Helen Clark: The Importance of Governance for Sustainable Development

Mar 13, 2012

Remarks by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator, on the occasion of the Singapore Lecture Series
The Importance of Governance for Sustainable Development
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore
Tuesday 13 March, 3:10pm

I thank the Government of Singapore for the invitation to visit this week and for the opportunity to contribute to the renowned Singapore Lecture Series.

In the past two decades, I have spoken in Singapore on a number of occasions, first in my capacity as New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition, and later as Prime Minister of my country.

I first set foot in Singapore in 1976, while in transit to Europe. Over the years I came to appreciate that Singapore and the East Asian region as a whole would play a far greater role in the prosperity and development of New Zealand than would the more distant Europe of my forebears with its reluctance to open its markets to the free flow of our exports.

Singapore as an outward looking, dynamic economy which prospered despite its lack of natural resources often provided inspiration for New Zealand. I myself learned a great deal from briefings here over the years on the strategies driving Singapore’s progress and the regionalisation of its economy, and from the insights into the region’s geopolitics derived from many meetings with this country’s leaders.

Overall I have come to know Singapore as a forward-looking country which invests in its people, makes its luck, and prospers accordingly.

Our host today, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, seeks “to stimulate thinking and explore solutions to major salient issues in the region.”[1]

The topic of my lecture, the importance of governance for sustainable development, is salient for the peoples of Singapore and its neighbours, and indeed for peoples around the world.

Singapore has demonstrated from the earliest days of its independence that good governance matters a great deal in getting development results. Strong vision and leadership at the political level, backed by a high quality public service contributing to the design and execution of policy, has transformed Singapore into the modern, entrepreneurial nation we know it as today.

In that process, Singapore has shown an ability to reinvent itself continually to meet new challenges. The capacity to keep doing that will be critical to the country’s ongoing success. I note now the debate occurring around the next generation of change for the Singapore model, and believe that this is a healthy process.

The Prime Minister himself has noted that last year’s election campaign and results “show that Singaporeans want their politics to evolve to become more consultative and inclusive. Singaporeans want to be engaged in shaping their future, and want the government to be more responsive to their immediate needs.” As Singapore evolves, I believe it is likely to address decisively the challenges which have emerged to its current development model, not least rising inequality, and move to greater engagement of its people in pursuing equitable and sustainable development.

Our world has experienced unprecedented development progress over the last four decades, leading to the global population as a whole being healthier, wealthier, and better educated than ever before. As we approach the 2015 target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, we are within reach of seeing every child enrolled in primary school, and many fewer lives are being lost to poverty, hunger, and disease.

Sustainable development must be about enabling countries to accelerate and sustain that progress. It must be about establishing a trajectory of human development which allows all people to exercise their choices and meet their aspirations, both in this generation and those to come. It must also be about enabling the benefits of development to spread to those left behind in the progress made to date.

Good governance which drives the achievement of  development results must also now rise to the challenge of achieving the equitable and sustainable development which will secure our common future. This is a key theme of my remarks today.

The opportunity of Rio+20

Three months from now, representatives of governments meeting at the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil will take decisions which could significantly influence the world’s ability to set a sustainable course.

To do so, they will need to confront the inconvenient truths which are so often disguised by aggregate and average figures of progress. Many of the seven billion people on our planet home live in highly unequal societies where extreme poverty persists, and/or in regions already contending with extreme climate variability.

The multiple crises which have gripped our world in recent years have exacerbated these challenges, and have shown our planet’s economic, social, and eco-systems to be under considerable stress. The greatest risk to our common future, as pointed out by the Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, lies in continuing down our current path.

Economic and human development progress cannot be sustained if the ecosystems on which they depend are irreparably damaged, and if gross inequity leaves our societies unstable and lacking cohesion.

Just as the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro set a new direction for our world twenty years ago, so, now, current development models should be re-examined to see what works, why, and where we can and must do better.  Rio+20 can play a significant role in rebalancing and resetting the global development agenda.

