Helen Clark: Kapuscinski Lecture Helsinki

May 7, 2012

Remarks by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator,

For the Kapuściński Development Lectures,

“Sustainable Development: From shared principles to practice”

University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

Monday 7 May, 10.45am



I thank the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the University of Helsinki for co-organising and hosting this event. In doing so, you continue a well-established European tradition of broadly engaging citizens, and in particular young people, in debate on development issues.

Through its partnership with the European Union, I am pleased that UNDP has been able to contribute to this tradition. I understand that over the last three years, the EU and UNDP have co-organised Kapuściński development lectures in the universities of more than twenty European countries, including twelve of the European Union’s newest members.  

I thank President Halonen for the leadership she has long given on sustainable development – as President of Finland and in ministerial capacities; as a trade union leader and a champion for human rights, including women’s rights; and recently also as co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. I congratulate President Halonen on the Report her Panel provided to the Secretary-General early this year, for which she continues to be an invaluable advocate.


The Report’s clear recommendations and unflinching assessment of what needs to be done to achieve global sustainability has grabbed headlines, refocused minds, and helped to shake off complacency about the course our world is currently on. Its ideas inform on-going preparations for the Rio+20 Summit, and continue to spark debate and discussion in communities and countries around the world.

As movements for women’s rights, civil rights, people-centred development, environmental protection, and many other causes have shown, debate and controversy are among the necessary precursors of change. The more it matters and the greater the need for change, the more intense the debate which is generated.

The cause to be advanced at the Rio + 20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development next month encompasses humanity’s most pressing challenge: how to accelerate human progress while sustaining the ecosystems of the one planet we have to live on. The international community convening in Rio needs to commit to a new, more equitable, and sustainable course. 

In keeping with the spirit of this lecture series, and with the reputation of Ryszard Kapuściński whose name it bears, my address today is a contribution to the debate about “the future we want” - which is the byline for Rio +20. Ryszard Kapuściński said in an interview six years ago that: “We know everything about the global problem of poverty, but what we can't figure out is how to reduce it in practical terms. [The moment we try] there appear obstacles that cannot be surmounted and interests one cannot go against”. The same could be said about the barriers in the way of achieving sustainable development.

That is why Rio +20 needs to be practical: it needs to connect our aspirations for a sustainable world with what is needed to realise them. My lecture today will focus on these issues.

A successful outcome of Rio +20 will make it much harder for the urgency of growing global challenges to be ignored. A better understanding of the threats to our planet and human progress should trigger a collective resolve to tackle them. Perhaps governments, civil society, and the private sector alike may rediscover the solidarity and determination to make a better future which brought the founders of the United Nations together in 1945. We could together rally around sustainable development solutions - agreeing to scale up what already is working around the world, set ambitious global goals to advance equity and sustainability, and adopt ways of measuring the progress – or lack of it – being made.

For this to happen, whole-of-government approaches and integrated policy making will need to become second nature – and must be guided by far-sighted and properly funded strategies to achieve equitable and sustainable development. This is a challenge for any country. For many developing countries, dedicated support for capacity building and funding support from development partners will be critical.

Ryszard Kapuściński, for all his extraordinary talent, optimism, and deep humanity, was understandably daunted by the task of overcoming the scourge of poverty. We too can all be overwhelmed by the scope of what must be done to build a more equitable and sustainable world. But opting out is not an option. There are practical steps we can take at every level from the individual to the national and multilateral which will make a difference.

Before looking specifically at what could be accomplished in Rio, I will comment on how sustainable development went from being a novel idea in 1972 to the widely accepted concept it is today, and outline some of the challenges and the need for urgency in putting sustainable development into practice.

1.     Evolution of the concept sustainable development

The UN began making the link between development and environmental protection in 1972, with the UN World Conference on the Human Environment, which was initiated by Sweden and held in Stockholm.

A number of countries before and at Stockholm spoke of environmental protection as a threat to ‘industrialization’ and ‘economic modernization’. The outcome of Stockholm turned that on its head, presenting development as a cure for and not the cause of environmental problems. It connected the problems of poverty - including unsafe drinking water, inadequate housing, and ill-health - with environmental degradation.

In 1987 the Brundtland Commission, named after its Chair, Gro Harlem Brundtland, three times Prime Minister of Norway, went one step further, defining sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This definition linked the concept to a fundamental tenet of justice: that no one should be denied the ability or opportunity to live lives they value because of their gender, ethnicity, or any other factor, including, in this case, the generation in which they happen to be born.

