Rt Hon Helen Clark - The Leadership We need - Sustainable Development Challenges

18 June 2017

Former New Zealand Prime Minister and former head of the United Nations Development Program, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, has delivered the Crawford Oration at ANU.

The Oration marks the start of the 2017 Crawford Australian Leadership Forum.

Below is a full text of the Crawford Oration.

Let me begin by thanking the Chancellor of the Australian National University, Honourable Gareth Evans, for the invitation to deliver this year's Crawford Oration - named in honour of Sir John Crawford, an outstanding public servant, economist and university leader.

I have titled this lecture "The Leadership We Need - Sustainable Development Challenges". Over the next two days, the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum will focus on the need for leadership in many spheres - from economic policy, trade, and investment to global governance and security, migration, the disruptive impacts of technology, and more.

All of these spheres are encompassed in the big and bold 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development agreed by world leaders at the United Nations in 2015. It seeks to eradicate poverty in all its forms and to create a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable world.

That short description alone makes it clear that the global sustainable development agenda is a very large one. My lecture today will cover:
-    the new development-related agendas which the UN's Member States have launched,
-    the challenges in the way of realising the aspirations of those agendas, and
-    the leadership and actions required to move us towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of the 2030 Agenda and other targets set across the agendas.

1. The new global agendas

I have referred to agendas plural, as the 2030 Agenda is complemented by a number of other ambitious global agreements reached over a remarkable two years in 2015 and 2016.

The best known of those is the Paris Climate Agreement reached in December 2015. It was a major milestone reached in the global effort to fight climate change, and took less than a year to enter into force.

Other agreements from that biennium include the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, the outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, the New Urban Agenda from the UN Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, and the New York Declaration from the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants.

Taken together, these agendas call for transformation in the ways we think about and do development.

- First, there is a significant lift in ambition. The 2030 Agenda, is about 'getting to zero' over fifteen years - including by eradicating poverty and hunger entirely, and by ending the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which preceded the SDGs did not dare to be so ambitious, but they did show that determined action to meet targets in key areas like health and education gets results. It remains to be seen whether significant progress can be achieved across the much broader canvas of the SDGs - with their seventeen Goals, 169 targets, and, at last count, 232 indicators comprehensively covering economic and social development, protection of the environment, and peace and governance.

- Second, increasing resilience to shocks is at the core of the new agendas. Those shocks could be economic, social, health, disaster, or conflict-related. All such shocks can drive people back below the poverty line. Yet, in many cases, much can be done to limit the risks of  shocks occurring, and to limit their effects if they do. Investing up front in broad risk reduction and conflict prevention is a high priority in the new agenda.

- Third, the global development agenda is clear that achieving sustainable development requires peaceful and inclusive societies, justice for all, and effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. The 2030 Agenda says: "There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development". This is the first time a UN development agenda has set goals and targets around the governance and capacities needed for such societies to be built.

Yet, clearly goals in this area, as across all the SDGs, will be especially challenging for the 1.4 billion people living in contexts which can be described as fragile. That number was forecast in the UN Secretary-General's Report to the World Humanitarian Summit to grow to 1.9 billion by 2030, and that bleak outlook has to be overcome to meet the vision of the 2030 Agenda.

- Fourth, meeting the goals of all the new global agendas requires the mobilization of unprecedented levels of finance. All sources will need to be drawn on - as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda points out, public and private, domestic and international, and developmental and environmental finance are all needed. I shall return to the theme of the leadership and partnerships required to realise these goals later in the lecture.

2. Challenges in the way of realising the new agendas - to name a few....

a. Eradicating extreme poverty will be extremely challenging. As of now, more than three quarters of a billion people, mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, continue to live in such poverty, defined as living on under US$1.90 a day. Ending that will require tackling persistent inequalities and discrimination. It will require growth which is inclusive of all - women, young people, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and members of minorities of all kinds. It also requires peace and stability. All that speaks to the size of the challenge.

b. Global economic uncertainty -  this seems to be the new normal. The latest UN World Economic Situation and Prospects Report estimates that the world economy expanded by only 2.2 per cent last year, the slowest rate of growth since the global financial crisis. A pick up is forecast over the next couple of years, but a range of uncertainties and downside risks remain. Without steady growth at higher levels, it is not possible for low income countries to achieve the ambitions of the new agenda, and the progress of middle and upper income countries would be constrained too.

c. The employment challenge: the global economy is just not generating enough jobs and livelihoods. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expects global unemployment to rise to a total of 5.8 per cent this year - adding another 3.4 million people to the ranks of the jobless.

