A United Nations for these modern times – part one

Helen Clark Commonwealth Lecture 2015Whilst waiting for my next assignment – wherever that may be – I’m making the most of home time in England. So on Thursday, 9th April, I attended Helen Clark’s Commonwealth lecture at the Guildhall in London. Ms Clark, UN Development Programme’s current chief and a former Prime Minister of New Zealand, is tipped as a potential United Nations Secretary General. So her views could speak volumes about the future direction of the organisation. The theme of her talk was Youth, Innovation and Sustainable Development: the Commonwealth in a post-2015 world. Apt considering that “three in every five Commonwealth citizens are under the age of thirty” (her words). She continued:

“With youth comes energy, vibrancy and optimism – if there is a supportive environment and opportunity. That lays the ground for major positive contributions and a demographic dividend from the largest youth population the world has ever known. Yet a failure to invest in opportunity for youth can quickly lead to the opposite – to alienation and to energy turned to destructive rather than constructive directions. That is a future we invite at our peril. So, what kind of future is currently on offer for today’s children and young people…?”

She highlighted some global gains over the years, such as the halving of extreme income poverty, driven by progress in China. The (near) halving of children dying by age of five. And more women in parliaments around the world.

However, challenges remain. They include:

  • Gender inequality and gender based violence
  • Countries in conflict entrenched in poverty
  • Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few
  • Political exclusion and lack of hope for young people leading to sectarian violence
  • Shocks of natural disasters, climate change and rapid urbanisation

Young people want jobs. Everyone, rightfully, wants fully functioning health and educational systems, as well as good governments. She also noted that development tends to be discussed separately from conflict at the United Nations. Not always helpfully I presume.

Moving forward

The United Nation’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests that the post 2015 development agenda should comprise the following six elements:

  • Human dignity – fighting inequality of all kinds
  • Meeting the basic needs of people – jobs, social protection, etc.
  • Prosperity – economic growth
  • Planet – growth not at the cost of ecosystems
  • Partnerships – governments can’t build sustainable development alone. They need civil society, science, private sector…
  • Justice – peaceful and inclusive societies and institutions

There were some interesting Q&As. For example, a delegate suggested that micro financing is just as important as grand schemes. A point that particularly resonated with me, though, was one about the crisis in confidence towards institutions such as the UN, Commonwealth and European Union. And it’s not just the younger generation who are increasingly disillusioned and cynical about the effectiveness of these organisations. Will the sustainable development goals give space to addressing this deficit? ‘Someone has observed that we have more multi-polarity but not more multilateralism’ noted Ms Clark, who also posed the (rhetorical?) question: have too many been marginalised and excluded for too long?

As far as the post 2015 global agenda and environment is concerned, people often feel that the pace of multilateral institutions can be ‘glacial’, she said, with “the architecture of key multilateralism from the UN Security Council to the IMF being frozen in time.” The problem, she pointed out, is that we don’t have a whole lot of time.

Watch Helen Clark’s lecture here –


Published by Mail

International communications consultant

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