Helen Clark: Speech at the Off-The-Record Lecture Series on “Striving for a Better Future: Addressing Inequality, Volatility, and Fragility”

Sep 10, 2014

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
at the
Off-The-Record Lecture Series
“Striving for a Better Future:
Addressing Inequality, Volatility, and Fragility”
United Nations, New York

I am pleased to deliver the opening lecture of the season – which I understand to be Off-The-Record's (OTR) 77th in the series.  I am honoured to take part in this, the oldest, women’s foreign policy lectures in the United States.

The high-level week at the General Assembly is the busiest week in the year for the United Nations in New York, as many of you who have experienced the traffic jams in the city in the past know so well!  This year the week will include the Secretary General’s Climate Summit, the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and a special session on the follow up to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development – the 1994 Cairo Conference.

These events are just the start of a critical year for the 69th session of the General Assembly. With the Millennium Development Goals set to expire at the end of next year, it is hoped that a renewed and ambitious global development agenda for the post-2015 era can be finalized in time for a meeting of world leaders to agree on next September.  

In July, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals appointed by the General Assembly completed its report on the shape of the post-2015 agenda. It proposed seventeen areas of goals which, taken together, aim to achieve economic and social progress within nature’s boundaries.  Prior to the presentation of this report, there were also good recommendations for the post-2015 agenda made by a High-Level Panel appointed by the Secretary-General, and there has been huge outreach to the global public on the agenda facilitated by the UN development system. Nearly five million people have responded to the global on-line survey, and many were involved in face-to-face national consultations.

The UN Secretary-General is due to release his synthesis report on what is emerging from the post-2015 discussions before the end of this year. Member State negotiations on the agenda will begin in the coming months.

A major conference on financing for development, the “Third International Conference on Financing for Development”, will be held in Addis Ababa in July. As the global agenda will need to be backed by access to funding, the outcome of this conference will be critical.

The post-2015 agenda needs to be:
•    aspirational and inspirational to galvanize bold action to eradicate poverty and pursue sustainable development; and,
•    evidence-based and well resourced to get the best results.

If the new agenda supports the building of more equitable, inclusive, resilient, and well-governed societies, then one hopes that the complex emergencies in countries in crisis which are dominating our headlines today will become far less frequent.

We live in turbulent times – it is hard to remember a time when more crises were simultaneously preoccupying the United Nations, its agencies, and the broader international community. From Syria to Iraq, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Gaza, Libya, Ukraine, and more, civilians have been caught up in vicious conflicts and human development has been rolled back.

Now the Ebola outbreak in West Africa calls for a huge response by all partners, and there are also warnings about another very challenging year for food supply and nutrition in South and Central Somalia.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of progress has been made in many countries on lifting people out of poverty and creating opportunities for work, education, and access to basic services. Overall, as measured by the Human Development Index, people are more prosperous, better educated, and living longer than ever before.

But, for many, the gains are precarious and subject to setbacks from war and conflict, natural disasters, or other shocks. For others, gross inequalities have not spread the gains their countries have made as far as them, and they remain as poor as they ever were.

For the new Sustainable Development Goals to go beyond what the MDGs have achieved and have a truly transformational impact, they will need to address major underlying barriers to development like inequality, lack of resilience to volatile circumstances, and fragility in the social fabric, structures, and governance of societies. These are big challenges, which I now address in turn.


In January this year, UNDP released a major report on inequality in developing countries. Titled “Humanity Divided”, it looks at the many ways in which inequalities have a negative impact on people’s well-being and the prospects of whole societies.

High levels of inequality make it more difficult to reduce poverty. The World Bank has noted that “no country has managed to transition beyond a middle-income status while maintaining high levels of inequality”.

Evidence also suggests that where economic power is heavily concentrated in the hands of a few, political power may also be entrenched in the hands of elites with undue influence.  This then creates structural barriers to the promotion of greater equality; for example, by continuing regressive taxation and/or under-investment in public goods and infrastructure such as education or public health systems and services.

High inequalities may also be associated with high crime rates and political unrest. The resulting risk-levels may then distort public spending towards security measures and away from those essential for human development progress.

