Exclusive interview with Helen Clark: “Women’s Leadership Matters”

Helen Clark was Prime Minister of New Zealand for three successive terms between 1999–2008 and was the first woman to be elected as Prime Minister in New Zealand.

keynote speaker helen clarkThroughout her tenure as Prime Minister, and as a Member of Parliament over 27 years, Helen Clark engaged widely in policy development and advocacy across the international, economic, social, environmental, and cultural spheres. She advocated strongly for New Zealand’s comprehensive programme on sustainability and for tackling the problems of climate change. She was an active leader of her country’s foreign relations, engaging in a wide range of international issues.

We sat down with Clark to discuss female leadership, the UN, her recent documentary film and her views on the power of social media and the future of sustainable development.

New Zealand now has its third female Prime Minister as well as numerous women having held significant leadership positions across politics. To what would you attribute the high levels of gender equality in your home country?

The achievements of women in New Zealand need to be seen in the context of the country’s broader economic, social, and political history. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote in national elections. Under a reforming government at that time, New Zealand also introduced the world’s first old age pension, industrial arbitration and conciliation legislation, and workers’ public housing. Later, in a second wave of reforms in the late 1930s and 1940s, it became one of the first countries in the world to introduce comprehensive social security legislation and free public hospital care and secondary education. Gender equality was an expectation of my generation of postwar baby boomers – we were the first to break through to the top ranks of leadership across society.

What advice would you give to other female leaders working towards achieving gender parity across politics and business?

It is vital that women who do rise to high positions encourage and support others to follow them. Many girls and women do take inspiration from the achievements of women who have gone all the way – providing that we are frank about our experiences of getting to the top and don’t disguise how difficult it can be to break through. The aim must be to make the representation of women at the highest levels across society the norm rather than the exception.

I remain an optimist about the power of connectivity through social media as a force for good

Why did you agree to filming My Year with Helen and is its message in line with what you envisaged?

When I agreed to the movie being made, it was prior to making my decision to run for the post of United Nations Secretary-General. The director was therefore initially focused on making a fi lm about my work as the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Then, the SG campaign eventuated, and the fi lm changed its focus. I think it is an important fi lm which raises critical issues about geopolitics and gender equality.

What were the key trends and issues that you tackled while administrator at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)?

When I went to UNDP in April 2009, there were barely six years left for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and targets to be achieved. I led UNDP to work on how progress could be accelerated, working with national stakeholders and other UN development entities. Then, from the time of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, we became very busy facilitating consultations and outreach on the design of the successor agenda to the MDGs. That was negotiated by United Nations Member States and became the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Now UNDP and other UN agencies put a great deal of eff ort into supporting achievement of that agenda.
During my eight years at UNDP, we also had to step up greatly to support emergency development in countries plunged into crisis by war and conflict and by mega-disasters such as earthquakes and extreme weather events. Sadly, the need for this work shows no sign of abating.

We cannot achieve the new global sustainable development goals without gender equality, women’s leadership matters.

You are known as a prolific user of social media. How significant do you think social media can be at inciting positive global change?

Since the 2016 US presidential election, we are accustomed to very negative accounts of the harm and manipulation attributed to social media. Cyberbullying via these media at the level of the individual is also a significant problem. Yet, I remain an optimist about the power of connectivity through social media as a force for good. On a daily basis, I see, for example, tweets from inspiring community-based organisations and others around the world who are working on incredibly important issues of social development and peace and justice. These combined voices add up to significant momentum for change.

Social media has also played part in the rise of populism across much of the developed world. What can be done to limit the use of social media to promote malignant views?

I believe that the social media companies need to take much stronger action against the abuse and manipulation of their platforms. Any form of hate speech should be prohibited. There needs to be total transparency around who is posting on these platforms. Users should have the right to expect action to be taken against those who post offensive content. Users need to understand how to protect themselves from malicious targeting and what we now know as “fake news”.

The 2030 Agenda states, there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development.

Which topics do you most enjoy speaking to organisations about?

I enjoy speaking about the interconnectedness of issues. As the new global agenda, the 2030 Agenda states, there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development. We have to find ways of advancing and maintaining human progress which don’t compromise the environment. Concerted climate action is essential. We cannot achieve the new global sustainable development goals without gender equality – women’s leadership matters. I speak across these issues, and also have an interest in public policy aimed at combating noncommunicable diseases and HIV, and in advocacy for evidence-based drugs policy based on my membership of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

What is your biggest hope and greatest fear for the future of global politics?

My biggest hope is that all countries will take the global sustainable development agenda seriously and work to implement it. My biggest fear is that xenophobia, populism and hate will impact on the politics and agendas of even more countries – that is not an environment in which peace and sustainable development can be achieved or sustained.

Watch Helen Clark’s recent TEDx Talk “Yes she can” from Auckland



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