“The Importance of Cities’ Leadership on Sustainable Development”. Keynote speech at Tokyo Forum for Clean City and Clear Sky. Tuesday 22 May 2018


Rt Hon Helen Clark: “The Importance of Cities’ Leadership on Sustainable Development”. Speech at Opening session of Tokyo Forum for Clean City and Clear Sky: International Environmental Conference. Tokyo, 9.45 am Tuesday 22 May 2018.

 Thank you, Governor Yuriko Koike, for inviting me to address this prestigious forum today.

 I am very pleased to be back in Tokyo – a great metropolis which I first visited in 1975 as a youth leader from New Zealand. I sailed here as a participant in the Japanese Youth Goodwill Cruise – now the Ship for World Youth programme – and have returned on many occasions in a range of capacities, including as New Zealand Prime Minister and as UNDP Administrator.

 Governor, you have convened this gathering knowing not only that the world’s cities face many interlinked challenges across the environmental, social, and economic spheres, but also that there are ambitious global agendas which are highly relevant to the world’s cities.

  • Those agendas include not only Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – with SDG 11 dedicated to cities and human settlements, but also
  • the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which was agreed on by UN Member States meeting three years ago. As host of the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan was active in sharing lessons learned from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.
  • the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development,
  • The Paris Climate Agreement;
  • the New Urban Agenda agreed at the UN’s Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, and
  • the outcome of the 2016 UN Global Sustainable Transport Conference.

 Across those agendas there is a common vision for the world’s cities – in the words of SDG 11, that is to make them “safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable”.

 Achieving those worthy objectives is very challenging – yet achieve them we must if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved.

 In my speech today I will talk about:

  • the challenges cities face globally in achieving sustainable development;
  • the state of play on key SDG 11 indicators; and
  • what cities need to do to speed up progress on sustainability.

 First: the challenges:

We must seek to achieve the SDGs knowing that:

  • urban populations are rising very fast. Half the world’s people live in urban areas now. That will rise to sixty per cent by 2030. Urban populations will almost double in the next forty years. That fast increase will put huge pressure on existing governance, planning capacities, and services. As well, extreme poverty remains pervasive in many cities;
  • climate change is bringing many more challenges – so many of our cities are located in areas vulnerable to major storms and their consequences. Throughout history, we have placed our towns and cities by the coastlines and rivers which enabled us to move on the water before there were roads and railway lines. Now we are paying the price for that.
  • when we add in the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis, overall the disaster risk exposure of cities is great. Our cities host most of the world’s critical infrastructure, political institutions, and major socio-economic architecture – we must work hard to make them and all who dwell in them safe.

 Conference after conference talks about these issues. But it is to you, urban leaders and administrators, to whom the task falls to address the challenges through practical policies and to raise the funding and build the partnerships needed to implement them.

 Second: the state of play on key SDG 11 targets:

The need to adopt sustainable pathways is urgent – before the challenges become overwhelming. The latest progress report from the United Nations on progress on reaching the SDG 11 targets covers air quality, urban sprawl, slum dwellings, and waste management. It tells us that:

  • Nine of every ten people living in cities in 2014 were breathing air whose quality is below the safety standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even worse, half of all city dwellers were exposed to air pollution 2.5 times the WHO standard. Fossil fuel-based energy generation and use and the lack of enough clean public transport contribute greatly to that.
  • The expansion of urban land is outpacing the growth of urban populations. Our cities are becoming less dense, with often uncontrolled sprawl putting strain on access to transport systems and other services. Traffic gridlock and high road accident rates are among the consequences, with low and middle-income countries bearing the greatest burden of fatalities according to the WHO. Greater density of habitation, including through redeveloping brown field and inner-city areas, building higher, and making major investments in public transport is essential for creating the sustainable cities of the future.
  • Thirty per cent of the urban population in developing countries lives in slums. While that proportion is down from closer to forty per cent in 2000, the absolute numbers continue to rise – up from 792 million in 2000 to 880 million in 2014. Concentrations of extreme poverty in crowded and insanitary conditions pose great risk to slum residents and have broader spillover effects – no slum is an island. The 2030 Agenda urges that we leave no one behind – yet not far short of a billion people living in the world’s slums are currently not enjoying the basic elements of a decent life.
  • The lack of emphasis on the importance of decent housing in global development has often puzzled me as a former Housing Minister. A safe and healthy home is the foundation for building healthy societies in the broadest sense. The best education and health systems cannot do their job if housing is damp, insanitary, and without modern energy supply. Cities have a major role to play in planning and also in providing for accommodation which is accessible, affordable, and secure for those of all incomes. So often the poorest live in very vulnerable conditions, on unstable hillsides vulnerable to landslides or at the bottom of ravines or on river plains susceptible to flooding. We can and must do better for the world’s poorest.
  • solid waste management is a significant challenge – if not properly disposed of, that waste is unsightly and insanitary. It may also block drainage systems and contribute to flooding and the spread of disease. One study of arrangements in 101 countries from 2009-2013, cited by the UN progress report on SDG 11, revealed that only 65 per cent of the urban population had access to municipal waste services.
  • As well, there is the imperative of adopting much more ambitious waste management goals like “zero waste to landfill”. Cities can move towards that by:
  • promoting “reduce, reuse, recycle” and “polluter pays” It is encouraging now to see the action being taken in many places against single-use plastics and the move to reusable and recyclable options overall.
  • A good news story on achieving zero waste to landfill comes from the village of Kamikatsu in Tokushima Prefecture here in Japan. It aims to reach that target by 2020. Already all its food waste is composted, and eighty per cent of other waste is recycled. Residents must sort their waste into 45 different categories. This in itself is acting as a deterrent to consumption of non-essential items like packaging. If a small village of 1500 people can be a leader on waste management, then so can the world’s great cities.
  1. So, what will cities need to do to speed up progress on sustainability and achieving the goals of SDG 11?