The jobs deficit is particularly acute for young people - at 1.8 billion strong, the current cohort of adolescents and youth is the largest the world has ever known. Most of these young people live in developing countries, where their aspirations, energy, and innovation could result in significant demographic dividends - if serious investments in their capacities and in opportunities for them are made. The converse is also true - unemployed, alienated, and disengaged youth are not a recipe for peace and harmony anywhere.

Nor can we entirely predict the disruptive impact of current technological change on the job market - including the scale of replacement of human labour by robots. Past waves of technological innovation were also greeted by concerns about what work people would do in the future - but to a large extent new areas of work kept emerging. But are there limits to that, and will societies need to rethink how to ensure minimum basic incomes for all?

Already Finland is piloting a universal basic income, with the stated goals of cutting red tape and reducing poverty and unemployment, as are provinces and cities in some other developed countries.

d. The impact of natural disasters, including climate change
The scale of weather-related disasters of recent years is the face of the foreseeable future as climate change intensifies. Even if the high ambition of the Paris Agreement is realised - that is to keep the global temperature rise to below two degrees, and ideally to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels, we can expect worsening weather for decades to come.

So, everything possible must be done to support countries to adapt to this outlook, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. In extremis, dramatic weather events bring severe dislocation and death - whether from flooding and cyclones or years of drought. Take Hurricane Matthew in Haiti last October when more than 1000 people died, or the 260,000 who died in the famine which hit Somalia from 2010-2012, half of whom were children under five years of age. Greater resilience to such adverse conditions must be built.

Urbanisation also compounds disaster risks, both by concentrating more people together, and because the poor live in the most vulnerable locations within cities. I shall always remember my visits to informal settlements cascading down the steep hillsides of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Those at the bottom of the ravine are the first to be flooded, and with a major earthquake, like that of January 2010 in which close to a quarter of a million people died, the poorly constructed homes of the poor literally fall down the slopes.    

e. The number of violent conflicts generating massive displacement and creating high levels of need   

When I arrived at UNDP as Administrator in 2009, my briefing notes routinely told me that the number of armed conflicts in the world had fallen. From around 2011, however, that changed. Uprisings and protracted conflicts in the Arab States region account for some of the increase. As well, on the African continent, Mali and Central African Republic descended into deadly conflict in 2012, and South Sudan in 2013. Elsewhere, the insurgency in Afghanistan continues, as does deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.

That long list of troubled countries could be added to, and we must also take into account others which are experiencing waves of terrorism fueled by violent extremism, and still more which are experiencing deadly crime waves. Late last year, for example, I visited El Salvador and Honduras which are both experiencing a scourge of armed violence. Criminal gangs there make the lives of people miserable and dangerous in many places. Persistence of poverty at scale is a significant problem.

Earlier this year, the UN drew attention to the threat of famine in four countries - Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and North-East Nigeria. Those four have one deadly attribute in common - protracted conflict which has seen many people displaced, and unable to produce their own food or earn the incomes they need to buy it. In Somalia, the crisis of conflict has been compounded by three years of drought, producing dangerous levels of food insecurity even in relatively stable areas.

All of these settings generate significant displacement - indeed we are currently witnessing the world's largest ever forced displacement crisis. At over 65 million people, that represents a larger number than at the end of the Second World War.  21.3 million of these are refugees - the far greater number is of the internally displaced.

Meeting the humanitarian needs of the displaced is putting huge pressure on aid budgets, but the greater pressure still is on the societies caught up in these events whose economies and human development can be set back for many years. The impacts are felt not only by the country which is the source of the conflict, but also by neighbours. The economies of Jordan and Lebanon, for example, have struggled since the Syria crisis began, and their public services are under strain.

f. The geopolitical environment in which we are trying to advance sustainable development and build the solidarity it requires.
These are times of both significant geopolitical polarization and of mixed support for multilateralism and official development assistance.

