Helen Clark: Bishop Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture 2015 on “The promise and challenge of 2015 for sustainable development”

26 Aug 2015

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the Bishop Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture this year. 

My association with Sir Paul began when I was a Cabinet Minister in the 1980s and Paul was Governor General of New Zealand. Paul Reeves was a strong character and had made his mark in the Anglican Church, rising to its top position here as Archbishop and Primate of New Zealand.  

Paul had my lifetime respect for his determination to make a difference for people.  Long after he left the office of Governor-General, he maintained a hectic pace at home and abroad, not least as Chancellor of the university hosting us tonight – Auckland University of Technology, but also in the service of the Commonwealth, the Anglican Church at the United Nations, and other causes.  

I was greatly honoured when Paul came to New York with a delegation of senior Maori leaders to support me when I took up my current position as Administrator of UNDP and Chair of the United Nations Development Group.  People still talk of how exciting the ceremony at which they “handed me over” to the UN was – nothing quite like that had ever happened there before!

I understand that, each year, Leadership New Zealand, the organizer of this lecture, adopts a theme for its programmes and events, and that this year’s theme is “Fearless Leadership”.  That description certainly applied to Paul Reeves, and it is an attribute needed to meet the huge challenges confronting our world today.  Fearless leadership, however, is not only a quality needed at the national and global levels – everyone, whatever their walk in life, has an opportunity to practise it.

2015 presents many opportunities to set a new course for people and planet – major global agendas related to development are being written this year.  These new agenda need to be bold and transformational. They need genuine commitment – from citizens and civil society organisations to Heads of State and Government.  I will reflect on these issues this evening.

For sure, the future of New Zealand is closely linked to the state of the global economy, global ecosystems, and global peace and stability. All countries need economies which generate jobs and opportunities, especially for today’s largest ever youth generation, many of whom don’t have a lot to look forward to right now. We need societies and political systems which are more inclusive and cohesive. We need healthy ecosystems. We need peace. Development plays a major role in advancing all these ends – that’s why I love my position at UNDP.

In September, leaders from most of the United Nations Member States are coming to New York to sign a declaration on advancing sustainable development, and to launch the Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs. This new agenda builds on the Millennium Declaration which I signed on behalf of New Zealand in 2000, and from which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched. The MDGs have guided global development co-operation with developing countries ever since.

The new agenda, however, will be universal – it will apply to all countries at all stages of development. This makes the point that sustainable development in the 21st century isn’t something which happens to somebody else, somewhere else. We all have a stake in it – and every country has work to do to progress towards it.

The UN Summit on Sustainable Development is just one of the four big development-related summits taking place this year. Already in March, in Japan, the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction took place, and wrote the global agenda in that area for the next generation.  From UNDP, we went to that meeting saying “if it’s not risk informed, it’s not sustainable development”. Time and time again, we see families and communities around the world losing everything because there was not effective mitigation of disaster risk. Nepal on 25 April suffered grievously from a major earthquake, and then a major subsequent quake.  The people of Christchurch, New Zealand, in particular, will empathize with Nepal. Let’s acknowledge too that the difference between earthquake impacts on the two locations was in the level of development of the two countries and in New Zealand’s capacity to make long term investments in disaster risk reduction.

Climate change is raising the risk of weather-related disasters exponentially, and unplanned urbanization is putting more and more people at risk of natural hazards in general.  It is the poor and vulnerable who are often most exposed to seismic and weather-related risks. 

The sustainable development and disaster risk reduction agendas link to the major UN climate change conference in Paris at the end of the year, where a new global treaty is due to be agreed. As we speak, countries are filing what are called their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – which are their announced commitments to mitigate climate change.  

At this point, these collective commitments to reduce greenhouse gases emissions will not add up to what is needed to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Thus, the Typhoon Haiyans and Cyclone Pams which devastate coastal communities would become more and more regular – as would the protracted droughts which are impacting on food production globally.  This matters for New Zealand which needs a temperate and equable climate for its pastoral agriculture to thrive. It matters greatly to Small Island Developing States – for some of which it’s a question of survival.  It matters to us all.

Do global agendas matter?

Yes, they do. 

Looking back over the progress of the MDGs, there has been significant progress on getting children into school; reducing infant, child, and maternal deaths; and turning the tide on  HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB. The rate of progress would have been unlikely to have been achieved without the focus, funding and action which came in around the MDG targets. 

But there is a lot of unfinished business from the MDGs. While the target of halving  the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, measured against 1990 figures, was met by 2010, it is not much fun being in the other half – the so-called “bottom billion”, for whom life has scarcely changed in many respects. 

UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, recently estimated that at the current pace of progress, 68 million more children under five will die from mostly preventable causes by 2030. It would take almost 100 years before girls being born into sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest families could expect to complete their lower secondary education.

For these and many other reasons, including the accelerated degradation of ecosystems, we need the new, bolder, sustainable development agenda which aims to go to zero on eradication of extreme poverty and to confront the many other global challenges, including:

• growing inequality and ongoing discrimination,

• the jobs deficit and its implications, particularly for youth,

• mounting environmental challenges, including climate change, and

• the impact of conflicts and disasters.

Let me discuss these challenges.

First, inequality, which is rising in many countries rich and poor. 

UNDP estimates that seventy per cent of the citizens of developing countries are living in societies which are less equal today than they were in 1990, the baseline date for measuring progress on the MDGs. 

Then, if we take a developed world example, the ILO (International Labor Organization) tells us that child poverty is rising in eighteen of the 28 countries in the EU, and has linked that to falling levels of maternal and child benefits. The era of austerity has not been kind to social protection systems in many countries.  

One of the defining features of the SDG agenda will be to leave no one behind. The rising tide should lift every boat. That means tackling entrenched inequalities relating to gender, ethnicity, and other factors. 

Gender inequality remains pervasive – yet societies clearly are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population. Around the world, where women are “out of sight out of mind” – disempowered and under-represented in decision-making circles – meeting their needs often doesn’t get prioritized.

Yet, let’s take hope from examples of the fearless leadership of women in so many communities, not least in working for peace and recovery from Guatemala to Liberia, and from Rwanda to Colombia.

And let’s salute the fearless leadership of Malala, already a beacon of hope for girls around the world, who defied serious attacks on her life in Pakistan and advocates globally for girls’ education. Earlier this year, Malala spent her 18th birthday in Syria, where she opened a school for displaced children funded through her Foundation. 

Malala reminds us of the hopes and aspirations of another major global group – today’s generation of adolescents and youth which stands at 1.8 billion people – the largest our world has ever seen. Most of these young people live in developing countries. The energy, hopes, and innovation of this large youth generation can bring a huge demographic dividend to countries. But the opposite is also true. A generation with many unemployed, alienated, and disengaged youth is not a recipe for peace and harmony.  Around our world, youth are disproportionately unemployed; and often lack access to quality and affordable services. 

Inequalities also continue to affect indigenous people adversely – including in our own country. Indigenous people have for centuries struggled to protect their ways of life and the fabric of their societies. A new global agenda determined to leave no one behind must embrace indigenous communities – and indeed all minorities around the world.

The inequalities and discrimination affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are also now prominent on the global agenda. Many countries are addressing these issues decisively – but in others LGBTI communities continue to suffer from discrimination and punitive laws.  This grouping must not be left behind either in a global agenda determined to address inequalities.

Reducing inequalities requires proactive policies and investments: in education, skills training, sexual and reproductive health services, availability of credit – and in all the other services which widen opportunity. It also means commitment to inclusion – economic, social and political.  It may require legislative and regulatory change. New Zealand can advocate for this agenda globally.

I’ve already commented on another major challenge which the new global agenda must address – the rapid pace of environmental degradation – of which the damage to the climate ecosystem is the best known. Biodiversity loss is another critical case – human survival and wellbeing depend heavily upon the earth’s biodiversity. Species loss not only has serious implications for our natural environment: it also undermines our livelihoods, health, and food and water security.

Environmental sustainability and equity are inextricably linked. While climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss affect us all, they affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

The 2011 UNDP global Human Development Report on Equity and Sustainability showed how escalating environmental degradation threatens human development. On the worst case scenario, which often appears probable, human development progress would slow to a crawl by mid-century, and disproportionately so in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Asia. That is surely not a future we want.

Fearless leadership to tackle environmental degradation is required. I know it’s not easy, having witnessed farmers’ protests against being included in a carbon tax, few people wanting to pay more for petrol, and even objections to mandatory energy efficient lightbulbs. But all countries must act.

As well, there can be no sustainable development without peace and stability – right now the world suffers a big deficit in this respect. Humanitarian emergencies fueled by war and conflict are overwhelming the international community’s capacity to respond. Humanitarian relief spending has trebled in the last decade. On current trends there will never be enough money to meet vital needs for relief.  We have to try to reduce demand through support for building more inclusive and peaceful societies – eight out of every ten dollars spent on meeting humanitarian needs goes to help people caught up in conflicts. The new global agenda has something to say about this too – calling for access to justice for all, and for accountable, inclusive, and effective institutions at all levels.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says sixty million people are now displaced in our world. Around twenty million of them are classified as refugees. More people are on the move today than at any time since the United Nations was founded in 1945. They are coming from Syria, for example, where conflict has resulted in more than four million refugees, and more than 7.6 million internally displaced people. 

