Global Policy Forum

Interview: Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme


UNDP’s administrator Helen Clark, in a recent interview talks about the success and failures of the MDGs and how those lessons can be incorporated into the post-2015 development agenda. The MDGs brought exceptional results for Africa’s least developed countries with regards to healthcare and primary education because the benchmarks were most relevant to the continent. However, there is a need for addressing inequalities in progress post-2015 as country-wide and global reporting on the MDGs masked the weak progress achieved in key areas for Sub-Saharan Africa. The future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the name suggests, will have sustainability integrated into each goal rather than stand along development goals, and Ms. Clark cites the success of India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in this regard. The SDGs will refine the existing MDGs, for example, by setting education goals beyond primary education, addressing the root cause of diseases and focusing not just on employment but the quality of work as well.

By Eleanor Whitehead

This Is Africa
February 25, 2013

Helen Clark, the United Nations Development Programme’s first female administrator and former prime minister of New Zealand, is calling for inequality and sustainability to form the backbone of the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals framework.  

Speaking to This is Africa on the sidelines of an Overseas Development Institute briefing, Ms Clark said that the MDGs – eight development goals set at the UN’s Millennium Summit in 2000, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and reducing childhood mortality rates – have been “a game changer” for Africa, even though most countries will fail to reach them. 

“The goals brought global focus on development benchmarks that were highly relevant to the continent”, which is home to a number of the world’s least developed countries, she argues. “Particularly in areas of health, the research shows that progress on mortality in infants and children under five, and on HIV/Aids, can be very tightly attributed to the focus and priority that came from the MDGs.”

Africa has made big gains in the fight against HIV/Aids, with deaths among people living with HIV in 22 sub-Saharan countries declining 19 percent between 2001 and 2009. African countries have also moved steadily towards achieving universal primary education. Net enrolment rates rose to 83 percent in 2008 from 65 percent in 1999, with the majority of countries set to reach the target. And substantial gains have been made in girls’ enrolment. In Rwanda, for instance, more girls now enrol in primary school than boys.

But the continent has underperformed in many other areas – not least poverty reduction and maternal mortality – and its most marginalised regions have been left behind.

Global progress towards meeting the MDGs has been skewed by huge poverty reductions in China, failing to expose the minimal gains made in other regions, including many sub-Saharan countries. On a regional basis, the poor development performance of marginalised regions – for example in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid north – has been hidden by country-wide data.

UN consultations are exposing dissatisfaction. “There is a strong feeling among disadvantaged groups that their story is hidden in aggregate achievement”, Ms Clark says.

“Progress has been very uneven… and there is a feeling that the way we report on the goals disguises the inequalities hidden in a country... After 2015, we will need, at a global level, a much sharper focus on disaggregated data.”

The next set

So what goals will be critical for Africa’s less developed nations after 2015? The twin pillars of sustainability and development, Ms Clark believes: “I think the key is the poverty and environment win-win. Can we push forward with initiatives that will reduce extreme poverty and be positive for the environment?”

An Open Working Group has been established to develop a set of sustainability targets which will be integrated into the new set of goals, and is due to file its recommendations by September 2014. A separate High Level Panel, chaired by British prime minister David Cameron, will offer its recommendations for a post-2015 strategy in May. But high among the list of concerns is how the sustainability and development targets mesh.

“One of the issues is how to ensure that all these tracks converge in one development agenda,” Ms Clark concedes. “Foremost, we need to ensure that we don’t have two totally different conversations here – one a development, poverty-focused conversation and the other an environment-focused conversation.”

The hope is to integrate sustainability into every one of the goals, to ensure that gains are not swept away. “I’m strongly in the camp that says we need to be thinking of poverty eradication within the context of sustainable development and we need the two teams to talk,” she argues.