Looking to both Rio+20 and beyond 2015 to the development framework which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals, the question I ask is not only what do we want our common future to look like, but also how can good governance help us achieve it.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said in a recent speech that from now on “we want the word ‘development’ always associated with the term ‘sustainable’.” Further, she said “we believe that it is possible to grow and to include, to protect, and to conserve”.

I agree. Not only is it possible to grow and to include, protect, and conserve at the same time, but also truly equitable and sustainable human development requires that we do so.

Our decisions at the national, regional, and global levels can help restore the global environmental commons, and provide access to the economic means and services which the poor need to expand their choices and opportunities.

This is not only, or even mainly, a challenge for developing countries. It is a global challenge. Clear responsibility rests with countries of the global north, to address their own social fractures, reduce their environmental footprint, and act in a way which supports the development of the global south.

I believe humankind can meet this challenge.

The role of governance

I use the opportunity of being here in Singapore, to highlight an essential but under-discussed aspect of what it will take to do so: the importance of active, effective, honest, and fair governance at all levels. 

Through our support for countries striving to achieve sustainable development around the world, UNDP observes again and again the importance of such governance for achieving development results. Three reasons could be postulated for that:

First, active governance, which anticipates and responds to the needs of its citizen and evolving development challenges, with deliberate, targeted, and pro-active planning and delivery, is essential to getting the business of development done.

Active and effective governance requires governing institutions which are capable of delivering reliable and quality services where and when they are needed. It requires public administration which can collect revenues honestly, allocate and invest public funds wisely, and manage public goods, including land and other natural resources, for the benefit of all.

As we know from Singapore’s history, active and effective governance has made a substantial contribution to this country’s development success.

As was highlighted in the joint UNDP-Singapore publication launched last year, “Virtuous Cycles: The Singapore Public Service and National Development”, Singapore’s exceptionally effective public administration was no accident. It was the result of the Government’s deliberate effort, which continues to this day, to put in place the institutional and other arrangements required for effective governance. 

That, in turn, spurred national development, creating a virtuous cycle which has given Singapore one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. As well, last year Singapore ranked a high 26 out of 187 countries in UNDP’s Human Development Index – which is a composite index of education, health and income measures.

Second, effective governance is a prerequisite for putting in place the integrated policymaking capacity which is needed to drive sustainable development.

A sustainable development response to the complex and interlinked challenges countries face today demands policymaking which views economic growth, poverty reduction, social development, equity, and sustainability not as competing goals to be traded off against each other, but as interconnected objectives which are most effectively pursued together.

The important realization is that in pursuing one objective, we can either advance, slow, or stall progress in another. Reducing environmental degradation, for example, can create jobs, and help alleviate poverty. The converse also applies: a degraded environment can undermine the long term economic and social health of a country.

To get the wide range of policies moving in the same direction, governments must be able to understand and harness the connections between them. Policy makers and their advisors need to be able to weigh the evidence and identify the ‘triple-win’ solutions which can bring economic, environmental, and social benefits. Policy and regulatory frameworks must also be designed to attract and use finance and new technologies in ways which generate sustainability and meet the needs of citizens, including the poorest and most vulnerable.

Achieving this puts a premium on having a capable public service and effective governance mechanisms which can weave the economic, social, and environmental strands of sustainable development together. 

Here, again, Singapore has experiences worthy of study. In setting out a “Sustainable Development Blueprint”, the Government of Singapore took a ‘whole of government’ approach which brought together all relevant Ministries to analyse emerging challenges and determine how to tackle them.

Through this cross-sectoral approach, Ministers and committee members were able to identify the actions needed to overcome challenges, reduce risks, and take advantage of opportunities, to ensure the sustainability of Singapore’s remarkable social and economic progress for current and future generations.