Above all, the quality of urban leadership and governance matters –city leaders need to bring vision and passion to their job, inspire others, including their public officials, to act, and be inclusive in the way they govern. In support of that:

  1. City governments must be empowered to act. Too often, local government is constrained by overly prescriptive national legislation which limits its capacity to innovate and address issues comprehensively. That must change if city governments are to tackle 21st challenges effectively.
  2. City governments must practise the inclusive and responsive governance called for in SDG 16. They can be models for collaboration between citizens and the authorities – ensuring that all are heard in policy-making, planning, and implementation.

 That means paying special attention to those whose voices have not been heard in the past – the voices of women, of youth, the disabled, ethnic minorities, LGBTI, and of marginalised communities in general. It means reaching out to those who dwell in slums and in the most disaster-prone and crime-scarred communities and committing to work closely with them to address the specific challenges they face. Participatory planning can and must reach and engage all. I saw this at work in Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake where residents of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, took part in discussions about how to make the city more resilient to future disasters. Japan too knows the value of engaging communities in planning for recovery after disasters.

  1. There must be zero tolerance of corruption. So often, citizens get services which should be their right only for a “small consideration” – or, in plain words, a bribe. If city governments aren’t seen to uphold the rule of law, citizens will rightly be cynical of whatever those governments claim to be their priorities. That is not a good climate in which to pursue sustainable development, as the engagement of every citizen and household is required.

SDG 16 has a target which calls for “substantially reducing corruption and bribery in all their forms”. This target should be given priority in our cities – achieving it is fundamental to getting good results from investment in infrastructure, the local economy, and public services.

 It helps to have total transparency on procurement, contracts of all kinds, and audits, evaluations and accounts. There are proven ways of encouraging citizens to report corrupt behaviour – and through smart phone apps this is being made easier than ever before. Ethics and integrity must be accepted as basic values by politicians and officials. 

4) Achieving the SDGs requires a capacity for “whole of government” planning and co-ordination. City governments can lead on this – after all, planning for communities’ basic needs and delivering on those plans are at the core of what city governments do. Most developed countries have long since abandoned any serious attempt at planning at the national level – but their local governments are expected to plan.

  1. The old ways of development pursued at any price to the health and wellbeing of people and the environment must end – we need inclusive and sustainable development which advances human well-being and doesn’t widen inequalities and trash the environment. Growing now and cleaning up later is not an option – that approach has got the world into the mess it is in today with a fast warming climate and loss of biodiversity. We have only the finite resources of one planet to live on, yet we live in a way which assumes that we have the resources of three, four, or more planets. That is unsustainable
  2. Cities’ planning capacities will need to be enhanced for sustainable development. They need capable staff, good policy frameworks, and they must continually modernise and streamline their administration to ensure that it is serving current and emerging needs and not those of yesterday.
  3. Planning for sustainability must cover issues at the heart of this conference like air quality and waste management. But cities must also plan to be equitable, inclusive, and socially cohesive. They should aspire to be hubs of innovation and creativity. They must plan for public space – which is so often sacrificed under development pressures. Our cities of the future must be liveable cities in which citizens are proud to live and where they enjoy both opportunity and security.
  4. Resources: money isn’t everything, but it does help. Local government in many countries feel somewhat constrained by traditional financing options – which may include rates on properties, fees for services, local sales taxes in some jurisdictions, central government grants, and issuing bonds. How to widen financing options is a discussion to be had with central governments country by country. Cities must share experiences about what works.

 For example, what may look like attractive options at first sight may have significant hidden costs. Public-private partnerships for transport infrastructure can be risky to city governments where contracts have been poorly designed.

 On the other hand, productive investment locally is what every city government wants – and getting it should increase jobs and city revenue and thereby contribute to a virtuous cycle of development. Local governments can make their luck in this respect – by ensuring that there a transparent and honest enabling environment and well-designed policy and regulation. There is also the opportunity to steer investment towards sustainability – for example in local energy, transport, and waste management infrastructure and provision.

 In conclusion

The rapid pace of urbanization makes it even more important that the world’s cities rise to the challenge of sustainable development.

 The good news is that there is global leadership being exercised by many cities – take the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group which is in advance of many countries in its breadth of vision for sustainable, inclusive, and climate-resilient cities.

 The history of planning of many cities means that they have a capacity to co-ordinate policy and action across sectors – but now they must put those skills at the service of sustainable development – ensuring that they pursue the health and well-being of people, the local economy, and the environment simultaneously. That is still business unusual for many.

 I wish you all a very productive conference – and hope that you will return home with new ideas and new enthusiasm for pursuing sustainable development – and with the certain knowledge that each of your cities can be leaders on sustainability.

“The Importance of Education in Achieving Sustainable Development”. Keynote speech by Helen Clark to Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers, Fiji, 20 February 2018.


Fiji February Helen at opening CCEM opening group.620

I was honoured to give the keynote speech at the opening of the Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Fiji in February. The Commonwealth has long championed education for development. My speech focused on the importance of achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development 4 on education, but also on how education can contribute to achieving all the SDGs. A fundamental principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to “leave no one behind” – providing quality and accessible education to all is central to realising that objective. The full text of my speech is below: 

Rt Hon Helen Clark

The Importance of Education in Achieving Sustainable Development

Keynote Address to the Opening Session of the Twentieth Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers.

