit as their premier forum for economic co-operation.

Yet when countries representing more than eighty per cent of the world’s economy decide on a course of action, that inevitably has impacts on those not present – made up of close to 170 nations, including New Zealand. Ways have to be found to link the G20 into the formal multilateral system, so that broader perspectives can be brought to the table.

The UN with its universal membership, broad mandate, and unique convening power can certainly play a role in ensuring that the G20 is well informed about the range of views and perspectives of Member States.

As well, within its funds, programmes, specialized agencies, and departments, the UN has huge expertise which is relevant to and can contribute to the G20’s deliberations.

When the UN was established, the Economic and Social Council was given a mandate for the overall co-ordination of UN system activities in economic, social, and related areas.

Despite several reforms aiming at strengthening its role, however, ECOSOC has not developed in the way the UN’s founders originally envisaged. Perhaps now is the time to consider again proposals which have been put forward in the past to strengthen ECOSOC. It should be noted that its recent session in New York was particularly substantive, with quality forums and presentations, and high level participation.

Meanwhile, out on the frontlines of development, one of the UN’s greatest strengths is its country-level presence and capacity. It is hard at work every day assisting countries to reduce poverty and promote inclusive and sustainable development.

To go forward, and not backwards, on the MDGs, the world needs strong global leadership for development, and it needs to support the UN’s comprehensive development work. 

As a small country, New Zealand is obviously not a large player in development co-operation.

But for UNDP, and for all the other voluntarily-funded UN organizations, all contributions count. New Zealand has been among the top twenty donors to UNDP over the last ten years.

Bilateral resources for development can have a bigger impact when they are joined with those of other donors, and centered on a common strategy. This is often especially true for small countries like New Zealand which lack a development presence on the ground in all countries - but it is also increasingly true even for larger donors which are reducing the number of countries where their bilateral aid is directed.

The development field is a competitive one. Development contributions these days are being made on a large scale not only by the traditional donors, but from across the South, civil society and the mega-philanthropic funds, and increasingly through the private sector too.

The UN, however, with its universal membership, its perceived neutrality, and the idealism which characterized the writing of its Charter, has a special role to play in providing global leadership for development.

Indeed, the world looks to the UN in times of crisis to rally the international effort – as in Haiti earlier this year.

Within a few days of that devastating earthquake, and while the humanitarian relief effort got underway, UNDP itself had a job creation programme running in Port au Prince to begin clearing away rubble and inject spending power into local communities. That work continues to this day, providing short-term jobs to Haitians clearing sites for safe re-settlement, repairing surface water drainage, and improving road access to and through affected areas.

Despite all the UN’s inherent flaws and limitations from its establishment, which may have been evident even in San Francisco, the UN remains an essential presence in overcoming today’s challenges.

Its role in convening nations, contributing bold ideas of global significance, and generating collective international will and commitment to act for development, peace, the environment and human rights is indispensible to promoting a more peaceful, just, and secure world.

If the UN had not been invented – if those like Peter Fraser gathered in San Francisco had not succeeded in their mission – we would undoubtedly be hard at work trying to create it today.

Perhaps its shape and contours would be different. Perhaps its peace and security, its development, and its human rights pillars and work would not look quite the same. But a body of nations united and co-operating to tackle the world’s most intractable problems - problems which ultimately affect us all - would still be needed.

That such a body does exist and has for the past sixty five years is part of the enduring legacy of Peter Fraser – a truly great New Zealander.