The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Helen Clark’s New Job

Posted by caitlinate on April 2, 2009

Yesterday, Helen Clark was confirmed as the new administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This is generally regarded as the third most senior role within the UN. The UNDP is overseen by a committee consisting of the heads of all the UN funds, programmes and departments – the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) – and Clark is now the chairperson of this group.

In case you didn’t know, Helen Clark is the ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand (voted out of office last year after three terms). Although this isn’t a post about the success of an Australian woman I think a bit of regional focus never goes astray, particularly when we’re talking about someone who has done some pretty amazing things. Clark may have her faults and whilst I am critical of some of the policies and practices of the Clark government (such as those to do with Maori issues), I still have some pretty heavy duty respect for her.

Under her watch progressive laws in relation to Civil Unions were enacted (Clark thinks “legal marriage is unnecessary”), paid parental leave was introduced, as was the Property (Relationships) Act, giving rights to defacto couples, not just those in state recognised unions or marriages. The Education Act was amended to make sex education compulsory and involve content that dealt with homosexuality. Prostitution was decriminalised forcing police ‘best practices’ to change from registration and prosecution to protection and allowing sex workers to operate under regulated employment and health and safety standards – all whilst maintaining a distinction between voluntary and involuntary prostitution! New Zealand is internationall recognised as having one of the best systems in relation to prostitution laws (though I still personally champion the Swedish version over all others).

Even way back in 1989 Clark was busy, successfully introducing a legal amendment enabling female minors to have abortions with full confidentiality and without parental consent. The following year she achieved the repeal of the law forbidding access and instruction in contraceptives to under 16s. She is publicly quoted as saying:

“I’ve always believed that in the end it is a woman’s right, in line with her own conscience, to determine whether or not she has an abortion and you know that’s the view I will hold until I go to the grave.”

How often do we hear that in mainstream Australian politics??!?!


During Clark’s term in office women held a number of prominent offices such as: Governor-General (held by Silvia Cartwright, previously a member of the United Nations committee monitoring compliance with the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and generally an all round awesome woman), Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice and were really well represented within Parliament.

Clark identifies confidently and publicly as feminist and was never afraid of publicly calling out male party members on their sexism, happy to name names and explain in detail why men she was working with were f*cked. I really believe that it is in large part thank to Clark that New Zealand ranks so highly in surveys like the Global Gender Gap.

Which is why I feel this appointment is pretty-darn-good-news.

Okay. Just to fill you in on what the new position means. The UNDP is the UN’s ‘global development network’. They advocate for change (through the use of international aid) and try to connect countries to resources and information from which they can then create their own solutions to ‘developmental challenges/issues’. Some of their key aims are the reduction of poverty, the prevention of HIV/AIDS, the promotion of sustainable development and crisis prevention & recovery (like restoring the rule of law after violent conflicts and/or natural disasters).

Almost all of this is done in the context of striving for gender equality and the empowerment of women.
From their site:

“Gender equality and women’s empowerment are human rights that lie at the heart of development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Despite the progress that has been made, six out of ten of world’s poorest people are still women and girls, less than 16 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women, two thirds of all children shut outside the school gates are girls and, both in times of armed conflict and behind closed doors at home, women are still systematically subjected to violence.”

To have someone in this role who has displayed a fairly progressive understanding of women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights – and legislated accordingly – is something I find fairly confidence inspiring. I have a lot of critiques of the UN – that I’m too tired to go into right now – and I don’t think Clark is by any means perfect or my political ideal; but I think she gets it and I think there is the possibility of her pushing the UNDP towards achieving wonderful things. She’s an ambitious woman and I don’t believe she will be at all interested in resting on her laurels. I feel wholly certain she is going to be really active in her position and, I hope, that this can only mean good things for women around the globe.

I’m giving Clark the last word on her new job:

“Firstly I said the thought the job at this job was a leadership job and not a job of a development expert. You look at the multiple crises the world is facing and I think we appreciate them here, whether it’s the international recession, whether it’s the climate change challenge, the fuel and energy crises we go through, the water crises, the food price shortages and crises.

Now, if we feel all of those things, imagine what it feels like to be a very poor developing country. It is agony. And you’re starting to see the international reports and statements now about what this recession will do to people in say, sub-Saharan Africa. It’s knocking the bottom out of what was barely a liveable income in any case, so I said that it seems to me this is a job that now needs high level leadership”

4 Responses to “Helen Clark’s New Job”

  1. Deborah said

    This is a great post, caitlinate. Having been in New Zealand for most of Clark’s nine years in power, I find that although she is one of my heroes, someone I admire enormously, and someone who has achieved great things, I still feel ambivalent about some of the things that happened during her last term. I’m a Labour voter, usually, but last election I couldn’t bring myself to vote Labour, and I ended up casting a vote for the Maori party instead.

    Having said that, she’s a marvellous leader. Something you haven’t mentioned in your post is that not only is she explicitly feminist, in deeds, not just in words, but she is also very astute with respect to international affairs. NZ has done very well in recent years, creating a new relationship with the US, aligning itself with Pacific nations, creating links through to China, getting heard in international forums, far more so than should be the case for a very small nation 5 million people, 1 million of whom don’t even live in NZ. And that’s been due in large part ot Helen Clark’s proweress. I think those skills, and her own personal standing, will help her enormously in this job.

    I start to feel a little hopeful when a feminist is high up at the UN, and another feminist is Secretary of State of the USA.

  2. I am a fan of Clark since the early ’80′s when I was a lowly pol sci undergrad student and she was an opposition back bencher. She graciously gave me an hour of her time to talk to me about women in politics for a research assignment I was doing. She was the only female member of parliament to do so at the time, though they were few and far between back then.

    She has always stood her ground. Was a strong supporter of NZ being a nuclear ship-free zone. Not afraid to speak her mind.

    No prime minister who survives 3 terms in office is going to be popular to the end and being an ex-pat it’s easier for me to sing her praises from across the Tasman but those idiots who voted in the neo-con, National Party that replaced her are not going to be laughing for long. Clean, green NZ no more :(

  3. Sara Lewis said

    Great post, Caitlin.

    I’m much the same as you, Deborah. I’ve always been a fervent supporter of Helen, but her last term was so hazy in its ambition and the last elections were so clear-cut from the start that I voted Greens – a party that is completely dedicated to the kind of change I wish for in New Zealand. Speaking of the Greens, another great Kiwi MP that wasn’t mentioned here is Jeanette Fitzsimmons, co-leader of the Greens! I only hope that she can be replaced by another exemplary female leader when she steps down in June.

  4. Liz said

    Good for her,she’s put in her time and deserves “a boy’s job”, maybe the UN will now move towards activity and productive viewpoints.

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