Sheraton Hotel, Nadi, Fiji. 5 pm, Tuesday 20 February 2018

 My thanks go to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, for inviting me to address this Twentieth Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM) on the role of education in achieving sustainable development.

I am delighted that the Conference is being held in Fiji, a country which gives high priority to its participation in international organisations, and where challenges at the heart of the global sustainable development agenda are so pressing, not least those of building resilience to adverse events such as those brought about by climate change.

In this respect, let me acknowledge the severe impact of Cyclone Gita which cut a swathe through the South Pacific in recent days. In Tonga and in Fiji’s southern islands, it is described as the worst storm in living memory, and it caused widespread flooding and water damage in Samoa and American Samoa too.

The peoples of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) of the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean are very resilient – they have lived with extreme weather events throughout human history.

Climate change, however, is an existential threat to SIDS. It raises the level of threat from storms and sea water inundation significantly, and that requires building higher levels of resilience than ever before.

Even if the full ambition of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is realised, we face worsening weather for decades to come. The need for solidarity with the most vulnerable nations is great. They need support for adaptation – and in the SIDS support is needed for recovery from the powerful storms which wipe out infrastructure and livelihoods, and may cause loss of life. Tonga and Fiji’s southern islands have needs right now; and in the Caribbean, Dominica and Barbuda both suffered huge damage last year during a very severe cyclone season.

Recovery must also mean building back better – in efforts to stop the same damage happening to infrastructure and in loss of life as happened before.

We must also acknowledge the ever more severe weather events affecting Africa. There, prolonged droughts, compounded by other factors, have brought some regions in some countries to the brink of famine in the past year, requiring major domestic and international responses.

In the far south of the continent, Cape Town faces the prospect of becoming the first city in modern times to run out of water after three years of drought. Let us hope that the worst-case scenario for Cape Town can be averted, but, even if it is, the message is clear: governments at all levels must be better informed about all conceivable risks and put in place credible measures to manage them.

The theme for this Conference is “Sustainability and Resilience: Can Education Deliver?” The short answer is that, yes, it can – and it must. We live in an age of turmoil and uncertainty. We need education to play its full part in equipping current and future generations of citizens to rise to the challenges which face our world. That means that education has a role to play, not only in meeting the targets of the education SDG, SDG4, but also in contributing to progress on all the other SDGs.

So, let’s consider the task ahead!

First, can I commend the Commonwealth Secretariat for its excellent work in preparing the papers for this CCEM and those which have preceded it.

The Secretariat and its associated organisations were at the forefront of debate about the shape of the new global agenda for sustainable development – Agenda 2030 and its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Back in 2012 in Mauritius, the 18th CCEM set up a working group to provide input on the place of education in the post-2015/post MDGs framework.

Your 19th CCEM in the Bahamas agreed on an agenda to promote Education for Sustainable Development.

Now this 20th CCEM focuses on key themes to take the 2030 Agenda forward by:

  • developing education as a key enabler for sustainable development;
  • building resilience through education; and
  • enhancing teaching, management, and financing to meet these objectives.

Throughout, the CCEMs have grounded their work in the Commonwealth’s values of equity, access, and development. Your efforts are also mirrored in the work of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, of which I am patron, and which has done so much to promote action on, first, the Millennium Development Goals, and, now, the Sustainable Development Goals, across subnational governments in Commonwealth Countries.

Many speakers at this CCEM will address detailed issues of education strategy, delivery, and funding. I will therefore direct my comments to the overarching issue of how education can contribute to achieving sustainable development. I will address three interlinked objectives of the agenda:

  • its fundamental premise that no one should be left behind in development;
  • its objective of achieving high human development for all in ways which don’t imperil our planet further; and
  • the need to achieve peace as a prerequisite for sustainable development and sustainable development as a prerequisite for peace.
  1. Leaving No One Behind

Yes – our world is healthier, better educated, and wealthier than ever before, but the inequalities between us are huge – within many countries and between countries. High inequality is never a recipe for peace and harmony at home or globally.

Many strategies are available to fight inequality – and successful approaches will be comprehensive ones.

An indispensable component of those strategies will be quality education for all, enabling each human being to reach their full potential and contribute to society.

In the Commonwealth, it’s estimated that thirteen million primary school-age children are not in school, and twenty million of secondary age aren’t either. Four hundred million Commonwealth adults are illiterate.

Each of those people has been left behind by the society of which they are part. That isn’t good enough. Each human being denied education is a human being denied opportunity – and is being denied the right to education enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which has its seventieth anniversary this year.

While the world has made tremendous progress towards gender equality in education, the girl child still faces particular barriers. Each year some fifteen million girls are married before the age of eighteen – that’s estimated to be 28 girls every minute, or one every two seconds.

Many of these girls have not been able to finish their education. Early pregnancy is among the leading causes of death for girls aged fifteen to nineteen worldwide. And child brides face a significantly higher risk of contracting HIV.

But turn that around by enabling every girl to complete her education and make her own choices about her life. That helps to:

reduce poverty. UNESCO has estimated that each extra year of schooling is associated with increased earnings of up to ten per cent.

reduce maternal deaths, and reduce child mortality too. A child born to a mother who can read is estimated to be fifty per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five.

turn the tide on HIV – research suggests that women with post-primary education are five times more likely to be knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS than are women who are illiterate.

What these simple facts tell us is that education is a foundation for development. Invest in it, ensure everyone has a right to it, and we enable people to live better lives. Whole societies benefit too. That’s why no one must be left behind.

