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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

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.