Deep divisions on the UN Security Council prevent it from acting decisively in ways which might bring a number of deadly conflicts to an end. Thus, the peace required for sustainable development remains elusive, and hopes of realising the global goals and agendas in the countries at the epicentres of these events are largely a pipe dream.

Elsewhere in some countries, national interests are to the fore, and the easiest budgets to cut are those for development assistance. Within those budgets, the easiest to slice are those for the UN agencies, as for the most part they do not have significant domestic constituencies, but rather depend on governments placing a high value on multilateral action. These adverse trends combine to make the UN a less effective force than it needs to be to give global leadership on the big agendas.

3. The leadership and actions required to meet the sustainable development challenge:

Leadership is required at every level - global, regional, national, local, and individual. It must encompass the public and private sectors, NGOs, and civil society. The role of national governments must be complemented by those of local governments and other stakeholders.

a. At the global level, the multilateral system must be fit for purpose in order to lead on the global agendas. The UN's development system undergoes continual reform, and is regarded as a key partner by developing countries in mainstreaming the global agendas into national plans and budgets, bringing expertise and innovation, building capacities, and advocating for the resources required.

The peace and security work, however, of the UN needs a lot of rethinking if it is to make a meaningful contribution. A current focus of discussion in UN circles is how to prevent conflict and sustain peace - both so critical to sustainable development. Clearly that is not a short-term endeavour - achieving peace and stability needs rather more than investments in early warning systems for spotting tensions and the dispatch of mediators and peace keepers when peace has broken down.

For it is surely no accident that many states which lapse into deadly internal conflict have high levels of poverty and/or inequitable distribution of wealth; governance which is not inclusive and/or does not reach all corners of the land; and/or an absence of the rule of law. These are development challenges and they require both long term attention and investment in change.

More holistic thinking and action across the UN system would help address the nexus between these issues. This, however, is not uncontroversial among Member States, with a number unwilling to see more linkages built between the development, humanitarian, human rights, and peace, political, and security pillars of the system.

b. No amount of leadership at the global level, however, can substitute for that required at the national level. Governments need to take the sustainable development challenge seriously and implement the measures required for transformation.

The new global agenda is markedly different from the Millennium Development Goals. It is a universal agenda, applying to countries rich and poor. Many countries across all income categories are giving priority to implementing it. Some of the most inspiring actions are coming from the countries which face the most challenges - like Somalia, which has been preparing its first national development plan in more than three decades, and is aligning it with the SDGs.

It goes without saying that the Paris Climate Agreement, now in force, is also a universal agenda, with all parties to it expected to make national commitments to climate action, and implement them. In this respect, it is unquestionably disappointing to see the United States disengage from the Paris process, but it is also inspiring to see individual states, cities, businesses, NGOs, and local communities in the USA stepping up to the challenge.

I am under no illusion as to how difficult leadership on these issues is. In my time as New Zealand Prime Minister, it was a simple matter to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 2002. The hard grind lay in implementation. Most people agreed that the Government should do something about climate change, but many objected to having to change to energy efficient light bulbs, or pay more for petrol. The agriculture sector, which generates around fifty per cent of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions, was particularly resistant. But leadership requires putting the case over and over again, and endeavouring to take the greater number of people with you.

Leadership by governments on sustainable development must be based on "whole of government" thinking: the objective is to build models of growth which are inclusive and don't wreck the environment. Ideally these efforts need to be led from the top of government - to put weight behind ensuring that all ministries and sectors pull in the same direction.

In the course of implementing the much less ambitious Millennium Development Goals in developing countries,  such cross-silo and cross-sector approaches were vital for making progress. For example, what presents as a health crisis, like maternal mortality, may well have its roots in forced early marriage, girls being withdrawn from school, lack of transport to health facilities, and/or an inability to pay for care. All those issues need to be addressed to drive maternal mortality down.

