Doing Right by the World’s Women
A conversation with the first female head of the U.N. Development Program on the most pressing issues for women in the developing world.
When Foreign Policy compiled its list of 25 of the most powerful but least known women in the world for our May/June issue, Helen Clark was a natural pick. A three-term prime minister of New Zealand, she stepped onto the international stage in 2009, when she became administrator of the United Nations Development Program. As the first woman at the helm of the UNDP, she oversees the organization's 8,000-plus employees working in 177 countries to fight poverty and corruption and support vital welfare, health, and environmental programs.
When Foreign Policy compiled its list of 25 of the most powerful but least known women in the world for our May/June issue, Helen Clark was a natural pick. A three-term prime minister of New Zealand, she stepped onto the international stage in 2009, when she became administrator of the United Nations Development Program. As the first woman at the helm of the UNDP, she oversees the organization’s 8,000-plus employees working in 177 countries to fight poverty and corruption and support vital welfare, health, and environmental programs.
On a visit this past weekend to Washington, D.C., where she attended the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings, Clark sat down with Foreign Policy to talk about women’s issues in developing countries — with an eye toward the new governments in several Arab states — and whether the UNDP is on track to meet its eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. She also explained why, when it comes to fighting poverty, countries like India and Mexico are getting it right. Despite a dizzying schedule of travel and meetings, Clark says that when her four-year term as administrator ends next spring, "chances are I’ll be saying, ‘Well, my work’s not done, and I’d love to carry on.’"
Foreign Policy: One of the themes that emerged in the newest issue of Foreign Policy is that women’s issues are inseparable from development issues generally. Is that something that’s consciously part of the UNDP’s philosophy?
Helen Clark: Empowering women and upholding women’s rights is part of our mandate, and we start from the assumption that women have equal rights to human rights, and that in terms of development a country will always sell itself short when it’s not opening up opportunity for women. If you’re going to systematically exclude half your population from development progress, you’re never going to be what you could be. So there’s both the human rights issues — that women are entitled to equal rights — and then also the issue that women being able to exercise equal rights and have access to opportunity of course will not only be empowered themselves, which is good for women as individuals, but they will [also] help propel their country forward. And there’s plenty of evidence now … that the more education a women has, not only the better her own life prospects — delaying the age of marriage, better spacing of her children for her own health — but her children themselves will be healthier and have higher aspirations. So any investment you make in women will have multiplier effects. It’s one of the most effective investments you can make anywhere.
FP: And a couple of the UNDP Millennium Development Goals specifically address women’s issues.
Clark: Correct. [There is] MDG 3, which deals with a target for representation in legislatures of 30 percent. And a lot of developing countries have been very creative with the use of quotas and other measures to get there. Rwanda’s a very, very interesting case with 56 percent of the MPs who are women. Burundi also — there’s so many examples that are really quite exciting. And that goal also deals with gender parity in education. We’re reasonably close to gender parity in primary education, but secondary — no. So there’s work to do.
And then there’s the MDG 5 on maternal health and access to sexual reproductive health services, and that one is struggling a lot, which speaks to the relative lack of status of women in communities, that these issues haven’t been given top priority.
FP: Are you optimistic that about meeting those goals by the target year, 2015?
Clark: MDG 5 is very, very tough, because it called for a three-quarters reduction in maternal mortality between the 1990 baseline figure and 2015. I don’t think that will be met. Universal access to sexual reproductive health services — no, won’t be met. But they’re very, very critical goals. So whatever happens after 2015, these issues have to continue to have priority.
FP: On the question of women in politics, you said the goal was about 30 percent representation in parliaments, and I think it’s about 20 percent right now.
Clark: Yes, it hovers around there. It’s inched up slowly. When I first made speeches coming here it was under 18. We’re now talking around 20. But it’s slow.
FP: Why, from the UNDP’s perspective, is it important that women are represented in parliaments?
Clark: You come back to the same two issues. There’s an equal right to be represented per gender. But there’s also the issues that if you are out of sight, you’re out of mind. The issues that women need addressed to advance their own and their families’ status and needs are not addressed unless women’s voices are there. I saw from the perspective of my own country that it wasn’t until there was a critical mass of women that you could really move ahead on a number of issues. Because otherwise it’s just, "Oh, there’s so-and-so again, and they’re going on about early education or whatever." You have to have a critical mass of women to be advocating for the case. And then they have to work with the men in the parliament to get them on board. And when the critical mass is attained, you see quite interesting examples of legislation.
FP: Are there particular regions of the world where the UNDP is focusing its efforts on women?
Clark: Well, we’re in every developing country (except maybe Qatar, which is a very high-income country). … We have worked on women’s political participation and economic empowerment and the status of rights issues in many, many, many countries.
Now, with the Arab states’ uprisings and transitions, that’s raised a number of new issues. New actors have come on the scene in a way that they couldn’t before, including political Islam. And obviously there’s been quite a lot of debate about what that means for women, because some of the secular but authoritarian regimes had in place a legal framework for women that had some good aspects. So there’s been a concern not to go back on that. We worked hard in the Tunisian elections to support women coming forward and being candidates and so on. And in the end the proportion in the parliament didn’t lift, but it didn’t go down either — which it could have. … I recently visited Morocco, and while the language being used is perhaps not the language one would be accustomed to hearing in a discussion around gender rights, nonetheless there was an absolute determination to have equal access to education. The words "women’s economic empowerment" were used, universal access to health services. So we have to find ways of working with new actors, which are in line with the conventions and treaties and values that we uphold.