But inequality is not inevitable.  Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz, wrote in The New York Times recently that: “The problem of inequality is not so much a matter of technical economics. It’s really a problem of practical politics.”  Where reducing inequalities is made a political priority, progress will be made. Income inequality has decreased markedly in countries like Brazil, where leaders gave it high priority.

Under Brazil’s Bolsa Família programme, around fourteen million households receive benefits, at a cost of less than one per cent of annual GDP. Recipient households are required to have their children in school and to ensure they receive regular medical attention. Thus, Bolsa Família was given two important objectives: helping to address income poverty, and incentivizing families to invest in their children’s future. Some estimates indicate that in the absence of this programme, the level of extreme poverty in Brazil would be between 33 and 50 per cent higher than it is today.

The policies to reduce inequality are not rocket science. There needs to be a focus on investment in:

•    job and livelihood-rich sectors – not least in rural areas where the majority of the world’s poor still live and work;

•    social protection, to provide a floor below which no one should fall and a platform for further advances.  Times of economic adversity are not the time to be cutting back on social protection – it provides the glue which maintains social cohesion and builds the resilience of people to shocks and setbacks. This is important for rich and poor countries;

•    universal quality services – across health and education, water and sanitation, housing and more; and,

•    initiatives which empower women, youth, and all others currently marginalized so that they too can benefit from the progress their countries make.

Gender equality must be a key feature of the campaign for greater equality. Not only is gender equality affirmed as a human right across UN conventions and decisions, but also without it societies will not meet their full potential. Investments in women and girls have intergenerational and society-wide benefits – boosting income, life expectancy, and educational attainment. As Hillary Clinton famously said, it is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

At UNDP we work on gender equality across its political, economic, and social dimensions. Let me go into some detail with examples to this women’s foreign policy audience:

•    on increasing the numbers of women elected to parliaments and sub-national bodies, and serving in public administration:

o    In El Salvador UNDP supported the women´s group in the legislature to design and approve the Quota Law for the election of women to the parliament. This was set at thirty per cent for women, and came into force in March 2013.

o    In Armenia, the capacity of women elected to local government and female community activists was developed through training, leadership schools, networking, and workshops.  With these efforts, 128 female candidates stood for positions in local government of whom 84 were elected.

o    In Madagascar, UNDP worked with the national women’s groups to develop women’s community mediation capacities to prevent electoral violence. Madagascar last year restored constitutional governance through elections. In our experience here and elsewhere, the role of women in setting the tone for peaceful elections is very significant.

o    UNDP recently launched a global Initiative on Gender Equality in Public Administration (GEPA). We have analysed the obstacles to women’s equal participation in public administration, and recommend approaches which will change that. Women’s perspectives in public administration are as vital as they are in elected decision making positions.

•    on supporting women’s economic empowerment:

o    In Kenya, from 2007 - 2012, a joint programme between UNDP, Kenya’s Equity Bank, and the Ministry of Trade promoted women business owners through entrepreneurship training programmes providing access to specially tailored financial products. The programme provided $5.4 million worth of loans to 350 women business owners.
o    Where countries are recovering from crises, UNDP works to integrate gender equality and women’s empowerment into the economic recovery policies and programmes, including for the ex-combatants. In Burundi, for example, women made up nearly half of the beneficiaries in two economic recovery programmes: one created work in rural regions, and the other helped conflict-affected people to establish producer organizations to create their own jobs.

o    In Togo, a gender strategy was included in the country’s MDG Acceleration Action Plan on boosting food security and production. Women smallholder farmers need equitable access to land, credit and advisory services. Particular attention was paid to recruiting female agricultural consultants to advise the women farmers.

o    A UNDP pilot project in China helped micro-enterprises headed by women from minority ethnic communities to lift their productivity and gain access to upscale international markets for their goods.

