Helen Clark: Aspen Institute Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Lecture on "Making Sense of the World We Live In: The Development Contribution"

Aug 7, 2014

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Aspen Institute Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Lecture
“Making Sense of the World We Live In: The Development Contribution”
Aspen, Colorado

It is a great honour to be asked to give the annual Aspen Institute Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Lecture.  Not only is the Institute prestigious, but also Madeleine, as a trailblazer for women who has excelled at the highest level of public service, is a personal heroine of mine.

The first time I met Madeleine was in August 1998 when she visited New Zealand as Secretary of State.  It was in my fifth year as Leader of the Opposition.  It meant a lot to me at that time that Madeleine made time in her diary to see me.  My nine years as Prime Minister only briefly overlapped with Madeleine’s time as Secretary of State, but I have long followed her no nonsense, straight talking style, and her singular contribution to global diplomacy.

It is appropriate therefore that I should begin with a quote from Madeleine – indeed from the closing paragraph of her book, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 – 1948, which reads:

“I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies to all manner of life's problems – personal, social, political, global. I am deeply suspicious of those who offer simple solutions and statements of absolute certainty or who claim full possession of the truth. Yet I have grown equally skeptical of those who suggest that all is too nuanced and complex for us to learn any lessons, that there are so many sides to everything that we can pursue knowledge every day of our lives and still know nothing for sure.”

These words resonate with me after a lifetime of immersion in politics and public policy.  They also provide a good entry point for the theme I’ve chosen for tonight’s lecture: “Making Sense of the World We Live In: The Development Contribution.”  Yes: the issues our world is grappling with are all complex – but it is vital for those actually engaged in trying to make a difference for the better to move beyond analysis to the practical steps which might help.  Bringing about transformational change is never about one swing of a wheel – it is more likely to be about a series of consecutive moves which over time will change the rules of the game.

That requires one to take the long term view – and nowhere is that more so than in development. But nor is it a new concept – as the old adage coined in medieval France says, “Rome was not built in a day”.

Far from seeing anything built in a day right now, we see a great deal destroyed in a day, a few days, or a great many consecutive days.  It’s hard to remember a time when more crises were jostling for space in the headline news, or when the world’s leading diplomats, like Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General, were engaged in shuttle diplomacy on so many issues simultaneously.

Top of mind by late last month were the conflicts in Gaza and eastern Ukraine, even crowding out the Syrian conflict which is into its fourth year, the control of a significant swathe of Iraq by ISIS, the descent of Libya into a new chapter of crisis, the ongoing horror in South Sudan with fears of famine there growing, attempts to stabilize Central African Republic and Mali, the search for the missing Nigerian school girls, and more.  Even then, this list of current challenges is far from complete – Kenya is suffering a number of terrorist attacks; there is a serious food shortage looming in Somalia, Boko Haram’s activities have spilled over into Cameroon – the list goes on.

Often the global public’s reaction is: can’t the UN do something? And the answer often is – apart from rallying humanitarian and recovery responses, not much.  Geopolitics are such that a military response may not be sanctioned by the Security Council even where it may be appropriate; and, even if it were, raising the funding and the troops required for such responses is already straining the limits of what is possible.  

Yet meeting the costs of humanitarian relief is also proving overwhelming.  Even before this year’s horrors began, 2013 had been a record year for worldwide spending on such relief – not only for people caught up in conflicts, but also for those severely impacted by natural disasters – like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, one of the strongest tropical typhoons ever recorded. It is estimated that US$ 22 billion was spent on it in 2013 – 27 per cent more than in 2012.  Even that sum pales into insignificance when one looks at the human and financial costs to countries affected by these crises.  

The World Bank has estimated that where countries have gone through a civil war, their economies take fourteen years on average to return to original growth paths.  It can also take more than a decade to return to pre-conflict levels of human rights observance.  

A major natural disaster will also impact negatively on an economy. One which has had only fleeting media attention is the “one in a hundred years” flooding in the Balkans, which has knocked 0.9 per cent off Serbia’s already low growth forecast and put it into negative territory.

By the end of June this year, UN co-ordinated appeals for humanitarian crises had already reached $16.4 billion.  This was before the latest conflict in Gaza began, and before a lot of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.  Could this year’s relief expenditure be even more costly than last year’s record level?

These challenges are cause for much reflection.  Could more be done to anticipate, prevent, or mitigate these traumatic events? The short answer is – yes it could, and that there is a compelling need to try to get ahead of the curve of future crises and disasters, to avert huge and costly development setbacks and lives lost.  

This need has been well recognized by leading development actors in several respects.  Lord Ashdown’s report to Britain’s Department for International Development in 2011 called for investments in building resilience to natural disasters to be stepped up.  USAID has also recognized the need to budget more on this, as has the European Commission.  To date, spending on prevention and preparedness for natural disasters remains a small part of global aid budgets.  