Third, fair governance matters for sustainable development because it holds the key to building stable and secure societies and to driving inclusive growth within the finite boundaries of our planet over the long term. Fair, reliable, and accountable governing institutions build trust between people and government.

Such institutions need to be free of corruption. Meaningful engagement and participation of citizens in shaping decisions which impact on them is also important, as is the existence of independent institutions which can hold government to account.

Through its democratic governance work, UNDP is supporting over one hundred countries to strengthen the institutions and processes needed to build trust, improve responsiveness, and advance development. Through our experience of this work, we have learned that there can be no uniform approach to it. Our efforts are tailored to individual countries’ contexts and respond to their requests, for example, to help strengthen electoral, legislative, justice and anti-corruption systems, and enhance public administration and service delivery, including to reach those most in need.

Through our respective experiences and histories, Singapore and UNDP have both learned lessons about the importance of active, effective, honest, and fair governance for getting development results. Later in this lecture, I will elaborate more on how such governance can help drive equitable and sustainable development.

First, however, let me reflect on our world’s progress to date in putting the concept of sustainable development into practice, and on why we need to advance both equity and sustainability through good governance.

Equitable and Sustainable Development – is there progress?

In 1987, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, delivered the Commission’s report to the United Nations. It called on the world to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

At the Earth Summit in 1992, that far sighted concept of sustainable development was backed in a strong Declaration and in Agenda 21, setting out what needs to happen to sustain a healthy environment and promote inclusive development.

Twenty years later, Rio +20 needs to re-commit to that unfinished agenda, and marry it to countries’ on-going and concerted efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. 

The MDGs have been successful in generating political leadership, broad partnerships, and civic engagement for development. Preliminary 2010 data from the World Bank suggest that the world as a whole has already met the MDG target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. The proportion of people without access to safe drinking water has been cut in half, well in advance of 2015 deadline. [2]

The MDG targets on gender parity in primary education [3], and child mortality are likely to be met or nearly met by 2015. The total number of children out of school fell by one third during the last decade – from 106 million to sixty-seven million. [4]

Progress has also been made on key environmental objectives. Global conventions on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification, all a legacy of the Earth Summit, have come into effect. Global chlorofluorocarbon production has been phased out, and the ozone layer is expected to recover [5]. More actors in the private sector are engaged in securing an environmentally sound future.

But the world has changed significantly since the MDGs were launched more than a decade ago. There is now a much greater appreciation of the threat and the reality of climate change. It is clear that countries which lack the capacity to adapt to that change, and the poorest and most marginalized people who depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, are more vulnerable to this threat and will be disproportionately affected by it.

The projected increase in the world’s population from seven billion to almost nine billion by 2040 will place more strain on our planet’s ecosystems.

Globally, nearly forty per cent of land is degraded due to soil erosion, reduced fertility, and overgrazing. Yet, by 2030, it is estimated that the world will need at least fifty per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy, and thirty per cent more water. [6]

Adverse environmental factors are predicted to cause world food prices to rise by thirty to fifty per cent in real terms in the coming decades and to increase price volatility, with harsh repercussions for poor households. [7]

The high numbers of people trying to survive below or just above the extreme poverty line of $1.25-a-day points to the continuing vulnerability of poor people across the world [8].

It is not only Singapore which is now debating the impact of income inequality and how to address it. This is now a significant global issue, commanding our attention at the highest multilateral and national levels. Inequality was a major topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, as political and corporate leaders alike reflected on its impact on social cohesion and stability.  

According to a report by Credit Suisse, the world’s richest one per cent held 43 per cent of the world’s total wealth in 2010, while the lowest fifty per cent held under two per cent. UNICEF estimates that on trends observed between 1990 and 2007, it would take more than eight hundred years for the poorest one billion people to achieve ten per cent of global income [9]. UNICEF also notes the disturbing high prevalence of children and young people in the lowest income quintiles, with approximately fifty per cent in the group living under the $2 a day poverty line in the 1990-2007 period. This has obvious implications for children’s health status, their opportunities – or lack of them - for education, and their wellbeing and income prospects later in life.

