The NS Interview: Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme

“I had more power before but I’ve got more influence now”

You served as a Labour prime minister for three terms. Is that where the similarities with Tony Blair begin and end?
Our major dissimilarities were in foreign policy. As you know, New Zealand did not support the invasion of Iraq. I think that was prescient.

Was there no collaboration?
In the years that I was prime minister and Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were prime ministers, there was quite a lot of policy discussion. But we were much more inclined not to look for market mechanisms in the public sector.

The economist Peter Bauer once described aid as an excellent means of transporting money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries. Does that hold true?
I don't think it holds true, because we are very much focused on systemic change, with a strong emphasis on equality.

You have described the role of the UNDP as providing "the software". What do you mean?
We are not a bank. If someone wants to build a bridge from A to B, there's no point in coming to us; we don't have that sort of money. On the other hand, the planning that goes into a bridge might well be informed by work that the UNDP did to support a country.

Do you think that right-of-centre governments are less inclined to engage with development than left-of-centre governments?
It probably hasn't made a huge difference to the spend: the issue is how big a mess countries are in economically. The size of Spain's economic shock is pretty great so it's cutting back. Britain's problems are considerable, but it has made a deliberate choice under a Conservative-Liberal government to keep the spend up.

Is there a danger that the security agenda could skew where development money goes?
If you neglect those who are currently poor and stable, you may create more poor and unstable people. There has been a tremendous concentration of donor interest in countries that are seen as particularly fragile - but it becomes harder to mobilise money for sub-Saharan, plain poor countries.

It's a difficult sell when governments are preoccupied with Afghanistan.
In sheer development terms, of course fragile countries are very deserving. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. Security issue or no security issue, there would need to be a focus on it.

Are the Millennium Development Goals, which have a target date of 2015, going to be missed?
A lot of moons would have to come into alignment for every target to be met but, at a global level, progress is quite promising. We need to speed up. The poverty goal is certainly within reach; the hunger one isn't. In terms of universal primary education enrolment, we are tantalisingly close. One more heave and we could do it.

What happens after 2015?
There's a debate to be had about whether there's Daughter of MDGs or a case for being bold.

What's your preference?
To be bold and go for eradication of poverty and hunger. I mean, that is the essence of development: you eradicate extreme, absolute poverty and you eradicate hunger.

Only 18 per cent of the world's legislators are women. How should that be changed?
There's no option but to look at affirmative-action measures. We've been involved in supporting countries to draft legislation to achieve that. For example, in Papua New Guinea, we have helped Dame Carol Kidu, who's the only woman member of parliament and the only female minister, to draft legislation for a reserve number of seats.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
No. "Never look back" is my philosophy.

Does religion play a part in your life?
Absolutely not. I have no beliefs of a religious kind.

Is there a plan?
I'm 60 years old, so you could say that more than half of my life has gone by. I'm very happy with it and I regret nothing. The plan is to keep using the talents and leadership skills I have to do some good for the world.

Is there another job after this one?
I love this one. I think I've got the best job in the UN. I was asked: "Did you have more power in your previous position as prime minister or in this one?" I said: "I had more power before; I've got more influence now."

Do you vote?
Yes. I exercise my vote. I'm in New Zealand often enough to keep my registration and I will certainly be voting Labour at the next general election.

Are we all doomed?
No, life's too short to be pessimistic.

Defining Moments

1950 Born in Hamilton, New Zealand
1981 Enters parliament as a Labour MP
1987 Elected to cabinet
1989 Becomes deputy prime minister
1993 Appointed leader of the Labour Party
1999 Becomes first woman to be elected prime minister of New Zealand
2008 Becomes longest-serving Labour leader. Loses general election
2009 Appointed administrator of the United Nations Development Programme