Yet rough estimates suggest that for every dollar spent in disaster preparedness and mitigation, seven dollars will be saved when disaster strikes.  Putting in place early warning systems, rapid response capacity, resilient infrastructure and systems, and the government and community capacities to play their part in disaster risk reduction are highly cost effective interventions. UNDP works in those areas and sees the pay off when events of a magnitude which used to take many lives now have much less impact.  Bangladesh and Mozambique are good examples of Least Developed Countries which have had considerable success in this area.  

Clearly averting the humanitarian catastrophe of outbreaks of serious violence is a more difficult task than reducing the risk of natural disasters.  It is also true that spending in fragile states which have been or still are immersed in conflict does absorb a significant amount of global Official Development Assistance.  A good deal of that, however, goes on humanitarian relief, leaving relatively small sums for the longer term investments which might advance inclusive governance, mediate local tensions, and ward off conflict.

In this respect, it is worth reflecting on lessons learned in South Sudan, the recipient of a great deal of donor political and financial support before and since its independence in 2011, and on the similar case of Timor Leste whose independence came in 2002.

In each there was great celebration at the launching of the new states, but nations were yet to be built.  It seems to me that both inherited a legacy of significant internal conflict and a lack of sense of nationhood across the country.  

There was a lot of support for building the institutions of the new states, but that did not respond to the deeper need to build reconciliation and cohesion within them.  Both experienced a renewal of conflict within a very short time after independence.

Perhaps applying lessons learned from Timor Leste, the international community did not withdraw quickly from South Sudan after independence. The fact that the UN’s peacekeepers are there to this day, and opened their gates to desperate people, has probably saved tens of thousands of lives.  But had more systematic support for nation-building, reconciliation, and inclusive governance been pursued from the outset, arguably one-quarter of the population would not now be displaced and the country would not be at risk of famine.

One innovation which the Government of Timor Leste has helped to drive, based on the country’s own experience, is the formation of the “g7+”. This is a grouping of twenty states which self-identify as fragile, and seek engagement with development partners through meaningful compacts to address key challenges.  These two groupings have come together in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS).  At the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in late 2011, they launched what is known as the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.  

South Sudan had engaged in the New Deal process, and in 2011, 2012, and 2013 was working towards signing a compact with donor partners.  As part of that, the country conducted its own “fragility assessment”, which, not surprisingly, pointed to its needs for national dialogue and reconciliation, inclusive politics, and effective and fair justice and security sectors.  In the end, however, the national assessment concluded that the country had emerged from the violent conflict phase of its crisis and was in recovery mode.  Hindsight – always a wonderful thing – tells us that judgment was premature.      

The New Deal approach was premised on having simple and streamlined planning processes, with priorities and mutual accountability agreed on between a government and donors.  In South Sudan a signing was eventually contemplated for late 2013, but the process collapsed under its own weight.  The Government was trying to negotiate not only the compact, but also an IMF programme, World Bank loan and African Development Bank loans, a European Union grant, and a complex pooled fund mechanism.  Our judgment at UNDP is that this would have been a challenge even for much more developed countries with long experience with such instruments.  For South Sudan, it proved overwhelming. Sadly, violent conflict broke out just after the New Deal signing was last postponed, and there is probably little prospect of returning to it in the short term.

What I draw from all this is that to make the investments which need to be made to maintain cohesion within nations, development actors need to be more pragmatic and fleet of foot.  They also need to see development as far more than a technical process. It is ultimately a political process which requires leadership, vision, tolerance, and inclusion for its full benefits to be reaped and for serious setbacks to be averted.  

This insight could be helpful in understanding some of the dynamics at play in the uprisings seen in a number of the Arab States.  Yemen aside, these convulsions have occurred in states which were far from the bottom of UNDP’s Human Development Index – which measures GDP per capita, life expectancy, and years of schooling.  Tunisia, for example, was hailed for its HDI progress in the annual global Human Development Report released just weeks before its uprising.  Yet all these states exhibited varying degrees of exclusion – in economic and social terms and in their governance.  Long term leaders had no obvious successors, and the states concerned were for the most part repressive. The economic faltering in Tunisia and Egypt in the wake of the global financial crisis may have been the tipping point for the uprisings there.

UNDP’s Human Development Reports for the region since 2002 had identified underlying development deficits in freedoms and governance, education, and women’s empowerment. The 2009 Report highlighted major challenges in human security including high rates of youth unemployment. In effect, trouble was predicted if the development deficits weren’t addressed. It is the way of the world, however, that these reports have received far more attention since 2011 than they did in the nine years before.

As development practitioners, we in UNDP work in many such settings. What I observe is that if a process of inclusion and change is not embraced by a country’s leadership, sooner or later change will be forced upon it.  That may come at a terrible cost in human life and to economies – as we are witness to in this second decade of the 21st century. The outcome of such convulsions may be very uncertain. Things may get a great deal worse before they get better. And they may not get better for a very long time.

This leads me to the development contribution which can be made to building the peace and stability which are the foundations for sustainable development. Let me set this in the context of the emerging post-2015 development agenda and how it could include priorities which aim to avert development setbacks and thereby support steady progress.