Defining the concept in justice terms was important for the outcome of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The record numbers of participating world leaders at that UN Conference were able to strike a balance between developing and developed countries’ priorities, in part by agreeing that “human beings, at the centre of sustainable development, are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.”

This suggests that the global Human Development Reports, first launched by UNDP just two years earlier in 1990, were becoming influential. These reports, and the human development paradigm which supports them, put people firmly at the centre of development. They argue that development is about much more than expanding incomes; it is also about expanding people’s freedoms and capabilities to make choices.

The concept of sustainable development could become mainstream because of the realisation that it is about advancing human progress while maintaining ecosystems’ integrity. Fundamentally, sustainable development should not be about trading economic, social, and environmental objectives off against each other, but rather about seeing them as interconnected objectives which can be and are best pursued together.

In my opinion, promoting sustainable development suffers from often being understood as being only about or mainly about the environment.

That slows progress on it, in part because environment ministries are not always able to advance what are, by definition, cross-sectoral objectives, and are often far from being the strongest ministries in governments. Meeting economic and social objectives remains central to the hard-won global consensus around sustainable development, forged over the past four decades.

The legacy of that effort is to be found in landmark conventions on climate change, biological diversity, and desertification, and in agreement on the some 900 legal instruments which today help people around the world defend their right to a clean and healthy environment. 

The Global Environment Facility was established at the Earth Summit, as was the ambitious Agenda 21 programme of action which has guided many governments, including here in Finland and across Europe, to establish sustainable development strategies.

The Millennium Development Goals of 2000 are also broadly based across the pillars of sustainability, although the post-2015 development agenda offers opportunities to reframe them to be more specifically focused on equity & sustainability as twin objectives.  

2. Falling short on implementation

While undoubtedly there has been progress on human development over the decades, and important progress on environmental conventions and instruments has been made, the inconvenient truth is that ending poverty remains a vast and unfinished agenda; and that inequality is increasing in many countries. The multiple crises which have gripped the world in recent years have exacerbated the challenges of human development, and have shown our planet’s economic, social, and eco-systems to be under considerable stress.

The Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, co-chaired by President Halonen, concluded that overall implementation of “sustainable development has undoubtedly suffered from a failure of political will and the lack of incentives to put it into practice.” It asserts that this is in part because “our policies, politics, and institutions disproportionately reward the short term.”

A recent review by UNDP found that although “there is little challenge to the idea that integrating development and environmental policy can result in cost-effective policy options, with benefits across sectors”, governments are often reluctant. The review’s findings suggest that this is due to the high initial political and fiscal costs of shifting resources, and/or the complexity of identifying the best possible combinations of policies across sectors.

The lack of integrated planning for sustainable development may also be due, as was pointed out by the High Level Panel, to the fact that economists, environmentalists, and poverty and social-cause activists can have difficulty “speaking the same language or at least dialect.”   

That needs to change – and fast.

3. The urgency of putting shared principles into practice

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded in a recent report that increases in extreme weather are already a discernible trend. The depletion of natural resources and more frequent natural disasters pose a real and growing threat to development progress.

The severe droughts in Sahel countries and flooding in Pakistan bring these findings home. In both these cases, the brunt of the disaster has been borne by the poorest and most vulnerable people.

At the expert level, there is broad agreement that, without urgent action, the world will move beyond what scientists have termed its ‘planetary boundaries’. Beyond that point, there is risk of ‘irreversible and abrupt environmental change’ – to climate, biodiversity, the supply of freshwater, and more.

We can, however, take heart from the action taken collectively to stay within a critical planetary boundary – that of the ozone shield.  

Not long ago, fear ran high over the diminishing ozone shield protecting us from harmful ultraviolet rays. The threat grabbed headlines and became a topic for public debate around the world. Industry warned that abolishing ozone-destroying chemicals would impose unbearable costs.  

The cost of action is now barely mentioned.

That is because in 1987 world leaders stepped up to the plate and agreed to phase out the substances which were destroying the ozone layer. Substitute chemicals were invented. Economic ruin never arrived. Ozone levels in the atmosphere have since stabilized, and the hole over Antarctica is expected to heal by 2050.

Thus, action was taken to stay within that planetary boundary without impeding human progress. We can repeat this with other planetary boundaries if we collectively set our minds to doing so.

All of us are vulnerable to the consequences of breaching planetary boundaries, but the world’s one billion people living in extreme poverty face disproportionate risks and have the least capacity to reduce those risks. Environmental disaster affecting poor communities inflicts loss of life and/or livelihoods, and can put development into reverse gear. According to the WHO, the repercussions of environmental factors, including unclean water and inadequate sanitation, are among the ten leading causes of disease worldwide.

