Thursday, March 26, 2009

A new job for Helen

OPINION Two years ago Helen Clark's chances of succeeding Kofi Annan as the United Nations secretary-general were being talked up strongly by a global women's cheerleading squad.

Equality Now placed the then New Zealand prime minister prominently on a shortlist of 18 women it saw as contenders for the position. None of them made it, with Korea's Ban Ki-Moon having the necessary geography - it being Asia's "turn" - and some would say gender for the top job.

However, the likelihood of Miss Clark winding up in the front carriage of the UN train if not actually in the driver's seat has been discussed for some time among the Wellington cocktail set. Her supporters, and Miss Clark herself, have got their wish with confirmation expected of her appointment as the head of the UN's Development Programme, the third highest position with the international body behind only the secretary-general and his deputy. It is the most prestigious global appointment landed by a New Zealander since another former Labour prime minister, Mike Moore, was made director-general of the World Trade Organisation.

As such, it is a significant coup for New Zealand and signals again that small countries can play important roles on the world stage. More, it reflects the regard in which the former university lecturer is held, both for her intellect and managerial ability. Miss Clark will oversee a $9 billion budget said to be the largest of any UN agency. The UNDP's work centres on poverty reduction, HIV/Aids, democratic governance, energy and the environment, crisis prevention and recovery, human rights and empowerment of women. It focuses strongly on the least developed areas and seeks to build networks and relationships between rich and poor nations. It has offices and staff in more than 160 countries.

The UN is a soft target for its many critics, who can point with justification to its inability to take effective action during humanitarian crises or against regimes that breach accepted international codes of behaviour. The UNDP itself has been hit over the past two years by allegations of corrupt or inappropriate operations in North Korea. Suggestions that UNDP money destined for that country's poor was helping to prop up the regime of Kim Jong Il, and even underpinning his nuclear development programme, led to an urgent inquiry by Mr Ban and calls for significantly greater transparency from the UN and its various agencies. Time will tell whether Miss Clark's no-nonsense managerial style will be transformational.

Her Labour Party colleagues might have mixed feelings about their former leader's employment coup. Miss Clark remains a formidable presence in the House, even if she has been winding things back in order to allow her successor, Phil Goff, to become established. However, as simply the opposition MP for Mt Albert, her talents and experience are under-used, and few among the party will begrudge her this success.

Her opponents might be equally keen to see her bow out of New Zealand politics. Prime Minister John Key was quick to offer his government's support for her campaign for the position, and perhaps not only because he wanted her out of the debating chamber. He described her as a strong candidate when news of her shortlisting broke last month, and lobbied on her behalf. Miss Clark is expected to take up her new position this year, meaning a byelection in the Labour stronghold of Mt Albert. That in itself will be an interesting test of the two main parties' standings, perhaps a year or so after the general election.

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