And for those who have missed out to date, investing in basic literacy and other skills will help transform lives.

There’s another major challenge too. We are bombarded now with information about what is termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the potential for disruptive technologies to change the world of work and services as we know them. Technological change won’t stop – the issue is how to enable people to take advantage of it and not be left behind in this new era.

We human beings have proved remarkably adept at adapting to previous periods of technological change. For this one, the contribution of our education systems needs to be at the forefront. People will need broad skills and high digital literacy, and their capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship will need to be developed further to create the world of work of the future.

When I was New Zealand’s Prime Minister a decade ago, we used to say that eighty per cent of our country’s five-year olds would be doing jobs which had not yet been invented. That was before Snapchat, Instagram, and Uber began, and Airbnb was just being founded. Now Uber drivers face the prospect of being made redundant by the driverless car, and lawyers, accountants, and service and manufacturing workers of all kinds will see many of their skills replicated by artificial intelligence.

Education will have a critical role to play in helping us ride the wave of these changes. Not investing in education for this new world will see not only individuals but also whole countries left behind. We owe it to our citizens to give them the best chance they can to be able to participate fully in the economies and societies of the future. We will also have to innovate in social policy and income distribution, but that’s a topic for another speech! 

  1. Providing for people and planet

Achieving sustainable development requires us to think and act holistically. We can be proud of the significant human development gains made in our world, but they’ve been made at a terrible cost to our ecosystems.

The health of our oceans, our forests, our water supply, our climate, and our biodiversity are all at risk from the way we have developed.

The environment is not an infinite resource which just keeps on supplying the natural services we depend on – it can be damaged beyond repair. Of the nine recognised planetary boundaries, it’s said that we have already exceeded two, and have passed the safe operating space of two more, including of our climate.

On the basis of commitments made to date by countries on addressing climate change, we cannot meet the ambition of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, the latest draft report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the 1.5 degree Celsius limit in global warming above pre-industrial levels would be exceeded by the 2040s. Other research suggests that on current trends there is only a five per cent chance that the Earth will limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Without urgent action to curb emissions, we are careering towards a 3-4 Celsius future. The consequences of that for cyclone- and drought-prone countries, and indeed for us all, would be catastrophic.

The harm we are doing to our ecosystems now threatens to undermine the human development gains we’ve made. That was recognised in the 2011 UNDP Human Development Report on Sustainability and Equity which forecast that on a worst-case scenario, which is not improbable unless we take a radical change in direction, improvements in human development would slow to a crawl and likely regress in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

More recently, the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health found that continuing environmental degradation threatens to reverse the health gains made over the past century. It stated that “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”. Development as we have known it is badly out of balance.

So, never before has the need been more urgent for education for sustainable development.

This could take many forms. For example, the immediate past President of the UN General Assembly, His Excellency Peter Thomson of Fiji, advocated for the inclusion of the Sustainable Development Goals in education curricula. He is right – if we place the new global agenda at the heart of education, we have a chance of future generations avoiding the mistakes current and previous generations have made.

Learners should be enabled to understand our world as a complex ecosystem with finite resources, but also with infinite human capacity to rise to challenges and find solutions if given the opportunity and enabled to acquire the skills and means to do so.

Education can empower each of us and our societies to find ways of lifting prospects for all within the boundaries which nature has given us. If new generations can incorporate these ways of thinking and acting in their value systems, then our common future will become much brighter than it may seem right now.

  1. Peace and Sustainable Development

The 2030 Agenda is clear – there can be no peace without sustainable development and no sustainable development without peace.

Countries mired in conflict can’t get ahead. Lives are lost. Services are curtailed. People flee their homes and communities. Often the environment suffers too as people turn to endangered wildlife for food and scarce tree cover for firewood. And there are spillover effects to neighbouring countries. Some members of the Commonwealth are experiencing these serious effects right now.

When everyday life is disrupted like this, schooling is one of the first services to suffer. Take the severe impact of Boko Haram on education in North East Nigeria. Children literally risked their lives to be at school. Some were kidnapped and some of those are now dead. Many, it seems, were forced into early marriage to Boko Haram fighters. These are heart-rending stories.

Think too of the toll of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and other states on which it predated.

Or think of the children of South Sudan right now – in over four years of violence, more than three million people have been displaced. Over a million have fled across the border – most to Uganda, a Commonwealth country which needs international solidarity to cope with the needs this creates. Seventy per cent of those refugees are children. All up, UNICEF tells us that half of South Sudan’s children are not in school – the highest proportion of out of school children in any country in the world.

Our responses to these crises focus of necessity on the short-term needs, but that should not be to the exclusion of addressing the underlying issues.

That is one reason why the global sustainable development agenda has a goal dedicated to achieving peaceful and inclusive societies based on the rule of law. This SDG16 is sweeping in its reach, with targets ranging from promoting representative, responsive, and honest governance, to reducing all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere.

UNESCO from its outset has promoted peace through education. At its best education should promote tolerance, mutual understanding and respect, and inclusion. Those are building blocks for a more peaceful world.

As well, I suggest, we must engage young people in the search for solutions. Let’s listen to what they have to say about how their societies could be made more peaceful and inclusive. Our schools are the places to encourage young people to think outside the box, to question, to challenge, and to propose solutions. Governments may not always be comfortable with that, but in a world where 1.8 billion citizens are aged between ten and 24, we ignore youth at our peril.

