The Helen Clark appointment

While Helen Clark’s appointment to a four year term as administrator of the United Nations Development Plan is a major personal achievement, let’s not lose our heads about this. Her predecessor, Kemal Dervis was the former finance minister of Turkey and is a household name only in his own household. Quick quiz – how many former chiefs of the UNDP can you name? William Draper, Mark Malloch Brown, Bradford Morse… the hits keep on coming. Arguably, the most illustrious former holder of the post was Paul Hoffman, one of the architects of the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s.

Development is a difficult task at the best of times, and as Victoria University’s Andrew Ladley pointed out on RNZ this morning, UNDP is a huge bureaucracy with ambitious goals, spread thinly over more than 100 countries. Ironically, some of those so called Millennium Development Goals – to halve poverty by 2015, partly by getting developed countries like New Zealand to donate .7% of their GNP in foreign aid – will put Clark on a collision course with the Key government.

Foreign Minister McCully for instance has explicitly ridiculed the very idea of using foreign aid to alleviate poverty, and likened the process to flying around in a helicopter and throwing money out the window. Presumably, this is not what he thinks Helen Clark’s new job will entail. In this year’s Budget, there will be little room to increase New Zealand’s foreign aid contribution, currently limping along at around .35% of GNP. However, given the way the New Zealand economy has contracted during the past twelve months, much the same amount of money – or less – could keep the ratio looking much the same, or even better.

The Key government – by re-directing our foreign aid into serving our own economic and diplomatic interests in the Pacific – is at odds with the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. In recent weeks both the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon and the IMF have called on developed countries to take action to alleviate the effects of the global recession on poor and vulnerable countries. Instead, New Zealand plans on using its foreign aid as corporate welfare – to subsidise Air New Zealand services in the Pacific, for instance.

In her new job, Clark will have more pressing priorities than New Zealand – but it means that she can hardly cite her home country as a shining beacon for others to emulate, and any applause from the Key government for her appointment has to ring hollow, given the direction in which aid policy is currently being steered. The upside is that having Clark in this top UN job is more likely to shine the local media spotlight on the decisions that New Zealand makes about foreign aid, and about our UN Convention commitments.

One of the factors that made Clark’s appointment possible has been the direction of foreign policy during her administration. There were other, excellent reasons for New Zealand not being involved in the war in Iraq – but Clark’s appointment to her new UN job would have been unthinkable if New Zealand had signed on as part of the so called ‘coalition of the willing.” It’s a fair bet that no Australians made the shortlist.

In that sense, Clark’s appointment neatly crystallises why it is important for New Zealand to play a neutral, ‘Scandinavian’ role in military and diplomatic affairs, rather than be an obedient and predictable member of the Washington-London-Canberra club. If, as the National Party was urging us to do, we had signed on whole heartedly with George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard in their post 9/11 adventures, New Zealand’s standing with the majority of the world’s nation’s would have been far lower, and Clark would have not stood a chance of being endorsed by the General Assembly. In essence, militant membership of the old colonial club does damage to our international standing.

The UNDP – and the Obama administration – both have a particular interest right now in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The UNDP will be a useful tool in the hearts and minds run-up to the Afghan elections in August. Again, the choices under the last government have uncannily played into Clark’s hands in assisting her application. To date, New Zealand’s main contribution in Afghanistan has been the PRT reconstruction work in Bamiyan province, one of the few success stories in the entire country since the defeat of the Taliban government.

Clark will have her work cut out exporting that success anywhere else in the country, or in the region. Few people though, as Ladley indicated, will be expecting miracles. As administrator of the UNDP, Clark sits atop an entrenched and complex bureaucratic machine that has ambitious goals and declining resources, in conditions where delivery on the ground will all too often be at the pleasure of some of the world’s least attractive and inefficient regimes.

Talking about unattractive regimes… the by-election in Mt Albert will be an interesting test of both the Key government’s popularity, and the Labour Party’s selection processes. While Labour’s majority of 10,351 is a stiff hurdle to overcome, a messy selection process is something Labour will need to avoid. List MP Phil Twyford has been tipped as the front-runner, and would be a solid choice.

As the Dom-Post’s Tracy Watkins has pointed out, Labour may need to treat Clark’s departure in tandem with Michael Cullen’s imminent exit, and ensure that a list solution doesn’t eventually return the likes of Judith Tizard to Parliament. A non-list solution in Mt Albert – the Dom-Post suggests lawyer Helen White – and the conservation of list names like Twyford or Damien O’Connor to block Tizard (and others adjacent to her on the list) might best serve everyone’s longer-term interests.

Among other things, Clark’s departure for New York only serves to underline the pigmy status of those who have succeeded her but then again… we have always preferred warm and likeable mediocrity to the pricklier, cooler forms of excellence. On a personal note, Clark was always a rewarding person to interview – you always felt you had a chance, if the questions were good enough. She lacked the insecurity that makes a lot of politicians run and hide from engagement. Even her bluffing rarely insulted the intelligence.

The downsides? Well, there was the innate, much-noted conservatism. Like Cullen, she had an aversion to empty radicalism and treated it as a sentimental indulgence. Clark didn’t have a lot of time for romantic failure, formerly a big part of the Labour tradition. She also displayed an almost papal calculation and ruthlessness, manifested in her being willing to jettison almost anyone for what she saw as the tactical necessity of the time. Unconditional loyalty was something she reserved for the very, very few.

The jury is probably still out on whether some form of emotional distance is a good or a bad thing in a national leader. You know the scene at the end of Godfather II – where Michael Corleone sits alone, having disposed of virtually everyone, for the sake of the enterprise ? There was quite a bit of Michael Corleone to Helen Clark, from the early humanity to the later creature of the machine, doing what was felt to be needed.

Running the country, at the end of the day, is not a popularity contest – it is in one obvious sense, but John Key has yet to learn the ways that leadership isn’t about being popular. Helen Clark sensed that from the outset, acted accordingly, and expected the country to get it, finally. Which it did for a while – until it got tired, and plumped for what looked like a softer option.


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