Helen Clark honoured with ANU degree

10 December 2019

Former New Zealand Prime Minister and United Nations advocate, Helen Clark ONZ SSI PC, has been recognised by ANU for her exceptional contributions to public service.

Ms Clark was also the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme until 2017 - and the first woman to lead the organisation.

Ms Clark was presented her honorary degree, a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, at the University's inaugural Grand Graduation which took place on the lawns of University Avenue on Tuesday.

Known for her contribution to politics, international affairs, women's empowerment, development issues and environmental sustainability, Ms Clark told the gathering in the 45 years' since she graduated from Auckland University with a master's degree in political studies, she wasn't sure where her journey would take her.

"I was the first member of my family to graduate from a university and that was true of many students of my generation," she said.

"My education provided the essential building blocks to rise to the very top of the New Zealand political system and then to one of the most senior positions at the United Nations and then now on to lead and participate with a range of international associates."

Back then though, there were no cell phones, no social media, no Internet, and democracies were not numerous, she recalled.

The apartheid regime ruled South Africa, the Cold War was in full swing, the Vietnam War hadn't ended, China was still a poor country and far from being a major political force it is now. It was also a time when Climate Change wasn't in anyone's vocabulary and extreme poverty was widespread.

By comparison, on top of the challenges of civil wars, terrorist groups with global reach and societies bought to their knees by organised crime, technological change is having a profound effect on the pace of economies and societies. Ms Clark also said the scale of environmental degradation, climate and biodiversity, and the rapid pace of urbanisation are also proving challenging for nations around the globe.

"So that is the world in which today's graduates would need to apply their talents and I think it's very important that each and every graduate believes that they personally can make a difference for the better," she said.

Inspirational leaders walk every walk of life from those who work with marginalised populations to those who educate, research, provide health services or those who aim to make a difference for the environment.

"I know ANU graduates will be found among the inspirational leaders of our future," she said.

"Every country needs people with a capacity for systems thinking, we need institutions and processes which can work across the old siloes and divides and we certainly need the rapid dispersement of enabling technologies."

"But problematic as the times we live in are, I always remain an optimist as I always believe it's in our human capacity to overcome the challenges we face. It does require leadership, it does require investment in human capacities and it requires a determination to grow and develop in ways which are sustainable.

"So I encourage all ANU graduates to think about how their knowledge and skills can be put to the service of not only advancing personal careers... but also of advancing our shared future."

ANU Chancellor Professor The Hon Gareth Evans AC QC said throughout her whole public life Ms Clark had been an inspiration and role model.

He said Ms Clark's speech was realistic about the challenges the world faces.

"But it was also characterised by that spirit of optimism that we can make the world a more saner, safer and more just and that each of us individually can make a difference. That's a critical message for us all to take with us."

Read Ms Clark's citation, read out by ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt here.