Pursuing More Equitable and Sustainable Models of Development, and the Role of Governance

The protests on the streets of cities around the world from Europe and the United States to the Arab States region and elsewhere suggest that persistent inequities are no more politically sustainable than the devastation of our ecosystems is environmentally sustainable. Put the two sets of challenges together and we have issues which will take visionary, strategic, and determined governments working with a wide range of stakeholders and with an engaged citizenry to address.

Going forward, new models of development are needed to meet existing and emerging challenges. Development must help reduce inequalities and inequities, while ensuring that we stay within the ecological boundaries of the one planet we have to live on.

In these new models, we need to look beyond the speed of economic growth as a driver of development and examine its quality. The forty year review of human development progress undertaken by UNDP for its 2010 global Human Development Report, found that it is the quality, more than the speed, of growth which matters most in lifting human development.

Thus growth needs to be both inclusive and sustainable. It needs to expand opportunities for decent livelihoods and ensure that all can benefit. Active, effective, honest, and fair governance is important in achieving that. Market forces will create winners and losers. Public policy and its implementation can give everyone a chance to succeed.

A decade ago, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, issued from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, also stressed that “Good governance within each country and at the international level is essential for sustainable development.”

In 2012 it is now time to bring the MDG and sustainable development agendas together, and for reinvigorated action around them. Achieving that will require active, effective, honest, and fair governance too. The Singapore experience and UNDP’s observations from decades of involvement in capacity building demonstrate why such governance matters.

In the first place, without good governance, countries will find it hard to achieve any sustained development results, let alone rise to the contemporary challenge of achieving equitable and sustainable development.

Here in Singapore, leaders of the newly independent state recognised how important effective public administration would be for achieving national goals. The country’s leaders understood that the role of public administration was not only to deliver public goods and services reliably, but also to back the national strategic vision through the development and pursuit of appropriate policy.

UNDP and its predecessor organisations worked with Singapore from those early years. Dr. Albert Winsemius supported the young country’s leaders to lay the ground for a viable, export-oriented economy. Strategic choices were made about which sectors to build.

UNDP and others worked with many arms of the government here, offering technical advice and support for improvements in productivity, technology upgrades in selected industries, and skills training to drive the economy forward. An exceptional public service rallied round this focused development agenda.

Singapore’s government acted early and decisively to root out corruption, enabling it to build a merit-based public service which remains one of the world’s most effective to this day.

The story of how Singapore was transformed from a city where corruption was rife at the time of independence to one of the least corrupt places in the world is remarkable. It started from an understanding that Singapore's development strategy required the attraction of foreign investment, which in turn, depended on having clean government. On that foundation was built a solid and unwavering political commitment to tackle corruption.

A relatively small, but very competent and dedicated, Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and a solid legal framework also played a vital role. The circumstances of Singapore are unique, but the example of how political will married with technical competence can successfully fight corruption, and build an effective public administration, is one from which many can learn.

Singapore’s experience, as distilled in the “Virtuous Cycles” publication, can and does inform the work of UNDP, as we advise and support countries to build strong public administration and root out corruption.

For example, through UNDP’s work with countries on implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), we stress the importance of strong, well-staffed, anti-corruption institutions, and the need for citizen review and feedback mechanisms.

Last year, UNDP brought together high-level representatives from twenty countries in the Asia Pacific region to exchange experiences on how to measure and prevent corruption, including through the use of new technologies.

Partly as a result of this meeting, India’s “ipaidabribe.com” anti-corruption initiative is now likely to be replicated in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The initiative enables citizens to report bribery attempts anonymously to a website, where the information is then summarised and made public, enabling those working against corruption to use it.