Access to education and skills training can play a big part in building peace. Educated and skilled citizens form part of a virtuous cycle of development. Where people are marginalised and denied hope, education, and opportunity, can we be surprised that negative options become attractive? Unfortunately, we can think of many circumstances where crime in the forms of terrorism and trafficking does pay and where legitimate livelihoods are limited. We need to address the fundamental drivers of these problems, and not just their symptoms. In achieving the peace required for sustainable development, education has a major role to play. 

In conclusion

I am excited by the drive of the Commonwealth to work for sustainable development. I applaud the focus at a series of Conferences of Commonwealth Education Ministers on how education can contribute to that.

The challenges our world faces are great – and they can seem daunting. But we can’t walk away from them. Each of us and each of our communities and countries can make a difference for a better world. Fundamental to making that difference is investing in education as a driver of inclusion and of human and sustainable development. The impacts of that will be felt far beyond measures of educational achievement, important as they are. The knowledge and skills gained will help all countries achieve the vision of the 2030 Agenda for a world without poverty and conflict, where no one is left behind, and where we achieve progress within nature’s boundaries.



“Breaking Glass Ceilings: Reflections on Women’s Leadership”. Speech by Helen Clark at Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines, 16 March 2018.

Manila 2017 Helen at ADB 16 March

“Breaking the Glass Ceilings: reflections on the future of women’s                leadership.”

 Speech at Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines. Friday 16 March 2018.

My thanks go to the Asian Development Bank for inviting me to be the Distinguished Gender Month Speaker for 2018.

My topic is “Breaking the Glass Ceilings: reflections on the future of women’s leadership”.

As you know, I come from New Zealand where women are used to breaking through glass ceilings:

  • we have had three women Prime Ministers in the past two decades;
  • three women Governors-General in the past three decades;
  • for the second time in our history, three of the top four constitutional positions located within New Zealand are currently held by women – that of Governor-General, Prime Minister, and Chief Justice. For close to a year in 2005/6, all four such positions, which include that of the Speaker of Parliament, were occupied by women.
  • As well, women have been Cabinet Secretary, head of the country’s largest company, and heads of government departments and professional associations. Role models for young women abound.

This year, New Zealand celebrates its 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage – it was the first country in the world where women gained the right to vote.  

The Global Gender Gap Report places us in ninth best place, and in the last UNDP Gender Development Index based on 2016 data, we stood at 13th.

Thus, we in New Zealand have much to be proud of – but not all the gender battles have been won. We must continue to campaign for gender parity across politics, the economy and society. A gender pay gap of around twelve per cent in median hourly earnings persists, and a recent study showed that the proportion of women in senior management positions had fallen.

I will draw on the New Zealand experience in my lecture today, and on what I observed in my work leading the United Nations Development Programme for eight years – I was UNDP’s first, and to date only, female leader.

Breaking through glass ceilings is important, and women’s leadership matters. In my address today, I will discuss why this is so, and how the remaining barriers can be addressed.

But first to the normative basis for gender equality. It is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, the United Nations took up the cause of women’s rights as human rights from its earliest days, and has done outstanding work to promote these through:

  • major agenda-setting world conferences from 1975 to 1995 – from Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi, to Beijing,
  • the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and its reporting processes,
  • the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, which is meeting in New York as we speak,
  • the mainstreaming of gender in the programming of its development and humanitarian agencies, along with their many gender equality-specific initiatives, and
  • the creation of a dedicated agency, UN Women in 2010.

The UN’s top position has remained closed to women – but I am very hopeful that the next and tenth Secretary-General will be a woman – after more than seven and a half decades, surely it will be time.

As Hillary Clinton once famously said, “gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

It is clear that the global economic gains from reducing gender inequality are considerable – they’ve been projected at $5.3 trillion by 2025 even if there were only a 25 per cent reduction in the gap.

Put simply, if the full contribution of women to economies and societies isn’t realised, it’s not only women who won’t reach their full potential – whole countries won’t reach their full potential.

The Asian Development Bank has long recognised this simple truth. It adopted its first official policy on the role of women in development in 1985 and expanded it in 1998 to incorporate considerations of gender in all aspects of its work. Ten years ago, it recognised gender equity as one of five “drivers of change” to be stressed in all its operations.

 Around the world, we see other development banks and the International Monetary Fund stressing the importance of gender equality. We see governments of all kinds recognising its importance – Saudi Arabia, for example, may be a late mover in this area, but it is now taking a number of important steps which even a year ago would not have been thought to be likely – for example, by promoting women’s employment, and enabling women to drive, and be at public events which were previously off limits.

 So, you may ask: are the gender gaps reducing as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century?

 Apparently, they are not. The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum told a rather depressing story.

It showed a widening gap on each of the four dimensions it measured: educational attainment, health and longevity, and economic and political empowerment.

On current trends, the World Economic Forum forecasts that it would take 100 years to close the overall gender gap, 217 years to achieve parity in the workplace (across wages, seniority and participation), and 99 years to achieve equal numbers of women and men elected to parliaments.

This is surely utterly unacceptable.

 In the area of leadership, the numbers of women globally are very low. Women are only:

  • 7.2 per cent of Heads of State,
  • 5.7 per cent of Heads of Government,
  • 23.3 per cent of parliamentarians,
  • around twenty per cent of Fortune 500 company board members last year,
  • around fifteen per cent of corporate board membership according to the Credit Suisse surveys of some 3,000 global companies, and in
  • under a quarter of senior management roles in the private sector. Information for the public sector is sketchy but appears to be not dissimilar.

These inequalities are persisting in spite of the clear advantages of having women in leadership positions.