The Syria crisis has sparked the largest humanitarian and development crisis of our times, with serious impacts on the sub-region and beyond. Among those attempting the desperate, dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean are many Syrians. I myself have spoken to Syrian refugees who have been sitting in camps for more than three years – it’s not hard to understand why people try to break out of their predicament. 

But people are also fleeing from other conflict zones, and from impoverished communities in stable countries too. It was distressing to read that at least two hundred Senegalese citizens died in just one boat disaster in the Mediterranean in April – their country has known stability since independence, but it is a low income country with still significant poverty which its government is trying determinedly to address. 


• radical insurgents from Boko Haram to Al Shabaab on the African continent to Al Qaeda and IS in the Middle East are making life unbearable for those on whom they prey.

• In Yemen, major airstrikes, shelling and fighting have affected eighty per cent of the country’s 25 million people. 

• In South Sudan, nineteen months of conflict have contributed to food insecurity. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that more than forty per cent of the population there face hunger.

• In Ukraine there are an estimated 1.3 million internally displaced people, which is putting strain on host communities in the Ukrainian Government-controlled areas.

The list of conflicts could go on……

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that appeals for humanitarian relief funding have soared. Thus, this is the time to be asking fundamental questions. Humanitarian needs need not be ever-increasing. How could we collectively act to stem the tide and reverse current trends?

This is intrinsically a development question. Humanitarian needs will shrink when and where long-term sustainable development based on peaceful and inclusive societies is achieved.  That’s why the proposed SDG, Goal 16, on this is so important.  

New Zealand can lead in this area: our country has a reputation for being fair minded and wanting to contribute to resolution of the world’s conflicts. Investing in what might prevent them in the future is important too. If Goal 16 were universally achieved, the conflicts we see destroying lives and hopes and driving so many desperate and dangerous journeys to other lands could become a thing of the past. 

Implementing the new global agenda

Let’s come then to implementation – the best agendas are more words on paper unless they can be advanced. 

The good news is that our world has more wealth, more knowledge, and more technologies at its disposal than ever before. The challenges we face are mostly human induced. We can tackle them, but not if we keep doing business as usual and expecting different results. 

Radical adjustments are needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities. There is capacity to be built. Governance to improve. Sweeping policy, legislative, and regulatory changes are needed. A commitment to lasting peace and stability based on peaceful and inclusive societies is essential.

Leadership – fearless leadership – is needed to realize the better world envisioned in the SDGs. 

First, leadership is needed on finding the funding required. Money isn’t everything, but it certainly helps, including through Official Development Assistance (ODA).

To put ODA in perspective, it amounted last year to $135.2 billion. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has forecast that to achieve the SDGs by 2030 in key sectors like food and nutrition, water and sanitation, and health, $3.3 to $4.5 trillion would need to be invested each year. 

So ODA is a small part of the financing picture. But that is all the more reason to be insisting on it being smart and effective, and to focus it on:

• building national capacities for inclusive and sustainable growth, to spark domestic resource mobilization from that growth, and to improve countries’ ability to trade and attract quality loans and investment;

• averting the crises which keep wiping out development gains, and supporting countries to emerge from conflict and get back on track for development. Risks of disaster, conflict and disease outbreaks are now the norm, not the exception; these risks need to be understood, planned for, and financed. Yet, currently, for every US$100 spent on development aid, just forty cents is estimated to go into protecting that development from disaster. With trillions to be spent on infrastructure between now and 2030, it’s vital for  development to be risk-informed;

• hard as it is, complex as it is, we need more investment in building the foundations of peace and stability, good governance, and inclusive and sustainable development in these most challenging of contexts; and

• ensuring all financing – development and humanitarian, international and national, public and private – works together to address risks and vulnerability. 

A new framework for financing for development was agreed at the Third International Conference on that theme in Addis Ababa last month – the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.  In many ways, it catches up with the reality that most development is financed through domestic resource mobilization. 

UNDP launched a new initiative with the OECD there: Tax Inspectors Without Borders. It will place international tax audit experts to work alongside national tax authorities to enable them to assess and collect the tax they should be being paid by international companies.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda also established global technology and infrastructure mechanisms, and set important priorities for development investment – including in social protection, jobs creation, nutrition and agriculture, and more. 