•    on improving women’s access to justice for wrongs committed against them, and to boost the numbers of women lawyers, judges, and police officers:

o    In 2013, 55 of the law students whom UNDP has been sponsoring in Puntland and Somaliland regions of Somalia graduated, including 22 women. This, building on previous UNDP support, is resulting in the first female legal professionals entering Somalia's justice sector, including as lawyers and prosecutors. We also expanded the number of mobile courts operating in Puntland and Somaliland, bringing them to another 100 towns and villages. Legal aid partners were able to assist more than 15,000 clients, more than a third of whom were women.

o    UNDP has supported Croatia’s Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs to develop new legislation that will finally provide victims of wartime sexual violence with the support, recognition, and compensation they are entitled to in accordance with UN and European standards. The Law on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence in the Homeland War, which is expected to take effect in 2014, will assign a special status to survivors. The law will also provide additional psychosocial assistance to victims and their families, and will authorize financial reparations for the suffering inflicted upon them. Most importantly, the new law recognizes these fundamental rights for victims even if the perpetrators are never found or brought to justice. Almost two decades after the end of the war, the chances of bringing perpetrators to trial has grown decidedly slim.

o    In Bangladesh, the Police Reform Programme supported by UNDP assisted the Bangladesh Police to more than double the proportion of female police officers in the force from a very low base of 1.8 per cent to 4.5 per cent.

o    In Yemen in 2013, UNDP supported 27 women police officers to be deployed in leadership and strategic planning positions.  These were the first senior women in such posts in Yemen.  In Somalia, UNDP supported the training of the first woman prosecutor to become Chief Prosecutor.  Clearly there is still a very long way to go to boost the number of women in these sectors, but the work to do that is underway.

•    on supporting the participation of women in all aspects of peace building as called for by UN Security Council Resolution on 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security:
o    In Timor-Leste, with UNDP support, fifty per cent of the mediators recruited for inclusive peace processes were women. These women were trained to mediate local-level land conflicts in communities targeted for resettlement of internally displaced people. This pool of mediators is currently a stand-by resource for the new Department of Peace-building, and can be deployed as conflicts arise.

o    In Fiji, we supported women to be a part of the first broadly based dialogue between state officials, members of the military council, and non-governmental organizations to be held since the coup which brought a military-led government to power. Next week Fiji holds elections which will restore constitutional governance.

o    In Nepal, UNDP’s support for constitution-building has contributed to women playing key leadership roles in the constitutional design process which began mid-2009. 25 per cent of the participants in the process were women. As well, two out of the ten members of a new national inter-party platform to build leadership and conflict management in the country were women, a first for Nepal.
I’ve given you just a snapshot of some of the many ways in which UNDP works to advance gender equality. We work on the principle of “no decisions about us without us” – applying that also more widely to advocate for the importance of all people everywhere to be able to participate in the processes which impact on their lives.
Volatility – the new normal

Heightened volatility – whether it be in the price of food or fuel, in weather conditions, or in global markets – makes planning and investing for the future challenging anywhere.  For the poor, who often do not have reserves to cushion shocks, such volatility can be catastrophic.   

The post-2015 development agenda needs to prioritize building resilience to shocks.

For economic shocks, the universal social protection which helps reduce inequality will play an important part. As well, consciously diversifying economies and markets to spread risks is important.

For natural disasters, a great deal more needs to be invested in preparedness and adaptation. Currently, for every ten “disaster dollars” spent, only one is directed towards preparedness with the remaining nine spent on post-disaster relief and recovery.  Yet for each dollar spent on building resilience to disaster, seven dollars will be saved when disaster strikes.

Investment in early warning systems, rapid response capacities, resilient infrastructure and systems, and the government and community capacities to support all this is highly cost effective. At UNDP we see the pay off for Least Developed Countries like Mozambique and Bangladesh where many fewer lives are now lost when disaster strikes, and we are proud to have been associated with the major efforts to build greater resilience.

In Bangladesh, for example, significant investments in embankments and protective mangrove planting, as well as support for early warning systems, raising risk awareness, and contingency planning driven by local people themselves, have built much greater resilience to major weather events. While a 1991 cyclone killed 138,000 people near Chittagong, a 2007 cyclone of similar magnitude killed around 3,500. While any death caused by a disaster anywhere is always a tragedy, this decrease is remarkable and shows the effectiveness of the measures put in place.

Another good example of where resilience-building has been incorporated into development efforts comes from Mozambique. In 2000, the country was battered by cyclone-related flooding. It left 800 people dead and 650,000 people displaced. In total more than 4.5 million Mozambicans were affected. 