Many here will be aware that the Millennium Developments Goals, which are largely drawn from the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 2000, are due to run their course by the end of next year. What should replace them is the subject of a major global debate. The UN development system has led worldwide outreach on this through online surveys, social media, and many national consultations. We estimate that around three million people have engaged, to date, as have all Member States.

There is a lot to play for. Global agendas at their best can set priorities, and mobilise partnerships, money, and action around them. The MDGs caught the world’s imagination in those ways. The evidence suggests that on the health targets set in the MDGs, progress in reducing mortality is faster than the trends before the MDGs would have produced. I also have little doubt that the huge focus on enrolling children in school has been beneficial in getting close to universal primary school enrolment.  Would the global average of women elected to national parliament now stand at 22 per cent if a target of thirty per cent had not been set to galvanize action? The number stood at under 14 per cent in late 2000.  Where global goals are clear, measurable, and easily communicated, they can get real traction, as a number of the MDGs have.

The post-2015 agenda is shaping up to be bolder and more transformational than the MDGs were. There is a desire to go to zero on eradication of extreme poverty, children out of school, and hunger and malnutrition, and to finish other unfinished business of the MDGs. But this will also be a sustainable development agenda: focused on how to pursue economic and social progress within nature’s boundaries.

A major question is: will it also pursue sustainability of progress based on inclusive, equitable, and peaceful societies? Will it address the world’s high levels of inequalities and marginalization, and issues of the rule of law, access to justice, and accountable governance? Will it address disaster risk reduction and the drivers of conflict? It is deficits in all these areas which can and do produce major development setbacks. Human development is not just about lifting people out of poverty. It is about keeping them out of poverty and that requires all the above issues to be addressed.

In July, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Developments Goals appointed by the UN General Assembly completed its report on the shape of the post-2015 agenda. It includes a proposed goal to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. The targets it recommends include promotion of the rule of law and participatory and representative decision making, tackling corruption, and promoting and enforcing laws against discrimination. There are also a number of useful references to the importance of disaster risk reduction.

I welcome this recognition of the need to address the drivers of long term development. If the cycle of major humanitarian crises is to be broken, then more peaceful, cohesive, and resilient nations which can sustain development progress need to be built. Significant deficits in governance, major inequalities and exclusions, and unmitigated exposure to natural disasters are setting countries back time and time again. But these deficits can be addressed. And a major step towards addressing them can be to prioritise them in the post-2015 development agenda.

I have already alluded to the practical steps which can be taken to reduce the risks posed by natural hazards.  Similarly practical steps can be taken to support inclusive governance, establish the rule of law, and uphold human rights.  Around the world UNDP has worked to expand access to justice, establish effective institutions – including national human rights institutions, support countries to meet their international human rights convention obligations – including on the equal rights of women, encourage interaction between civil society and government, develop the capacity of parliaments to scrutinise government spending and actions, and conduct fair and transparent elections.  All of this work is an investment in peace and stability, enabling rights to be upheld and differences to be resolved peacefully.  When states are emerging from conflict, such investments are a critical part of their recovery, as of course are determined efforts to grow inclusive economies and jobs and livelihoods.   

So – where from here on the 2015 global development agenda? The Open Working Group report is an important step in a long journey. The UN Secretary-General must now produce a synthesis report on the debate so far, and then Member State negotiations will begin. The aim is to have a new agenda for world leaders to sign in New York in September 2015.

I am proud to have been among those Heads of Government who signed the Millennium Declaration in 2000. I hope that the current generation of leaders will take as much pride in setting global development priorities through to 2030.

I don’t underestimate, however, the magnitude of the task of negotiating such an agenda. We live in a multipolar world with many fractures and with multilateralism under a lot of pressure. It has not proved easy to negotiate outcomes at the Commissions on the Status of Women and on Population and Development in recent times, nor in major multilateral trade and climate talks.

Many of the key issues involved in building peaceful and cohesive societies and the rule of law are controversial. The ongoing resistance in some quarters to the full empowerment and equality of women and to sexual and reproductive health and rights is disturbing.

Whatever the outcome of the global negotiations on post-2015, UNDP will get on with its work. We are mandated to help build sustainable development pathways, democratic governance, and resilient nations. That includes working in all the areas I have identified as being controversial in the current global context.

This work has a long time frame, particularly where societies have fallen into an abyss, like South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Syria. The rebuilding, when it can occur, will take decades. That is all the more reason now to be scanning the horizon with conflict-sensitive analysis to see where the precursors of   upheaval are present and how they might be addressed.

It is my hope that with strong partnerships and goodwill, we can work for a world by 2030 when we do not see tragedies like those of today dominating our headlines. But our world will need a sea change on inclusive and effective governance, equity, human rights, and the rule of law to achieve that. As development actors, we can play our part, but those who lead countries and those who aspire to lead must also play theirs.

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