To protect natural resources and reduce environmental stress, the world will also need to reduce inequity and poverty. 

Poverty can reinforce cycles of environmental destruction. The poor in Haiti, for example, desperate for income and fuel, harvested trees, leaving vast areas denuded, damaging agricultural potential, and further exacerbating rural poverty.

Studies, including those conducted by UNDP, suggest that countries with high income polarization and inequality may be more likely to have social conflict and adopt unsustainable policies. They are also less likely to invest in policies which are in the wider public interest.

As the world population rises, inequality expands, environmental degradation accelerates, and old economic models falter, sustainable development – far from being a distant ideal – should be seen as an opportunity to address urgent global challenges concurrently. That opportunity could be taken at Rio +20.

4. Making the shift: what can be usefully done in Rio?

I referred earlier to Kapuściński’s concern of how to act to make a difference. So decision-makers in Rio will need to overcome the obstacles and deal with the vested interests which get in the way of practical solutions to the sustainability challenge. From our experiences at UNDP of supporting countries to implement sustainable development, we have learned a good deal about the obstacles, and have much to share on how they can be overcome.  

A.     Willingness to act is a critical factor …

We have learned that the willingness of governments to act can be undermined by short-term thinking and high upfront costs.

Rio + 20 can make it clear that there are heavy costs of doing business as usual, and increase understanding of sustainable development as a practical opportunity to achieve efficiencies, accelerate development, and establish the resilience every country needs. I strongly believe that the green economy, for example, can be a driver of inclusive growth, decent work, innovation, and exports of new goods and services.

(a)            Showcasing and sharing best practice in sustainable development at Rio +20 and beyond

By implementing what UNDP describes as “triple win” policies and programming across the pillars of sustainable development, a number of countries are advancing their economic, social, and environmental objectives simultaneously. They demonstrate the potential which such initiatives have to go to scale.

·       Ethiopia, for example, has established a Productive Safety Net programme which to date has provided cash and predictable food supplies to more than eight million beneficiaries in three hundred food-insecure districts. In return, beneficiaries participate in public works for environmental conservation, water management, and terracing – helping to protect the environment while generating jobs and securing livelihoods for the rural poor.

Countries are increasingly including environmental components like these in their social protection systems. Initiatives with similar features in Haiti, South Africa, India, and Brazil are helping to reduce poverty and vulnerability, preserve the environment, and advance human development.

Ethiopia is also an example of a country which has launched an ambitious “Climate Resilient, Green Economy" strategy. It intends to invest US $150 billion over the next two decades in creating a zero-carbon growth economy. This is inspirational.

·       Energy policy is a rich area for exploring “triple win” approaches. By expanding sustainable energy for all, we advance the three pillars of sustainable development!

-        the economic : by creating jobs and livelihoods and stimulating the economy;

-        the social : by lessening the burden of domestic chores on women, and bringing benefits for health status, education, and enabling economic empowerment; and

-        the environmental : by reducing the reliance on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, we reduce deforestation, and through renewable energy overall we reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Access to sustainable energy is the key to better health, education, economic growth, and environmental sustainability. Yet one in every five persons worldwide does not currently have access to electricity, and around one in every three uses traditional biomass for cooking and heating.

2012 has been designated as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All by the UN General Assembly. The Secretary-General has launched an initiative to that end with three targets:

·       achieving universal access to modern energy services;

·       doubling energy efficiency by 2030

·       doubling the contribution of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.


Inspiration for achieving these targets can be found in many countries. In Nepal the Rural Energy Development Programme, introduced in 1996, has brought modern energy services to some one million people in mainly rural communities. The households in these communities are now, on average, healthier, have higher incomes, and enjoy cheaper energy.

The programme began as a small pilot, working with community members to establish community-owned and managed micro-hydropower stations. It now reaches all 75 districts in Nepal and is expected to generate fifteen per cent of its electricity. This happened because local communities looking to replicate the success of their neighbours assumed an ever greater proportion of the costs.


By covering the upfront costs needed to set this in motion - including extensive capacity development - the government of Nepal and international donors played a catalytic role.


Once people, communities, and countries understand its concrete benefits, sustainable development initiatives gather momentum of their own. To keep that going, UNDP is releasing a set of case studies ahead of Rio which illustrate how “triple win” policies work in practice and how they can be brought to scale.


Success stories can inspire and equip stakeholders with new ideas and a frame of reference for the future.