Some of UNDP’s initiatives show that the two can meet: “We have a lot of things that we can share, that show we can improve the living standards of the very poorest and do something positive for the environment at the same time,” Ms Clark says, citing India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the world’s largest employment guarantee scheme. “It reaches 46m households putting income in people’s pockets for the first time, but also relates to environmental conservation.”

Other concepts are emerging from global thematic discussions. One target is expected to centre on employment, or as Ms Clark puts it: “Jobs as an end objective and inclusive growth as a means for that.” Focus will likely fall on the quality of employment because “a third of those who live in extreme poverty are households where the head of household is in work, it just doesn’t happen to be particularly remunerative or decent,” she says. The International Labour Organisation has recommended a central goal targeting ‘productive employment and decent work’, which would include components recognising the rights of women and children, and supporting informal sector workers and farmers. The ILO would like to see the goal supported by social protection floors, which create basic guarantees for income and social provisions such as healthcare.

The existing education MDG, which has promoted access but neglected quality, may be revised to ensure that children are learning once they are in school. “What is also coming through is the need to go beyond improving access to primary education, because the job is not done there,” Ms Clark says. “People want to bring in the whole span of education, and not neglect the focus on early childhood years.”

Similarly, health experts argue about whether to focus on access to healthcare or to tackle the root causes of disease. A former health minister, Ms Clark has strong opinions on the subject. “I think it’s important not to get trapped into an either/or debate with respect to health goals. I don’t think that we should choose between people having equal access to services on the one hand and then on the other addressing the drivers,” she argues. “Universal health coverage… in my strong opinion, is not sufficient on its own. You have to address the common drivers of ill-health across diseases. And there are many common drivers, not least poverty.”

A report released ahead of a global thematic consultation on inequality has recommended that an individual goal on the issue should also be included in any new targets. However, integrating issues of equality, governance, and resilience into all stand-alone targets will be critical to success, Ms Clark says.

Emerging voices

The UNDP administrator also draws attention to the need for greater global partnership as the international community gears up to produce a new development framework. 

Despite their success in galvanising focus on developmental issues, the MDGs have been widely perceived as foisted on developing countries by donors. To avoid a north-south divide this time around the UN is coordinating consultations across more than 70 countries.

“The last MDGs were delivered ex cathedra by [the UN’s then-secretary general] Kofi Annan. I think that has to be avoided this time,” Ms Clark argues. “Hence this engagement at a very large scale and an endeavour to have an inclusive conversation and generate shared ownership of the vision.”

African voices are being heard, not least through the High Level Panel, which is co-chaired by Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “We are very engaged with national consultations in Africa,” she says. “There are very clear voices coming from Africa – very articulate on what its needs and expectations are.”

More collaboration will also be needed on implementation. “I think that governments in sub-Saharan Africa had an expectation of greater support from developed countries on the MDGs than in the end came through. That is why you can focus on MDG8 [on global partnership] and say: ‘Well, where was the partnership?’” she says.

Pre-2015 push

But developed and developing countries have spent years at loggerheads in global trade and climate talks. Critics argue that the discussions are becoming increasingly technocratic and fragmented, and doubt the ability of the development community to forge strong solutions. The UN faces a huge challenge in coordinating the global discussions.

But Ms Clark seems optimistic. UNDP has been pushing an MDG acceleration framework, which piloted in 2010 and now supports over 40 countries in their last push to meet the existing goals. “The idea is that you take one goal that’s lagging but with a push could be achieved, and you work with the government and a range of stakeholders – civil society and development partners – to identify what’s standing in the way,” she explains.

“It’s not about coining new strategies, but it’s about what is stopping good strategies being implemented and having concrete action plans to address the barriers.”

Looking forward, Ms Clark hopes to bring the best from the existing goals into the post-2015 agenda. “While the MDGs didn’t come out of anything like this kind of process they did succeed in directing resources into priority areas,” she says. “If we can take the best of that and put in a strong impetus on living sustainably, we could actually do a good job for people and our planet.”


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