Volatility and the ‘new normal’: A discussion with Helen Clark


Helen Clark in Zadar, Croatia. Photo: UNDP

Last week, at the International Development Conference for South-South Cooperation, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with my boss: former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Forbes’ 23rd most powerful woman in the world, and (to my delight) Blood on the Tracks-era Bob Dylan fan, Helen Clark.

Ms. Clark is presiding over the UNDP at a time when great change is underway both within the organization and beyond. Among all the things I wanted to know, one theme seemed to tie it together: How is UNDP preparing for a future that seems to be more and more difficult to predict?

The scale of South-South cooperation is dramatically increasing. What does this mean for the future of development?

South-South cooperation is growing fast because the geopolitical and geo-economic strength of the South is growing fast.

If we look broadly at South-South cooperation there’s not so much in the form of outright grant aid of the kind the traditional donors have been giving but there’s certainly a lot of technical assistance, there’s a lot of infrastructure investment, there’s a lot of soft loans, a lot of knowledge sharing and this has to be positive.

This week also saw a conference on foresight methodology for development and the new ways we’re trying to bring innovation into a world where extreme climate events and burgeoning civil conflicts are the norm.

How do you think UNDP is planning for an increasingly uncertain future?

Well volatility is the new normal. Let’s start with that assumption.

But that’s not to say, that if we horizon scan systematically, we won’t see what’s possible. We will see what’s possible.

Now with the Arab uprisings, if you go back nine years before those began, UNDP was issuing Human Development Reports, which set out the development challenges and expressed concerns about what could happen if these significant deficits were not addressed.

So you could say UNDP has been on to things a long time before others because it does stand back – particularly through the human development reports traditionally, country by country - and look at the trends. We have to really step up on that.

But how do we do that?

Well, firstly, you’ve got to have the ability to scan the horizon for possible breakdowns in social and political cohesion; to the extent the country will blow apart. And start to address the underlying factors, which are causing that apprehension…

If we’re not on top of it, if we’re not systematically informing other partners, if our programming is not relevant - you end up with what you and everyone else is doing in ruins, because the place blew apart.

With the forecasting around disaster risk and climate, we’ve stared into the future with Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy; we pretty much know the worst that can happen. And it means lifting disaster resilience to new levels…

We can very much be part of encouraging countries to get better disaster risk reduction in place. Not only early warning systems, it’s actually the zoning: Where should people be living? Is the infrastructure disaster proof? A developed country suffers far fewer losses in these adverse events than a developing country.

You’ve been a huge proponent of innovation for development from the get-go.

Here at Regional Centre for Europe and Central Asia we’re working hard to push that agenda, experimenting and prototyping all sorts of projects from mobile apps for transparency in Ukraine to gaming for unemployment in Moldova.

What are your thoughts on UNDP’s work in innovation thus far and where do you see it going over the next few years?

Well I hope we’ve taken the cork out of the bottle and encouraged UNDP to be extremely socially entrepreneurial and look at new ways of engaging people to lead their own development.

I think that technology makes it possible to work with civil society – and individuals - in a way that was never possible before.

Now clearly the relationships with governments remain the basis for our presence in the country but with innovative approaches we can engage people, and their organizations, and their communities in ways, which could not have been envisaged before the technology revolution.

So I’m very excited by a lot of the things that are happening and I think they will turbocharge development.



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