(b)            Achieving and setting global goals for sustainable development

The MDGs have clarity of purpose and have attracted broad international support and engagement. Inherent in their success is that they are time bound, specific, and easy to communicate.


Now, the conversation has begun about what the global development agenda could look like after the 2015 target date for the MDGs.


It seems likely that Rio +20 will give support to the establishment of sustainable development goals. They should build on the successful attributes of the MDGs, and be committed to tackling the unfinished business of the MDGs.


Efforts to accelerate MDG progress by 2015 should not cease. Three years remain during which more countries can achieve more MDG targets.



The UN will be facilitating inclusive consultations around the post-2015 agenda. We will bring to the table the MDG experience, and seek to engage a broad range of stakeholders, including through the now widespread social networks, web-based tools, and mobile technologies. A transparent, participatory, and inclusive process can help generate broad ownership and strengthen the engagement and commitment of citizens, businesses, and governments alike.


 (c) Measuring what we value


The Global Sustainability Panel noted that “what cannot be measured, cannot be managed”. Rio+20 could provide the impetus for establishing a new holistic measure of sustainable development progress.

The Human Development Index is a people-centred measure which incorporates education, health, and income indicators. It could be the foundation for a new sustainable development index or set of indicators.

Small increases above environmental thresholds or 'tipping points' have the potential to result in catastrophic natural disaster. Our societies also have such tipping points, past which inequities and extreme poverty can lead to violent conflict. Better measures can alert us to these dangers, and encourage action to ward off disaster.

B.     Overcoming the obstacles : linking ideals to action

Real world examples, global goals, and measures of progress show what is possible and can impel action.

To achieve a step change in sustainable development, however, and to make good practice the rule not the exception, the capacity of countries and local communities to plan ahead and act effectively needs to be strengthened; putting incentives for sustainability in place could help; and broad coalitions and new partnerships will be needed to mobilise and sustain action at the scale required.

(d)            Developing capacities for change

One way leaders in Rio can support a step change is by agreeing on the need for capacity development support for developing countries which are establishing national strategies and initiatives for sustainable development.


As recognised in a peer review of Germany’s sustainable development policies, to do this governments need to “identify benchmarks, establish clear lines of accountability, and engage the full range of stakeholders to implement a vision … with a mix of regulation, innovation, and persuasion.” This requires new skills and capacities.

In partnership with the EU, UNDP is currently supporting 24 countries to develop national sustainable development strategies which recognise the links between development choices and climate change responses. We support governments to identify the scenarios and actions which will enable them to meet national development priorities – while reducing current or future carbon emissions. By working within UN Country Teams, we can bring the full range of UN expertise to bear, including from the WHO, UNICEF, the UN Environment Programme, and other agencies.

Climate finance undoubtedly will play a part in funding aspects of sustainable development strategies. But to access that finance, countries must currently navigate a maze of more than fifty international public funds, sixty carbon markets, and some 6,000 private equity funds. They must meet diverse criteria for funding, and they need to be able to use public funds in a catalytic way to leverage additional – in most cases private -investment.

Without adequate local and national capacities, many countries will continue to miss out on these funding opportunities, as has been the experience with the Clean Development Mechanism defined in the Kyoto Protocol.  

Recognition at Rio + 20 of the need to provide dedicated funding for capacity building in such areas would be very helpful.


(d)            Financing for sustainable development


The lowest estimate of the total annual mitigation and adaptation costs of addressing climate change alone by 2030 is $249 billion. Cost estimates of achieving the water and sanitation targets in the MDGs range from $6.7 billion a year to $75 billion.

The lingering impact of the global economic and financial crisis has put pressure on traditional development co-operation budgets. Uncertainty also exists over the volume and allocation of future climate finance. 

Public finance alone will not be able to provide all the resources required for sustainable development - including tackling climate change, nor will market forces generate all that is required.

Public and private financing must work in concert. Proactive public investment must grow countries’ abilities to generate budget revenues and leverage private financing.


As agreed at the Aid Effectiveness Conference in Busan last November, ODA must increasingly play a catalytic role in development. I emphasize again that it can be usefully directed to building the capacities, institutions, and enabling environment which will assist developing countries to leverage much larger scale private investment for climate-resilient and sustainable development.


(f) Establishing incentives and removing disincentives


Rio + 20 should give impetus to removing or redesigning incentives which currently reinforce unsustainable practices. Governments, for example, spend nearly one trillion U.S. dollars annually on environmentally unsustainable subsidies, including for fossil fuel use. Abolishing or curtailing these subsidies would promote both economic and environmental sustainability, but the social impact on the poor would need to be mitigated for this approach to be acceptable.