Another example - we can't preserve forests, if agriculture and logging are allowed to intrude on them at will. Protected areas need to be enforced, capacities for that have to be built, and support for small holders to intensify production on already cleared land is important. Getting broad agreement from companies to deforestation-free supply chains is vital. Broad groups of policymakers and stakeholders have to come together to find and implement solutions to complex and interlinked problems.

At the domestic level, all governments can prioritise designing policy and regulation which will steer investment towards sustainability. Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and making renewable energy investment attractive are good examples of what is required. And so is the establishment of the rule of law which gives citizens and other stakeholders confidence in the future of their investments - whether they be those of the smallest microentrepreneur or those of major investors. Catalytic funding to support building these capacities should be a priority for ODA.

Leadership at the sub-national government levels matters too - often that is where the planning powers and the funding to make a difference lies. Australia as a federal state knows that well. The various international organisations for local government work hard to bring their memberships up to speed with what is needed - the work of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum is a good example.

c. Leadership and action on financing for sustainable development:
Achieving the SDGs and implementing the Paris Climate Agreement requires domestic resource mobilisation and private investment on a very large scale.  International public finance like grant aid can help, particularly if it is used to catalyse other investment. This and other aspects of the case for Official Development Assistance (ODA) needs to be put much more forcefully in donor countries. This requires leadership. We need more countries to step up on international development, and not step out.

UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) has estimated that in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in key sectors by 2030, annual investments made in developing countries would need to total US$3.3 to $4.5 trillion per annum. They calculated that the current funding gap was $2.5 trillion per annum. Clearly public funding would be far from sufficient to bridge that gap.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda emphasized that financing for development must draw on all available sources - domestic and international, public and private, and, I would add, developmental and environmental. Indeed, environmental public funding, including that being mobilised for climate action, could quickly outgrow the volume of traditional official development assistance.

International public funding can be catalytic in supporting the development of institutions, capacities, good policy, and enabling environments, all of which facilitate access to other funding. Support for developing tax assessment and audit, capacity, for example, helps countries collect the taxes they are due. ODA continues to matter, especially for least developed and low-income countries, fragile states, and Small Island Developing States.

It has been encouraging to see the leadership shown by the international and regional financial institutions - the IMF, the World Bank, and the myriad of regional development banks - in aligning their investment strategies with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. They have been instrumental in showing how to leverage from the billions they have traditionally invested to the trillions required for the new global agendas.

The development finance landscape is dynamic and fast evolving, with many new finance providers - public and private - emerging. South-South Co-operation is growing in importance, across concessional financing and grants, and is complemented by trade and investment.

A mega initiative from the South is China's Belt and Road. It has the potential to accelerate development in the countries within its scope, but also needs to be consciously designed for human and sustainable development impact.

A number of developing countries are exploring and using new financing instruments, such as green bonds, blue bonds, diaspora financing schemes, and development-oriented venture capital.

d. The leadership of the private sector on sustainable development is indispensable - how business does business and the scale of its investments will make or break the global agendas. There are tremendous examples of such leadership - for example, on climate action where commitment to zero-deforestation supply chains for palm oil is estimated to cover up to ninety per cent of global procurement. Many other businesses see their future in sustainable practice and investment, preferring to be on the right side of history and doing the right thing by society and the environment.

e. Leadership should also come from parliaments and all levels of civil society - voice is important in advancing global agendas. Parliaments scrutinize and approve budgets and government priorities. Civil society has an advocacy role. The media have a duty to inform. Universities and other research institutions have expertise and high status - their voice counts too.

In conclusion:

The challenges to achieving sustainable development include entrenched poverty and inequalities, protracted conflicts and forced displacement, economic and political volatility, a major jobs deficit, an urgent need to adapt to demographic trends, and the severe exposure of many countries and communities to severe natural disasters - including those exacerbated by climate change.

These challenges call for bold approaches to building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. Thanks to the far reaching global agreements concluded in the past two years, there are good roadmaps for inclusive and sustainable development. The alternative to following them is to have a world characterized by even more turmoil and instability than the one we know today. That is avoidable - or at the least can be mitigated - with resolute action. That is why it is imperative for leaders to build support for the steps required to meet the sustainable development challenge.