Helen Clark on the 'marginalisation' of the United Nations, social media success, and why 'the world needs to hear from Emirati women'

The former New Zealand prime minister and UNDP administrator was in the UAE this week for a number of speaking engagements. We caught up with her to talk about life post-UN, Saudi's Crown Prince, social media, and plenty more

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - May 9th, 2018: Interview with Helen Clark, UNDP administrator and former prime minister of New Zealand. Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 at New Zealand Embassy, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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In 2018, the UN is at a crossroads.

The Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance, as the world’s largest Western democracy turns its back on it. It’s been lambasted for its failures to prevent some of the largest humanitarian crises of the last decade: the Rohingya refugee crisis, chemical weapon attacks in Syria, the Iran/ Israel conflict, to name a few. It’s recently faced sexual harassment allegations, and has long been considered behind the curve of gender parity.

Can it survive? Well, the woman many expected to be the first female Secretary General isn’t sure.

As the announcement of the US pulling out of the nuclear deal broke, former UN Development Programme administrator Helen Clark as usual, was quick to air her thoughts on Twitter. She shared a story from World Politics Review asking if the torpedoing of the deal could end up sinking the UN Security Council. "A very good question," she wrote.

Ms Clark, who also served as New Zealand prime minister for three terms, has been in the UAE this week for a number of speaking engagements, and a special screening of Gaylene Preston’s documentary about her bid at the UN’s top job. During a Q&A session after the movie, she told an engrossed audience that she expected the body to be “quite marginalised going forward”.

As we sit down to talk the next day, she is conflicted.

“Life will go on without them but it’s very difficult and it depends now what the next moves are,” she said.

“The secretary general is saying himself we’re in a new Cold War, and it certainly feels like it. And that makes it extremely difficult for the Security Council to function.”


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It’s not the first time Ms Clark has felt compelled to air grievances about her former workplace. But she’s pragmatic, and certainly not bitter.

Two years ago she’d got the results of the final straw poll 40,000 feet in the air, somewhere between Dubai and New York.

She doesn’t remember exactly what it said, but she wasn’t disappointed - that had already hit four straw polls ago when it was clear some who had pledged her votes were lying.

In the United Nations’ 73-year history, all eight of its secretaries general have been men. The ninth had just been decided: it was a man.

Ms Clark’s campaign to have a crack at the top job after six years as head of the UN’s development programme was a social media success story - bookies had her well ahead of the pack, and she was an early favourite in media commentaries around the world. However, at the first straw poll, Ms Clark sat in sixth - and she would only continue to slide down the rankings after each successive vote.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” she says.

“From early August it was reasonably clear that this was becoming an impossible hill to climb, but I think the right decision was to stay in and confront the issue, because if the women simply walked away and said ‘it’s too hard it can’t happen’, that would be very demoralising for women throughout the world. To just walk away from it was unthinkable.”

In the months since Antonio Guterres became Secretary General, Ms Clark has made her feelings clear: the UN simply wasn’t ready for an “independent thinker”, let alone a female one.

Months later, at the end of her second four-year term, she handed in her resignation.

It’s almost been a year since then, and Ms Clark doesn’t mince her words when I ask how life post-UN has been going.

“Great!” she exclaims, before I finish.

“It’s liberating to be post politics and post UN. You’re a lot freer in every sense - to determine your own program, timetable, what you speak on, so I’m enjoying it. I still exercise a lot of judgement on what I say and what I speak on and whether I speak on something at all, but I enjoy the freedom to do that.

“And I never have to attend another boring meeting in my life.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - May 9th, 2018: Interview with Helen Clark, UNDP administrator and former prime minister of New Zealand. Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 at New Zealand Embassy, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

As the first elected female prime minister of New Zealand, “Aunty Helen”, as she’s affectionately known by Kiwis, lead a government that brought in sweeping reforms across the board.

She was also an early opponent of the Iraq War.

“After the inquiry in Britain last year […] there was a bit of a round again of of well, Helen was right. Well, we were right and I knew that at the time - but a lot of people debated it.

“What I look back on with some satisfaction is that those nine years of government - we pushed a lot of envelopes where governments haven’t gone before. Was any of that ever repealed? No. It became the new status quo. I look at people like the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and he’s pushing the envelope and yes people are moaning, but if you can make it stick you bring about a transformation of attitudes.”

Current PM Jacinda Ardern credits Ms Clark as her mentor.

But if there’s one questions Ms Clark hears almost too often these days, it’s ‘what are you doing now?’.

“Actually, I’m busier than I’ve ever been.”

She's frequently travelling around the world to support causes she's passionate about. Last year, she was invited to Riyadh to give a keynote address on gender equality, at the invitation of UNDP and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Civil Service.

Reforms in the country had been “really exciting to watch”, she said.

