While the Machiavellian world of United Nations appointments means Helen Clark won't find it easy securing her international role, it's one to which she's ideally suited
Helen Clark’s candidacy for the role has been universally welcomed. Most New Zealanders respect her abilities, knowing how suited she is to a demanding international role. And those weird right-wing morons who hate her are overjoyed at the prospect she might leave these shores (for those unaware of how disturbed these people are, read the comments on Kiwiblog, which was leaked the news).
One might question why she would want the UNDP role. At first glance, it looks rather low-key. Wikipedia reckons the UNDP’s annual budget at around NZ$8 billion. Put in perspective, Tony Ryall is in charge a $12 billion a year health budget.
While the UN’s website proclaims it to be the third highest ranking official in the US system, the role has been held by relatively low profile individuals. Names like Kemal Dervis, James Speth, and Paul Hoffman would draw blank stares from most trivial pursuiters.
So why is Clark pursuing it? Firstly, don’t be put off by the modest repute of current and previous officeholders. The UNDP has real teeth and does some meaty work. Assisting troubled countries with the transition to democracy would involve Clark in the world’s problem areas in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, and maybe even the Pacific (Frank Bainimarama’s nightmares might soon resume).
Its core work is the developmental sphere – in areas like improving access to healthy environments and sustainable energy, climate change, tackling HIV/AIDs, reducing poverty, and restoring societies devastated by natural crises and violence. To a committed social democratic globalist, this is the stuff which makes one’s eyes water.
Clark could transform the role. She would bring it to prominence. It drives our Clark-haters to despair, but she is regarded internationally as someone of real substance. Her name opens doors which are closed to others. And international media admire her because she 1) is accessible, 2) talks thorough sense, and 3) does so in a clear, forthright manner.
She would also be utterly competent. As a departmental minister, her presbyterian economy is a defining feature of her management style. She cuts back on excess and wastage. Memorably, she once sacked her husband when she axed a health board. If fat exists in the UNDP, Clark is one to purge it.
Her good judgement (ie. avoiding mindless wars) is well known, as is her long-standing commitment to disarmament, human rights, and development. But perhaps her real skill lies in finding solutions. She has a rare ability to find ways through complex impasses. Her resolution of the Tampa refugee issue demonstrated a sure touch (and no little compassion). She even managed to get climate change on to the APEC agenda, in spite of American misgivings.
She also held fractious Pacific Island Forums together on a number of occasions, including securing the Biketawa Declaration at the Pacific Island Forum in Kiribati in 2000. The Declaration provides the means for intervention in failing states – it's enabled the Solomons intervention, for example – but its passage seemed stalled by Fijian intransigence over the inclusion of the word ‘sanctions’. Clark suggested it be replaced with ‘measures’. The Fijians had no option but to agree.
One shouldn’t underestimate the challenge to her getting such a role. Horse-trading, paybacks and self-interest count for more in UN appointments than ability. For its first 30 years, the position was a United States preserve, and it seems they want it back. The Herald reports that as many as five Americans are on the long list for the role. In her favour, the new administration will not be unsympathetic to Clark, particularly the new Secretary of State. And she has a long list of admirers throughout Europe, Asia, the Pacific (notwithstanding Fiji) and South America.
At a time of multiple crises hitting the developing world hard (international recession, energy security, climate change effects, food security) the UNDP needs high level leadership with strong networks among other world leaders. Clark would bring that, along with immense political experience, enabling her to mobilise support around development goals and advocate for them. And who knows… it might prove to be an apprenticeship for an even bigger role.