In the corporate world, study after study finds that companies with more women on boards get better financial results. That’s hardly a surprise – those boards stand to be more attuned to the attitudes and behaviours of whole populations, rather than of just one-half of them.

In parliaments and in ministries, a critical mass of women is needed for the perspectives of women to be well reflected in legislation and decision-making – and even just to get issues on the national agenda as priorities. The international evidence suggests that when the numbers of women parliamentarians reach significant numbers, issues previously unaddressed, but of importance to women, will come to the fore – not least those dealing with access to public services and addressing violence against women.

So – what can be done?

There are proactive steps we can take to grow the numbers of women in leadership, but we also need to ensure that women are more fairly represented across all levels of the economic, social, and political organisation of societies. Getting into leadership positions normally involves a progression up the ranks – but women may find it difficult to get on the first rung of the ladder, and when they do, they may find that some rungs are missing for them.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law Report in 2016 found that:

  • around 155 countries have at least one law which discriminates against women,
  • 100 countries put restrictions on what work women can do, and
  • women in eighteen countries cannot get a job without their husband’s permission.

In research compiled for this year’s report, the Bank found that 1.4 billion women lack legal protection against “domestic economic violence” – defined as “controlling a woman’s ability to access economic resources as a form of intimidation and coercion”, and more than one billion women lack protection against domestic sexual violence.

Taken together, these factors amount to significant barriers to women getting ahead. Women need full economic independence, they need access to sexual and reproductive health services, they need to be able to determine if, who, and when they marry, they need safety in their homes and communities, and they need the laws which are supposed to protect their rights upheld. Only then can we expect to see major progress on women’s leadership globally.

For the most part in developed countries, the barriers set out above have been overcome.  Yet others remain. There are, for example, persistent gender pay gaps between men and women. These are perpetuated variously by:

  • work in female-dominated occupations being remunerated less than that in male dominated occupations;
  • the different life cycle patterns of women and men, which see more women taking time out for family responsibilities, and then often not catching up in seniority with male counterparts who had continuous work service; and
  • outright pay discrimination. Even as venerable an institution as the BBC stands accused of paying women presenters and others less than their male counterparts.

Thus, if more women are to rise to the ranks of leadership across all areas of economies, societies, and politics, there is a wide range of structural factors to be addressed. This is as relevant to women rising to political leadership as it is to women rising to be top leaders in major public, private, and non-governmental organisations.

I freely acknowledge that my career path to becoming New Zealand Prime Minister could not have been followed at the time I did that had I had family responsibilities.  I am delighted that both social attitudes and social services have now advanced sufficiently for our new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to be expecting a baby and carrying on with her job. This is a powerful role model for young women in our country and further afield.

Let me now talk about some of the ways of tackling these challenges.


  1. First and foremost, there is a need to make paid work a real option for women with children. It’s not a real option if affordable, accessible, and quality childcare is unavailable, and if there is not an entitlement to sufficient paid parental leave in the time leading up to and after the birth of a child.

My government in New Zealand more than a decade ago took a number of practical steps in these areas, and in recent years I have observed Japan taking similar measures as it endeavours to retain more women in the paid workforce. The models for my government were from Scandinavia, with their excellent early childhood education and care services, paid parental leave when a new baby arrives, and extended annual holidays enabling parents to have more time with their children during school vacations.

Accordingly, in New Zealand more than a decade ago, we:

  • made early childhood education available free of charge for twenty hours a week for all three and four-year odds;
  • introduced paid parental leave as a right in law for the first time; and
  • extended annual holidays an extra week to a statutory entitlement to four weeks.


  1. More broadly, the burden of unpaid work done by women must be addressed. Globally, three of every four hours of unpaid work are done by women. These pressures will increase as our populations age, as it is women who do most of the unpaid elder care work, as they do for children and for family members who are ill or have disabilities.

So, for women to be able to be in and stay in the paid workforce, our social services need to be operating well to lift the unpaid care work burden which is such an obstacle to participation for so many women.

  1. On gender pay gaps and rising to senior management positions, a number of steps can be taken. For example:
  • As New Zealand Minister of Labour in 1990, I introduced pay equity legislation which allowed remuneration in female-dominated occupations to be compared with that in male-dominated occupations with similar levels of competency requirements, and for determinations to be able to be made to lift pay in the former where the gap was attributable to gender. Sadly, that legislation did not survive the incoming government in 1990.

Over time, greater convergence between male and female patterns of working life in New Zealand, and no doubt elsewhere, narrowed the pay gap, but there remains a differential between pay in male- and female-dominated occupations.

An interesting development has been the acceptance by New Zealand courts that claims for equal pay for work of equal value in the care sector could be tested pursuant to the Equal Pay Act of 1972. The Government of the day decided to resolve the issue out of court by negotiation, and then to legislate for the agreement reached. Last June, the Care and Support Worker (Pay Equity) Settlement Act was passed unanimously by Parliament and has led to these workers in these female-dominated occupations receiving pay rises of between fifteen and fifty per cent.

It should also be noted that Iceland has recently passed far reaching legislation which makes it illegal not to pay women and men equally. This appears to goes beyond the normal equal pay legislation. Now Icelandic companies employing more than 25 people must receive official government certification to prove their equal pay policies.