Second, broad coalitions of leaders are needed. Clearly governments acting alone can’t achieve the goals envisaged in the new global agenda. Their leadership is vital, but insufficient – broader leadership is also required. That includes leadership from civil society – our NGOs, scientists, researchers, and academia; and from local government too – their role is critical. 

As well, the private sector must be engaged. How business does business and where it invests will have a huge bearing on whether the SDGs can be achieved. The commitment of business needs to go beyond relatively small scale corporate responsibility projects, and into commitments to shared value, inclusion of micro-enterprise and SMEs in value chains, and environmentally sensitive development. New business models and innovative partnerships need to be built.

Being an optimist, I look at what is happening with the palm oil sector. Vast areas of tropical forest have been cleared for palm oil production over the years.  Now, however, up to ninety per cent of the buying power of palm oil is estimated to be signing up to deforestation-free supply chains. The message is: don’t even bother deforesting for palm oil production – there will be no market for such product. 

These commitments were in evidence at last year’s Climate Summit at the UN – where the New York Declaration on Forests was signed by representatives of governments, business, and indigenous people and civil society groups.  UNDP led for the UN on the preparation of the forest action stream for the Summit. Now the aim is to expand this approach into other areas of commodities’ production – soy and beef production are obvious candidates. This is an agenda on which New Zealand can lead, based on our experience of stopping the destruction of native forest on all public land.

To come back to the driving principles of the new global agenda, it is as relevant to a developed country like New Zealand as it is to a least developed country. Of course there are very different starting points. But everybody needs to be on board with sustainable development. On areas like climate change, the poor and vulnerable, who have contributed very little – if anything at all to the problem – bear the brunt of the consequences.

That is a reason why developing countries to this day back a “common but differentiated responsibility” approach to action on climate change.  Those who’ve contributed to most to the problem historically should do the most. That leadership should be embraced by developed countries. If that leadership is shown, and if there is greater support for developing countries to make the transition to a green economy, then I believe developing countries too will lift their level of ambition on greenhouse gases emissions reductions.

Third, leadership is needed more than ever from the multilateral system – including from UNDP. We are turning ourselves inside out to play that role. Our job is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way which simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids wrecking the ecosystems on which life depends.

UNDP’s 50th anniversary is coming up on 1 January next year. Since the MDGs were launched, we’ve supported countries to integrate them into their national agendas and take action on them. We have worked to strengthen capacity, share knowledge, and support access to finance. Over the past five years, we’ve led on MDG acceleration – based on government leadership and convening the wide range of stakeholders to tackle the real obstacles to MDG achievement – which are often not the most obvious. For example, high maternal death rates may result not only from the absence of a skilled birth attendant.  There may be no transport to that service; the expectant mothers may be adolescents who experience high maternal mortality rates; and women may not have access to adequate nutrition or sexual and reproductive health services in general.   

To bring down maternal mortality rates, all such issues must be tackled. Solutions may not be quick – but if the real obstacles are identified, and a pathway to change is followed, eventually there will be better outcomes.

Now the UN development system as a whole has the challenge of working with countries on advancing the big, new, complex, sustainable development agenda. Already, where countries are developing their new national development plans, there is close discussion on how to incorporate the SDGs, just as the MDGs were incorporated over the past decade and a half. 


This is a “once in a generation year” for development. It’s a year in which the goals which will guide development for the next fifteen years will be launched. A new global disaster risk reduction framework is in place. A positive and realistic framework on financing for development was reached last month. There is likely to be a new agreement on tackling climate change in December – but the ambition for it needs to be lifted.

By advancing on all these agendas, there is a chance to meet the world’s citizens’ aspirations for a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable future, and for preserving the health of our planet’s ecosystems. 

But sustainable development will remain elusive, and global instability and turbulence will continue to undermine prospects, if business as usual continues.  Volatility is the new normal. 

• The realities of the world we live in must be acknowledged, so that there is earlier, more proactive, and more pre-emptive investment in risk-informed development. 

• The growing inequalities and unchecked discrimination which undermine social cohesion need to be tackled head on. 

• Environmental degradation must be arrested.

• The downward spiral of conflict, instability, and crisis must be halted.

Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change. Ours is the first generation with the know how to eradicate extreme poverty, and secure a more hopeful future for all. For this fearless leadership from us all is needed. 

If we are collectively prepared to step up to realize the opportunity which the 2015 agendas offer, then there’s a chance of achieving sustainable development – and with it better prospects for people and planet.

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