Helen Clark: From Rio to 2015 and beyond: Charting a course for a fairer world

Jun 21, 2012

Remarks for Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
From Rio to 2015 and Beyond:
Charting a Course for a Fairer World
Rio de Janeiro, Thursday, 21 June 2012
11:00a.m. – 12:30p.m.

It is a pleasure to speak at today’s event “From Rio to 2015 and Beyond: Charting a Course for a Fairer World.”  At the outset allow me to thank Prime Minister Erdogan and the Government of Turkey for partnering with UNDP across a number of initiatives.

In March, Turkey and UNDP co-organized our first Global Human Development Forum, bringing together more than two hundred participants from across the globe. They represented a range of sectors: government, academia, civil society, international organizations, and business.  In debate and dialogue in Istanbul, they explored the intersection of the “human development” and “sustainable development” paradigms.

The “Istanbul Declaration: Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Future for All”, which emerged from deliberations at the Forum, is the starting point of our discussion today. 

The Declaration affirmed that: “Development must be with and for the people, equitable, inclusive, and human rights driven”, and called for a new vision which would promote the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic, and environmental – simultaneously and put people at the centre of development processes. 

But what does it mean to “put people at the centre of development”?

UNDP argues that development is about far more than growth in GDP per capita, and that it must lead to tangible and positive changes in people’s lives.  Human development is a process of enlarging people’s choices and freedoms. It is about enabling them to live long and healthy lives, be educated, and have a decent standard of living.

Thus, putting people at the centre of development is about affirming that the health and well-being of people is ultimately what matters.  This concept has been at the heart of the human development paradigm promoted by UNDP since the first global Human Development Report in 1990.

The 1995 Human Development Report said of human development that: “At the heart of this concept are three essential components:

  • Equality of opportunity for all people in society.
  • Sustainability of such opportunities from one generation to the next.
  • Empowerment of people so that they participate in – and benefit from – development processes.”

Sustainability, equity, and empowerment were reaffirmed as core elements of the human development paradigm in the twentieth anniversary Human Development Report in 2010, and are critical and relevant today as we meet in Rio. 

What can be observed from advancement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and from evaluating trends in human development over the last few decades is that while on average people are healthier, wealthier, and better educated than ever before, development progress is uneven with significant disparities existing both between and within countries.  

Last year’s global Human Development Report issued a stark warning that unless both greater equity and environmental sustainability are prioritised, human development progress will slow, and some regions may witness a reversal in human development.  

But sustainability, equity, and empowerment are central not only to the human development paradigm; they are central to advancing sustainable development, and they must help shape discussion on the post-2015 development agenda.  I am pleased that these principles featured prominently in both the Istanbul Declaration, and in the 2012 report of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, helping to bind what happens here at Rio with the human development agenda for years to come.

The topic of today’s discussion, Charting a Course for a Fairer World, invites us to delve further into the notion of fairness, to define what we want to strive for, as well as outline how we could do so.

Implicit in the notion of fairness are inter- and intra- generational equity.  We can think about two ‘distinct’ dimensions:

  • one concerned with how policies impact on the distribution of well-being for today’s citizens of North and South, men and women, people of different ethnic and other groups; and,
  • one concerned with how these same policies, will impact on the well-being of future generations.   

In the lead up to Rio, I have continually said that sustainable development need not be about trading economic, social, and environmental objectives off against each other, but rather that these interconnected objectives can and must be pursued simultaneously. 

In line with this approach UNDP has just published a report titled “Triple Wins for Sustainable Development,” which demonstrates through case studies how policies and initiatives can work in synergy to advance the three pillars of sustainable development - economic, social, and environmental – simultaneously.

But, just as these three objectives should not be seen as competing objectives, nor should promoting inter-generational and intra-generational equity be seen as requiring policies at odds with each other.

Evidence suggests that promoting greater equity today (intra-generational equity), a noble goal in its own right, leads to better outcomes for people, communities, and the environment, which is critical for inter-generational equity too.   

In their 2009 book “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated that more equal societies do better on most measures of human wellbeing, and that these benefits are accrued not only by the poorest, but also by all segments of society.  Similar findings are to be released in the upcoming Human Development Report, based on a larger set of countries - both developed and developing, showing that human development achievements are on average lower for countries with higher inequality.

A major essay on "Income Inequality and the Conditions of Chronic Poverty" in a recent UNDP publication ("Towards Human Resilience: Sustaining MDG Progress in an Age of Economic Uncertainty", UNDP, New York, September 2011) describes the potential mechanisms involved, asserting that: "High and rising inequality also reduces the likelihood that economic and social policies fostering inclusive growth and human development will be delivered and implemented. For instance richer groups may secure economically inefficient advantages such as regressive taxes or an allocation of public funds for their own interest rather than for that of the country."

This concern has been raised by a range of leading thinkers, from Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz to Robert Putnam, who postulate that more unequal societies, where levels of trust and social cohesion are low, are less likely to invest in public goods and infrastructure – such as conserving the environment, public health, or improving education systems yet such investments are critical for the well-being of current and future generations.

When we think about sustaining development, we must take into account the stocks of our capital – economic, human, social, and environmental – and how much of those stocks we are bequeathing our children.  Rising inequality can have a negative impact on all of them. 

At times, this impact is highly visible - when rising inequality, for example, leads to violence and armed conflict with human, social, economic, and environmental costs, and blight an entire society’s development trajectory.  At other times, the impact may be less visible, but rising inequality nonetheless may be leading to the rich and poor in a society living such separate lives that they cannot imagine a shared future worth working for together, and therefore cannot take the steps needed to achieve it. 

As Joseph Stiglitz reminds us: “growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity.” 

Today’s side event is about understanding these inter-connections in ways which will help develop policies to expand opportunity and build a fairer future.

The human development approach can guide policy makers to focus on what matters most – better lives for people.  It provides a lens through which governments can think about policies – a lens which highlights linkages between different goals, and helps foster “whole-of-government” solutions to “whole-of-society” challenges.  There is no bigger such challenge than that of sustainable development.

In closing let me offer a concrete example on how a “triple win” set of policies can work – drawn from many examples:   

India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees a minimum of one hundred days work a year to eligible rural poor; sets a minimum quota for women’s participation in the scheme; and prioritises work on environmental sustainability, including water and reforestation. Women also have thirty per cent representation guaranteed on the village councils which determine the work to be done.  The scheme simultaneously empowers women, provides jobs and incomes, and implements projects which have a positive impact on the environment now and in the future. 

I look forward to hearing from others in the room on initiatives and policies they are implementing which also simultaneously promote economic, social, and environmental objectives, and set out to tackle inequality explicitly across different dimensions: gender, income, ethnicity, and geographical location, to name but a few.  

We can learn from each other and work together - governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and academia - to deliver smarter, and better integrated policies and initiatives which recognize the complexity of the challenges we face. 


The Istanbul Declaration recognized the need to maintain progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, while also building consensus for a refreshed post-2015 development agenda. It is to be hoped that consensus will be found in that agenda around the fundamental principles of equity, sustainability, and empowerment.


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