“Not all of society will be moving at the leadership's pace but if the leadership keeps saying ‘this is the way we want to go’, then usually most people move with it.

“When I posted on social media about it I got such a strange range of comments - but I remember saying ‘Look, the battle for gender equality has to be fought in every family. And not just there [in Saudi] - in every family.’ So it’s an ongoing battle.”

So what for the UAE? Ms Clark’s relationship with the country dates back to 2001 when she invited Emirates to fly to New Zealand, rather than waiting the eight hours to pay parking fees at large Australian airpoints. That paved the way for Emirates to come onboard as chief sponsor of New Zealand’s America’s Cup team, now known as Emirates Team New Zealand, of which she is now patron.

“But the UAE wasn’t really on New Zealand’s radar at all, I had no idea what I was coming to. I remember going home to the capital and saying “It’s the Singapore of the Middle East!’. It really came on the New Zealand radar at that point.”

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE’s first female minister, and Reem Al Hashimi, managing director of Expo 2020, were among her “good connections” here.

“There’s a lot of young Emirati women going places their mothers could never have gone, so it’s all work in progress”.

As for the issues the Middle East was now facing, Ms Clark was quick to rattle off a few.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - May 9th, 2018: Interview with Helen Clark, UNDP administrator and former prime minister of New Zealand. Wednesday, May 9th, 2018 at New Zealand Embassy, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Peace and security in the region was obviously front and centre, especially with crises in Yemen, Syria and Libya, she said, but also Qatar.

“One would hope that somewhere will emerge some leadership which can say it’s the 21st Century where we have a lot of shared challenges, and we have to find a ways of talking to each other. That’s I think what we’re all hanging on for.”

Then there was sustainability challenges, and continued work towards gender equality. Then there was “voice”.

“How over time will young people want more? Will they want more voice and will they want more agency?”

Plenty of young Emiratis were clamouring to fire questions the night before, as locals and expats amassed at Emirates Diplomatic Academy for the movie screening of My Year With Helen. Nuggets of wisdom were gifted to the audience generously.

“We would be blind to reality to not realise there was no gender component,” she told one young Emirati, recalling the UN bid.

“But you know, that is life [...] strength is admired in men and feared in women.”

To another, she referenced her strong social media presence - her Twitter following stands at 178,000, Facebook at 99,000, and on Snapchat she’s incredibly active (but she “didn’t befriend just about anyone because young people do tend to send somewhat silly and vulgar photos to you").

Each speaking engagement typically isn’t over until she’s swarmed by people wanting selfies, and admittedly, I’m no exception. Afterwards, she’s quick to grab my phone and deftly add a quick filter and a crop.

"That's alright isn't it?" she says, handing it back with a smile.

At the time of the UN vote, Guterres’s social media footprint was in comparison, non-existent.

“And what does that tell you? The millennial generation is not yet in power,” she tells students the next day at EDA, alongside former UK ambassador Tom Fletcher, adding that perhaps her stance as the public favourite could in the end have harmed her chances.

But those in search of social media faux pas, or Trump-esque tirades will probably be disappointed.

“The only ones I delete are where I’ve made a spelling mistake. iPhone does autocorrect and that sometimes makes silly mistakes,” she replies when asked if she'd ever regretted a tweet.

But it’s 2018, a student says, surely we shouldn’t still be talking about inclusion?

“Yes but we’re not there yet. In terms of the UAE, 50 per cent are women and the world needs to hear from Emirati women.”

But is it hard to remain so optimistic about issues such as gender equality, when these very issues have railed against you in the past, I ask later?

“It’s one of those last bastions, isn’t it, a bit like the US presidency,” she laughs. “The bastion is going to fall, the question is when and for the UN I hope it’s the next time. It would be nice for the US president to be a woman too, but it’s odd that it’s so tough for the world’s largest Western democracy.”

Besides, it wasn’t the worst thing that has happened to her. That was probably when her mother died, she says. Her 96-year-old father still lives in Waihi Beach, in the North Island. Whenever Ms Clark is back in New Zealand, she cooks enough meals to stock his freezer until the next time she's home.

“If you put everything in perspective in politics, how does losing an election compare to personal tragedies many people have? It’s not like you had a heart attack, or had a stroke or have fatal cancer - it’s an event, it’s human induced and there’s other things to get on with in life. It’s not the end of the world.”

So where exactly does she stand on the future of the UN? Is it Twitter Helen Clark, who ponders whether the Iran nuclear deal fiasco will be the end of the UN, or is it pragmatic Helen Clark who believes they will continue to operate, just “sub-optimally”.

“These are not normal times, but they’re becoming normal times because the problems never go away. I’d see the UN being quite marginalised going forward. Whatever’s happening now ain’t working,” she tells the audience after her movie screening.

“But don’t give up on the UN, it’s the best we’ve got. It could be better, but it’s what we’ve got.”