At the most local level of government UNDP has also observed what works in improving basic services. When people are given a say about such services, such as access to clean and reliable water, and those providing them are made accountable, service delivery tends to improve. For example, with the support of UNDP, the Bonda Town community in Kenya established a feedback mechanism for water service, and gave people a say in the governance of water boards. This led to better training for water service providers, the annual revenue from water provision increased, and more people received reliable access to safe water.  

The challenge now for governance at all levels is to make it fit for purpose for equitable and sustainable development. The challenges confronting governments and our world today are complex and multifaceted. They defy solution by any single ministry or set of stakeholders, and often their global dimensions mean they are beyond the capacity of any single country to resolve. We need effective governance at the global level too.

At the national level, there are good examples of integrated decision making. The ingredients of success include;

· the leadership of the head of state or government, or of another very senior figure,

· broad political support in a legislature,

· mobilisation of a wide range of relevant stakeholders, including sub-national governments, academia and research institutes, the private sector, and civil society,

· setting realistic time frames for achieving results, which are long enough to address development challenges, but short enough to influence behavior today;

· alignment with national budgets, sectoral programmes, and, where relevant, development partner activities, and

· having measurable indicators by which to assess progress.

Singapore itself has developed an impressive ‘whole-of-government’ approach in its Blueprint for Sustainable Development.

In its report to the UN Secretary General, the High Level Panel on Sustainable Development recognized the challenge of integrated policy making, and cited the integration of budgets as a powerful tool to drive coherence across governments. That may mean allocating resources to strategic goals rather than to individual ministries or departments. Integrated approaches look for multiple wins from policies, where living standards improve and the environment is looked after.

A good example of such an approach is to be found in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net programme [4], which has reached over eight million beneficiaries in three hundred food-insecure districts. It provides cash and predictable food supplies in return for work done on environmental conservation, water source protection, and terracing. The calorie intake of recipient households has increased by nineteen per cent.

Overall I am also very impressed by Ethiopia’s strategy for raising living standards while maintaining low carbon emissions, through its Climate Resilient Green Growth Initiative launched late last year.

In Niger’s southern regions, farmers, supported by local communities, [5] have reforested five million hectares, or about four per cent of the country’s land area. This has improved soil quality and increased cereal yields by 100 kilograms per hectare in 2009, securing livelihoods and improving food security in the area. More support for these kinds of “multiple win” solutions is urgently needed in Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel, to build resilience and lock in development gains through periods of recurrent and intense droughts.

Integrated decision making for sustainable development is vital at sub-national levels too. Many policies relevant to building resilience, including adapting to extreme climate, like disaster risk reduction, natural resource management, and land-use planning, are often dealt with at that level. Building the capacity of sub-national authorities to work in these ways is a priority for UNDP.

An agenda on better governance for sustainable development

Meeting the needs of people today, without compromising those of future generations, requires governance to rise to new levels of effectiveness and develop new capacities for integrated policy-making around a clear vision for sustainable development.

East Asia's dynamic economic performance has benefited hundreds of millions of people, but, as elsewhere in the world, that growth model has also led to environmental degradation, and it has exposed inequalities within nations, as some have clearly benefited far more than others.

There are dimensions to the sustainability challenge where regional frameworks for co-operation and integration are useful, enabling exchange of best practices and innovation, and fostering a sense of shared responsibility for transborder issues.  As a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore has always given strong commitment to regional integration and to South-South co-operation across the grouping. 

The ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Co-operation (APAEC) 2010-2015 is an example of how a regional framework can lead the way, by providing targets for energy security and sustainability, and promoting shared responsibility for the region’s development.    

At the global level, Rio +20 offers an opportunity to strengthen international governance for sustainable development. It could establish a mechanism to evaluate and review progress. UNDP has proposed, as an option, the creation of a Sustainable Development Council.

Such a Council could be equipped with a universal periodic review mechanism, through which countries would review each other’s performance, on a voluntary basis, across the three dimensions of sustainable development. The review could be tailored to the specific circumstances and challenges of each particular country, and might also include an assessment of the international support being provided by the UN and the International Financial Institutions.