To shift their economies to more sustainable ways of consuming and producing, governments must also send clear and consistent signals to the private sector.


Governments spend nearly five trillion dollars annually on public procurement. By setting social and environmental standards in procurement policies, governments can encourage the private sector to produce and consume more sustainable goods and services.


To channel private investment towards sustainable and equitable outcomes, governments must change the ‘rules of the game’ - incentivizing companies to compete, for example, on the basis of innovation and resource conservation.

UNDP is supporting a shift in Indonesia to sustainable palm oil production on land which is already abandoned and degraded. Effecting such a shift could reduce poverty, while also preserving existing forests and natural resources. For that to happen, however, sustainable production needs to become more profitable than business-as-usual. A mix of incentives and disincentives could support that, and Indonesia’s innovative REDD + partnership with Norway can also play a part. Investments in agricultural inputs also help small sustainable producers to be more productive.


(g)            Responsive & inclusive governing institutions for sustainable development


 Leaders in Rio could acknowledge that to facilitate sustainable development in the 21st century, our global, national, and local governing institutions need be improved.  


i.                 from local to global:


Local and national governments are more likely to implement sustainable development solutions when they are responsive and accountable to the people who depend on healthy eco-systems for their livelihoods and well-being.

Triple win policy experiences demonstrate the power of approaches which integrate equity and sustainability and empower people from the bottom up to bring about change. To work at scale, governments must be able to engage citizens and ensure that national strategies and policies reflect local perspectives and realities. 

To ensure that locally owned and driven initiatives are not overridden by more powerful vested interests, citizens, communities, and countries also need to be able to cry foul when efforts to implement sustainable development are undermined.

There are many international treaties and conventions which have enshrined the rights of people to pursue all three pillars of sustainable development. To ensure that they work on the ground for the people who need them most, however, justice systems and human rights institutions must function well, enabling people to be heard and to invoke their rights.


ii. from global to local:


An effective UN can also help countries translate their sustainable development plans and commitments into practice.


Rio +20 could give further impetus to a well co-ordinated UN development system, which applies the breath of its expertise to supporting developing countries to design and implement integrated policies for sustainable development.


UN Country Teams working collaboratively can better provide integrated support, address cross-cutting issues, and play the role of impartial broker - bringing government, private sector, local stakeholders, and others together to advance sustainable development.


Rio +20 could also decide to establish an appropriate mechanism to evaluate and review global progress towards sustainable development. Through such a mechanism, countries could 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 of each country and include an assessment of the support provided by the UN and the International Financial Institutions.


Such a voluntary review mechanism could also be a way of sharing best practice and lessons learned on how to advance sustainable development. I understand Europe’s own peer review mechanism for sustainable development serves this purpose.



(h)            New partnerships for action:


In 1992 Rio set a precedent for including civil society and private sector actors in a major UN Conference. Twenty years later at Rio +20, voices from outside governments will play an important role. With more actors involved in and able to influence development outcomes than ever before, responsibility and accountability should extend to all parties. Private sector actors, for example, have been asked to come to the table with new and higher standard of voluntary reporting on their own sustainability actions.




Many people around the world are adjusting their lifestyles to minimize their own ecological footprint. Yet, while important, that is not enough on its own.


For our actions to add up to truly sustainable development, we need common goals to inspire us; evidence to illuminate the way forward; and institutions to bring us together across sectors. Working together, we could build a future we want which brings peace, generates equitable and vibrant societies and economies, and ensures a healthy environment for current and future generations.


Rio+20 could provide the roadmap for that. It could help us get past short-term thinking by empowering citizens and establishing farsighted goals and strategies. It could drive us to do business more equitably and sustainably.


Kapuściński wrote about failing leaders and poverty, and experienced much tragedy - yet he remained an optimist. He observed that it was witnessing, “good will towards other human beings” which best “rattled us in the rope of humanity.”


We need to ‘rattle decision-makers’ into the rope of humanity so that, in making decisions, they consider how those decisions will contribute to making our societies and economies more inclusive and sustainable. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner and seminal thinker behind the human development paradigm, has suggested that our future may well depend on our ability to expand the “boundaries of justice”, so that economics is no longer divorced from social and environmental considerations, and policy-making is no longer divorced from shared principles and conscientious reflection. If Rio+20 helped us to expand those “boundaries of justice”, then it would have helped a great deal to advance human development within planetary boundaries. I hope it does just that.

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