  • Action can be taken to improve the recruitment of women in areas where they are under-represented and to support their promotion into higher levels of responsibility. Measures in these areas are well known to many employers. They include:
  • on recruitment: gender-neutral job advertisements, targeted recruitment, gender-sensitive interviewing, having women on all shortlisting and selection panels, ensuring no all-male shortlists, and, where male and female candidates have equal merit and the target is to lift the numbers of women employed, to opt for the female candidate.
  • on retention: it’s vital to have a conducive workplace culture and practice which is women- and family-friendly and has zero-tolerance for harassment and bullying. The #MeToo movement is bringing a lot of very nasty, and even criminal, behaviour into full public view, and should be a clear signal to all employers of what they must do to keep staff safe from predators.
  • on promotion: mentoring of and targeted talent development for women are vital, and peer group support through women’s networks should be encouraged.

The objective of all the aforementioned measures is to see women more equally represented across all levels of organisations and equally paid.

On overcoming the barriers which are impeding women rising to positions of political leadership:

Addressing the range of barriers, which prevent women fulfilling their potential in the economy and in society will help lay the basis for more women to rise in political systems too.

Globally these systems have long been male-dominated, with the stereotypical image of Members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and Presidents and Prime Ministers being largely that of a male with a supportive wife. This takes some changing, even in democracies of long duration.

Six years ago, UNDP released an excellent Guidebook to Promote Women’s Political Participation. It was based on case studies of what had worked around the world to boost the numbers of women elected. It took a “whole of electoral cycle approach”, looking at what could be done to boost the numbers of women selected and elected, and to support those elected – especially when the entry of women into such positions had been relatively rare.

There is little doubt that the nature of the electoral system itself has an impact on the numbers of women elected. The First Past the Post, single member constituency system of, for example, the United States, the United Kingdom, and – until 1996 – New Zealand seems to be the least conducive to electing women. This may relate to the traditional occupants of constituencies being male and their spouses playing a support role.

New Zealand changed its voting system in 1996 to a Mixed Member Proportional Representation System modelled on that of Germany. Now only half the parliamentarians are elected from constituencies; the other half come from party lists. In general, the parties have made efforts to ensure that their lists are more representative of women – after all, they do want women to vote for them…. In the first MMP election in 1996, the proportion of women elected jumped from the twenty per cent of 1993 to thirty per cent. That was a fifty per cent increase in just one parliamentary term. Women’s representation in the New Zealand Parliament now stands at 38.2 per cent – and reaching parity no longer seems like a distant dream.

The UNDP Guidebook of 2012 highlighted the critical role of political parties in lifting the numbers of women elected. Without their support, the numbers simply will not rise, as most people are elected to most parliaments with the backing of a political party. So, the parties need to be convinced that boosting the numbers of elected women is the right thing to do. That becomes easier with party list systems, where women can be placed in electable positions, and where the absence of sufficient numbers of women may attract negative comment and have adverse electoral consequences. Some parties rank their lists by alternating the names of women and men on each list to boost the chances of more equitable representation.

In some political systems, legislation for quotas has been enacted. There are many examples of this approach in Sub-Saharan Africa – and it does work. Rwanda is the standout example, with 64 per cent of those elected to its House of Representatives in 2013 being women.

Women standing for election need ongoing support from their parties. In general, old girls’ networks do not have the same financial resources as old boys’ networks, so funding for women candidates is an issue. As well, in some countries, women are exposed to greater danger when campaigning, and need support for their physical security.

Post-election, cross-party groupings of women parliamentarians can ensure that women support each other. These become especially important where elected women MPs are either few in number, and/or where there are many new women MPs who are looking for support to do their job to the best of their ability. UNDP has supported a number of women’s parliamentary caucuses around the world.

To conclude

Despite much progress in many places, many glass ceilings remain, and women in leadership positions globally are still a rare commodity.

Those glass ceilings have to be tackled head on – and there are many proven ways of breaking through them. Addressing the basic structural issues is a precondition – women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law and are unable to determine their own destiny.

I acknowledge the efforts of the Asian Development Bank to recruit women to its international staff ranks, and for championing gender equality as a key driver of development. The Bank has walked the talk by incorporating stronger gender design elements in its projects,  and has achieved that in 48 per cent of its lending – almost twice the rate of a decade ago.

The direct and ripple effects of what you do will have immeasurable impact on attitudes to and progress towards gender equality in the countries which you serve. May one of those consequences be the emergence of many more women leaders in all spheres of life across the Asia-Pacific region.













My speech at the launch of Sydney University’s Planetary Health Platform

Sydney 2017 Planetary health December 14Planetary Health Launch Speech 14 Dec 2017

On Thursday 14 December, I was pleased to launch the new Planetary Health Platform at Sydney University. Planetary Health recognises the links between human systems and the earth’s natural systems. If we damage the latter, then we also damage the prospects for human well being.

The landmark Rockefeller Foundation – Lancet Commission on Planetary Health concluded that continuing environmental degradation threatens to reverse the health gains of the past century. It stated that “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and social gains in the present”.

In my speech, I noted that “development”, as we have known it, has been seriously out of balance. The long we travel that road, the more we will undermine development gains, including in health, which we had taken for granted. The issues presented by climate change are especially stark.

To achieve sustainable development, we need to think and act holistically across the economic, social, and environmental spheres. The contribution of universities can be to foster cross-disciplinary research which generates the knowledge required for evidence-based policy. The new Planetary Health Platform at Sydney University is an excellent example of how to build  the basis for co-operation across faculties and research centres in the common cause of improving human health and protecting the world’s ecosystems on which life depends.

The link to my speech is above – under the photo.






Local Government has a big contribution to make in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Malta CLGF 2017.jpg

This week I’ve been in Malta in my capacity as Patron of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF). The Forum works to promote global goals, and has embraced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as not only highly relevant to local government, but also as goals to which local government has a great deal to contribute.