FP: Do you think it’s significant that you are a woman as the head of the UNDP, the first?
Clark: Oh yes.
Clark: Well, I think I can be part of making sure that what we do in these areas isn’t just a kind of add-on — that it’s implicit in the design of what we do. I come from a government background where, after the 1984 election, my party in government set up a women’s affairs ministry with the requirement that it would comment on all government policy papers from a woman’s perspective where it saw that was relevant. …. Basically having a gender perspective mainstreamed into every policy is something that’s happened in my own country for close to 30 years. So that’s the way I see it, as not an optional extra. It’s when you’re designing a program on democratic governments or recovery from conflict or adaptation to climate change, you’ve got to look at it through a gender lens.
FP: How was the transition from running a relatively stable, democratic country to running the UNDP?
Clark: Well, I sometimes say that I had more power as prime minister, but I’ve got more influence in this job. I was the leader of a small country [the population of] which would fit several times into the greater New York area. Now I have the opportunity to work on issues where you can have a global impact in the way issues are approached and designed. It’s interesting, different, but it’s still a leadership job. It still calls for the same skills. You’ve got to be interested in people. If you’re not interested in people, you shouldn’t be able to do any of these jobs.
Clark: Well, I can’t do it single-handed! But, you know, the MDGs set a target between 1990 and 2015 of halving the numbers of people living in extreme poverty. Well, that’s great if you’re in the half that got out of it but horrible if you’re in the half that didn’t. So I really hope with the post-2015 agenda that the world will be a little more ambitious and talk about eradicating extreme poverty. You will never eradicate relative poverty; in every society you have people who are relatively poor — in the U.S., Brazil, wherever. But you can absolutely eradicate extreme poverty. It’s going to take a mixture of economic growth, which is able to spread the benefits more widely, including through measures which will grow the number of jobs, extend social protection systems, and so on — it’s complex policies, but it can be done.
I mean, look at India, which won’t meet MDG 1 by 2015, but its prime minister said to me he thought by 2020 they could make very substantial progress on reducing extreme poverty. Now, why does he say that? Because they’ve introduced this Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which gives eligible rural poor a guarantee of 100 days work a year at a minimum-wage rate. … And that is now reaching 55 million households. Well, multiply by six, and you’re talking probably a quarter of India’s poorest people who’ve been lifted up. And so initiatives like that which create work are really making an incredible difference. It can be done; when governments are determined to tackle extreme poverty, it can be done. And it’s being done in a very interesting way because the work that is selected to be eligible for this program — the selection is made by the village council, and on the village council by law since the 1990s 30 percent of members have to be women, and it’s often up to 50 percent now. And in the objectives of the program are conservation and environmental protection and water infrastructure and so on. When I went to rural Rajasthan to have a good look at this program and how it was operating over two days, I saw precisely women working — 30 percent of the workers have to be women too, and that’s gotten to near half — digging up the pond for conservation and those kinds of things. It was tough work but important work.
FP: Worldwide would you put a target year on that goal?
Clark: Well, I think if the world was being really ambitious, it would say: Take 10 years from 2015 and go for it, and just say it’s not acceptable for people to be living under that $1.25 a day mark. It’s just not acceptable. So what can we do to change that? Apart from government policies needing to be clear-headed, there’s a range of other things that will help — if there’s significant climate finance coming down the stream, which will help countries make investments in climate-resilient agriculture, for example. Positive outcomes from the world trade rounds would help. I think making official development assistance very catalytic and impactful, so that it focuses on what’s important, would help.
But then the other thing that would help is an end to war and armed violence, because how do we eradicate extreme poverty in the center or south of Somalia if it’s embroiled in conflict? Conflict de-develops. And if you look at the problem of armed violence now in parts of the Latin American Caribbean region, it’s very alarming. And then the way the organized crime and drug trade is trans-shipping from there into very fragile countries like Guinea-Bissau, which has just had another coup. I mean, how do countries ever get a clear run at tackling extreme poverty if they’re just drowned by these basic problems of peace and security?
FP: Is there a particular message you’re bringing this weekend to the World Bank/IMF meetings?
Clark: The Development Committee of the World Bank meets this afternoon, and we [the UNDP] get called on to speak. … The key point on the agenda today is around social protection systems. So I will make the point that social protection systems are absolutely critical in every country, because they stop people and countries from losing the ground they’ve made on development. If you don’t have a social protection, a safety net, when a shock comes along — whether it’s an economic shock or it’s a natural disaster — people get knocked over. And that may be a loss of human well-being that is never made up again. … I often point out that in countries we regard as some of the most developed — like yours, like mine, European countries — we introduced these systems not when we were rich but when we were poor, as a response to the Great Depression, because it was considered so shocking to see people slip below any decent standard of living into outright destitution. But only about 20 percent of working-age people in the world today are covered by social protection schemes, so there’s a way to go.
But in terms of effectiveness — and I’ll mention this in my brief comments today — take a scheme like the Mexican one, Oportunidades, which is targeted at poor families. That scheme stopped the impact of the global crisis destroying living standards for the poor in Mexico. So even though Mexico’s GDP contracted quite severely with the spillover from what had happened in the markets to the north, they cushioned the poor from it. And these schemes are quite affordable; we say in the range of 1 to 2 percent of GDP — I don’t even think it cost that in Mexico. … And there’s quite a number of these now: Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, Chile’s got one. So we’re really pushing this quite hard.
Margaret Slattery is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, working primarily on FP's print magazine. A Los Angeles native and recent graduate of Yale University, where she majored in English, she has written for The New Republic and has studied in Leon, Spain.
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