Seven years later floods of similar magnitudes hit Mozambique again. This time, however, the death toll was 29 people, and the numbers of people displaced were significantly lower at around 70,000.

With climate change, disaster risk reduction will need to move to much higher levels. Take the Philippines, which faces a significant number of tropical storms every year, and has long invested in building its resilience to these events. Yet in the face of the strongest storm ever recorded, Typhoon Haiyan last November, the provisions made were just not enough. That typhoon, like Hurricane Sandy, showed us the face of the future. The longer the world delays decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the greater the expense and the challenge of adapting to the heightened risks which come with global warming will be.

I have just returned to New York from Samoa where the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States was held. Climate change and the risk it poses to the SIDS was a preoccupation of the meeting. 2015 is the year to take decisive steps to address these issues with three major sets of global decisions due to be taken:

•    In March, Japan will host the 3rd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, the region where the great East Japan earthquake and tsunami caused huge damage. This conference will set the next global agenda for disaster risk reduction.

•    The post-2015 agenda, to be finalized next year, also needs to mainstream disaster risk reduction into the SDGs and their targets. Disasters can cause huge human development setbacks. For sustained development, more priority must be given to building resilience to these shocks. The Open Working Group report has been helpful on this.

•    The climate change negotiations are timetabled to culminate late next year in Paris in a new global agreement.

It is important that there are synergies across these three processes to produce a coherent global agenda to reduce disaster risk overall.

Fragility and conflict

It is one thing to invest in building resilience to natural disasters, but rather more complex to address the drivers of fragility and conflict. But, if they aren’t addressed, then the trail of destruction and human misery we see on our television screens will continue for our lifetimes and beyond.

2013 was a record year for spending on humanitarian relief. US$22 billion was spent – 27 per cent more than in the year before. Even that sum pales into insignificance when one looks at the human and financial costs to the countries affected by these crises. The World Bank has estimated that where countries have gone through civil war, their economies take, on average, fourteen years to return to original growth paths.

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

The Open Working Group on the SDGs has shown a willingness to tackle the drivers of crises. Its report proposes a goal to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, 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 of participatory and representative decision making, tackling corruption, and promoting and enforcing laws against discrimination.

Just as practical steps can be taken to reduce the risks posed by natural hazards, so they can also be taken to support the establishment of inclusive and effective governance, and establish the rule of law, and to uphold human rights.  Around the world UNDP works 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.   

As well, the UN system now has a big focus on developing youth potential. Unemployment and frustrated youth are a time bomb – gravitating so often to the people with the guns, the drugs, and the means of providing incomes which are otherwise scarce. We neglect the world’s largest ever adolescent and youth generation at our peril. Creating a demographic dividend through opportunity and engagement for these 1.8 billion young people is vital for our world’s prospects and stability.


Inequality, volatility, and fragility – these difficult challenges are interconnected.  Inequality can result in more fragile, less cohesive societies and outright conflict. Volatility in weather patterns will disproportionately impact marginalized populations, widen existing disparities, and may generate migration and conflict.   

This year's global Human Development Report, Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience, launched in July, highlighted the interconnectedness of these issues. It focused on both life cycle and structural vulnerabilities, and called for policies which would strengthen the resilience of individuals, households, communities, and whole societies.  

Almost 1.5 billion people live in poverty according to UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index, and almost 800 million are vulnerable to slipping back into poverty. Eighty per cent of the world’s elderly lack basic social protection, making them a particularly vulnerable group.

The challenge is not just to lift people out of poverty – it is to ensure that their escape is permanent. That is difficult if there is not social protection, and where societies are vulnerable to relapses into conflict and to huge setbacks from natural disasters.

As dynamic emerging economies and stable societies move ahead, increasingly we will see extreme poverty co-located with zones of conflict and high disaster risk exposure, and where there is poor governance and little rule of law.

It will therefore be idle rhetoric to talk about poverty eradication if the context in which it exists isn’t addressed. At UNDP, we look forward to the post-2015 global agenda taking on this challenges. We equally look forward to playing our full part in building the more inclusive, peaceful, and resilient societies which can advance human development.

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