Many of the critical decisions to be made about sustainability lie with local government; for example, on urban design, transport systems, waste disposal, and energy efficiency. Local government can also create environments for productive investments which generate jobs, and it can foster social cohesion with the aim of leaving no one behind.

My speech focused on what would help local government to play its full role with the SDGs. I advocated empowerment of local government to act, noting that many central governments keep local government on a short leash.

I observed that local government should be a model of the inclusive and responsive governance advocated in SDG 16, and work to ensure that the voices of women, youth, and marginalised communities are heard in decision-making.

I underlined how critical zero tolerance of corruption is – to build trust between citizens and authorities.

I noted that local government has a history of planning – but that planning for sustainable development raises new challenges. Grow now and clean up later is not an option. Growth should be both inclusive and sustainable.

On resourcing, I noted that the Addis Ababa Action Agenda from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development offers good guidance, but that there are traps in public-private partnerships if they are not well designed.

Here is the text of my speech CLGF Speech Malta


Gender Equality for Inclusive Development.

Mauritius 2017 Helen addressing Public Lecture 6 NovMauritius Speech on Gender Equality

Today in Mauritius, I delivered a public lecture on why gender equality matters for development, drawing on my New Zealand and UNDP experience. The new global development agenda, Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals identify gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a top priority. SDG Five is dedicated to those objectives, and they are also mainstreamed across all the other SDGs.

It is concerning to read in the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report that the gap is widening. All countries need to make serious efforts to address that. The evidence is clear: gender inequality prevents women reaching their full potential and holds whole countries back.

My speech focuses on women’s political and economic participation, and looks at some of the practical steps countries can take to remove obstacles to that. The text is here: Mauritius Speech on Gender Equality


“The Importance of Decent Work for Sustainable Development”

Geneva 2017 Kofi Annan 31 OctGeneva Graduate Institute speech Oct 31 2017

Last night I was in Geneva to give the keynote address at an awards ceremony at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. The Institute runs an annual international contest on advancing development goals. This year’s contest asked contestants to address the challenge of finding employment for all.

In keeping with that, my address was titled “The Importance of Work for Sustainable Development“. Employment is specifically targeted in Sustainable Development Goal 8. Yet the world is currently experiencing growing unemployment, and tremendous disruption in the world of work. My speech addressed why work matters, the scale of the challenge of achieving decent work for all, and how transitions through the current phase of disruption to work resulting from deepening globalisation, technological change, and tackling the climate change challenge might be managed. The text of my speech is here: Geneva Graduate Institute speech Oct 31 2017

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is shown in the photo above, awarding the prize to graduate students from South Africa for their project on finding employment solutions.

Forced Displacement: Responding to a Global Crisis

Canterbury Cathedral address on Forced Displacement

Last night I was privileged to address the United Nations Day Peace Service at historic Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, United Kingdom. This is an annual service organised by the local branch of the United Nations Association.

This year, the focus of the service was on the world’s major forced displacement crisis and how to respond to it.  65.6 million people were displaced at the end of last year. Close to a third of those are refugees, and most of the remainder are internally displaced persons. I spoke on how the response to this unprecedented displacement crisis is expanding to use the tools of development as well as those of humanitarian relief, drawing on my knowledge of how UNDP and other development agencies are engaged in creating jobs and livelihoods for refugees, the internally displaced, and their host communities. Sadly, many of the crises leading to forced displacement show no sign of ending – hence the need for sustainable and sustained responses.

Here is the text of my address:

Canterbury Cathedral address on Forced Displacement

The collection from those gathered last night goes to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. It does an amazing job leading for the international community on the response to forced displacement, supported by many other international agencies, governments, NGOs, and citizens around the world.

“The Importance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Address to Green Templeton College, Oxford, Foundation Dinner, 30 September 2017

Oxford 2017 Helen at GT College Sat 30 SeptOxford 2017 GTCGreen Templeton College Foundation Dinner Address

I was pleased to visit Green Templeton College, Oxford recently, and to address its annual Foundation Dinner. Improving human well being is central to the College’s educational mission, and many of its activities address how to build more equitable and just societies.

This was therefore an excellent opportunity for me to speak on the importance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for all countries, rich, middle income, and poor, and to comment on how university communities can support its implementation. The link to my speech is above. I was also pleased to interact with students of Green Templeton College at a separate event.

As well, I was the guest at Oxford University’s Women of Achievement annual event, and was “in conversation” with Moira Wallace, Provost of Oriel College on a wide range of issues: https://twitter.com/UniofOxford/status/915245340504322049  Here’s a podcast of the event: http://media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/admin/diversity/2017-10-02_woa_clark.mp4


Keynote Address on Achieving Gender Balance in the Civil Service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 25 September 2017

Saudi Arabia speech 25 Sept 2017Saudi Arabia 2017 Helen and team 25 September

I was pleased to participate earlier this week in a major workshop in Saudi Arabia on achieving gender balance in the civil service.

This was an initiative of the Ministry of Civil Service which is seeking to meet the expectations of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and National Transformation Plan with respect to the advancement of women.

Specific targets have been set in the Vision and the Plan on increasing the participation of women in the workforce, including in the civil service, and in ensuring that the representation of women increases at the highest and most influential levels of the civil service.

In my address, I made a range of suggestions of practical actions which would help achieve gender balance, drawing on my experience as New Zealand Prime Minister and and as UNDP Administrator. A link to the speech is here: Saudi Arabia speech 25 Sept 2017

The photo shows me with the team of key people involved in supporting the workshop.