Helen Clark in London, shortly before flying out to Davos
Helen Clark in London, shortly before flying out to Davos

On the eve of the Geneva II summit Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme, is sitting still, for 20 minutes only, in a corner of the St James’ Court hotel near Westminster in London. Although Clark is due to fly to Davos in a few hours, rather than attend the peace talks in Montreux, she has responsibility for Syria, in her role with the UNDP, for planning beyond people’s primary needs.

“We are the step on the road that says how do people build from here – one step beyond food, water, shelter,” she says. “We work to identify the socioeconomic impacts and the response that is needed. It is provoking a developmental crisis beyond Syria – when you have hundreds and thousands of refugees coming to your country, their children need schooling, people need health services.

“I think there is increasing focus on the issue of elements controlling certain parts of Syria – the extremist groups. It is an extremely difficult situation, but both the US and Russia are at the talks as well as the [Syrian] government and the opposition. They are tiny steps in the face of so much suffering – tiny steps.”

Clark’s origins, on a family farm near Hamilton in New Zealand (her mother was a teacher, her father the farmer) were not the obvious crucible for a global leader. But she has an international outlook both in her professional and personal life. She lives in midtown New York, near the UN offices, but spends her holidays in New Zealand and travels constantly both on and off duty.

“I love New York,” she says, “the T-shirt was made for me. I love the opera, I love the theatre.

“It’s been quite liberating really,” she continues. “You come out of the small bubble of New Zealand where everyone knows you and everything you do is written about: you are a public figure. And then you have New York, where you have a very challenging assignment, but you can also have a life which isn’t in the glare of publicity all of the time.”

Despite her clear passion for life in the city, she is adamant she will be returning home. “New Zealand is my home. I will return,” she says. Then after a pause, adds: “But not just yet.”

Helen Clark as a child on her parents’ farm
Clark as a child on her parents’ farm

The yen to return is no surprise given that Clark, 63, was prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. She is now in her second term as the UN’s third highest-ranking official and Syria is uppermost in her mind.

“It’s been a rollercoaster of a 24 hours,” she says, having just given lectures for Women of the Year and the London School of Economics. At the same time the talks on Syria had seemed on the verge of collapse after UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon invited Iran to the summit, prompting Syria’s main opposition group to threaten to pull out and strong protests from the US and its allies.

“I don’t think [Ban Ki-moon] got it wrong but I do think he had to review it in the light of changing circumstances and reactions,” says Clark. “Clearly he believed he had an understanding on the kind of contribution Iran would bring to the talks.

“It’s obviously been a long 24 hours in the life of the UN, but let’s see what happens tomorrow and the day after and the day after. The job of the UN is to make sure all parties come to the table and to come up with a formula that maximises attendance.”

She says the UNDP is working in Syria on a cash-for-work scheme to support communities in their efforts to rehabilitate wrecked lives or infrastructure. “There is one story where farmers have a devastated water supply and agriculture production has gone down, and some of the old Roman wells have been dug out . . . So one of the work projects got people to rehabilitate these water sources to get through to the farmers and the households so they could start producing it again. If you support people to do cash for work, it gets money into the people’s pockets so you can start the market activity going again. It has a positive effect in stemming the refugee flow as well.”

She describes these kind of projects as “humanitarian plus”, and adds: “Life must continue. We are calling it a ‘resilience-based approach’.”

So how did life on a sheep and cattle farm in rural New Zealand sharpen Clark up for this global role? “[School and university] was where I got involved, as a student in the late 1960s,” she says. “It was an amazing time. This was the time of the Vietnam war, which New Zealand had donated troops to; it was the time of apartheid in South Africa and there was the nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

“When I was a young student, the New Zealand government was unsympathetic on all three counts: it tolerated apartheid, didn’t say much on nuclear because traditional allies had them and it did not want to speak up, then the government sent troops to Vietnam. So as a student, you gravitated to the party that was prepared to say something.”

Clark says the choice to move from activism into making politics a career was a watershed moment. “There comes a point when you think: do I stay involved as an activist and have a mainline career but do party stuff on the side or do I want to make politics a career? If the opportunity comes to make politics a career, and you want to try it, you’ve got to take it: opportunity doesn’t knock twice.”

When she eventually became prime minister there was no time for self-congratulation. “At that point, [once you win] you’ve got to get on with it . . . you don’t really have time to celebrate. Opposition is like rust – it never goes away even when they are badly defeated,” she says.

Clark learned to live life on the front foot: constantly in battle mode. Yet she says throughout her nine years at the helm, she encountered very little sexism. “You don’t get it when you are at the top,” she says. “It’s getting there – I had to break the glass ceiling because no women had won a general election through the party before. Earlier in my career it was harder to establish because there wasn’t a role model.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was prime minister of Norway three times in the 1980s and 1990s, was for Clark the best role model. “She got on with the job and was very task focused.” Brundtland also went on to head a UN organisation, forging a path which Clark herself has now followed.

“Who in New Zealand knew the Norwegian PM? Who could remember Golda Meir? Yes, they knew about Margaret Thatcher, but she wasn’t seen as anyone remotely like me, so you really did have to break through a number of stereotypes.”

Clark has certainly done that – in spades. The role model she offers today is that of a powerful woman possessing common sense, humility – and with her feet firmly grounded.

Lake Karapiro, near where Clark grew up on New Zealand’s North Island
Lake Karapiro, near where Clark grew up on New Zealand’s North Island


To see a video of Helen Clark’s Women of the Year lecture, go to womenoftheyear.co.uk

Get alerts on Helen Clark when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article