A voluntary review mechanism could also be a way of sharing best practice and lessons on how to advance sustainable development.

Ongoing reform of the UN development system can also help developing countries design joined-up policies for sustainable development. A well co-ordinated UN Country Team can offer the integrated policy services which can support countries to tackle cross-cutting issues. It is my hope that Rio+20 and the UN General Assembly’s Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review later this year will both be catalysts for stronger and more effective co-ordination within the UN development system.

South-South and triangular co-operation also have an important role to play in building governance and technical capacities for sustainable development. The Singapore Co-operation Programme has a long tradition of contributing to knowledge exchange through courses, seminars, and workshops in key development areas, including in public governance and administration.  Over the years this Programme has reached out to more than 75,000 government officials from 170 developing countries.

UNDP has been partner of this programme since 1992. We look forward to furthering this partnership, building on Singapore’s expertise in public administration, through South-South and triangular co-operation in the region and beyond.  


Our world has the capacity to design pathways to a future grounded in equitable and sustainable development, which meets the needs of current generations without compromising those of the future.  Rio + 20 in June can set the direction for such development for decades to come, just as the landmark Rio Earth Summit did in 1992.

I note that Singapore played an important role at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, where Ambassador Tommy Koh chaired the Preparatory and Main Committees. I hope that this country’s diplomatic skills will be fully deployed again in the service of a good outcome from Rio+20 this year.

Singapore’s own experience shows how visionary and development-oriented leadership, combined with competent and honest public administration, can drive sustained development results.  That experience can be harnessed in the service of truly equitable and sustainable development across the economic, social, and environmental pillars.

At the United Nations’ MDG Summit in 2010, powerful and compelling development success stories made a big impact, sending delegates home re-energized and with new ideas on how to accelerate their own efforts. Rio+20 also needs to showcase sustainable development achievements in areas such as energy, to show how “triple win” policies can work.

But for these policies to work, governance is important. Political leadership matters, and so does a quality civil service. A nation committed to a vision of equitable and sustainable development, to clean and effective government, to engaging citizens in dialogue about the way ahead and in implementation, and to building the capacities required to drive the vision forward will be a nation which enhances the wellbeing not only of its own citizens, but of our planet as a whole.


[1] From the institutes’ website ‘about us’ http://web1.iseas.edu.sg/?page_id=264

[2] http://www.wssinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/resources/Press-Release-English.pdf

[3] http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/11_MDG%20Report_EN.pdf page 20.

[4] http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/11_MDG%20Report_EN.pdf page 17

[5] “Over the past decade concentration and extent of ozone neither notably decreased nor increased (WMO/UNEP 2010). The ozone layer outside the Polar regions is expected to recover to its pre-1980 levels before 2050.”

http://www.unep.org/geo/pdfs/Keeping_Track.pdf  Page 26

[6] Resilient People, Resilient planet: A Future Worth Choosing” Report of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Sustainable Development, 2012, Page 11 http://www.un.org/gsp/sites/default/files/attachments/GSP_Report_web_final.pdf

[7] http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2011/summary/trends/

[8] World Bank Press release http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:23130032~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html

[9] See UNICEF Working Paper, April 2011, “Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion”, Page 19 http://www.unicef.org/socialpolicy/files/Global_Inequality_REVISED_-_5_July.pdf

[4] World Bank, “Public Safety Net Programme” (http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/ETHIOPIAEXTN/0,,contentMDK:21072837~menuPK:2677615~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:295930,00.html).

[5] Blay, D., et al., Rehabilitation of Degraded Lands in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons Learned from Selected Case Studies, Forestry Research Network For Sub-Saharan Africa, 2004 (http://www.etfrn.org/etfrn/workshop/degradedlands/documents/synthesis_all.pdf)

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