Leadership Exchange with Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand

On 21 April 2022, the Council of Women World Leaders and International Gender Champions co-hosted a leadership exchange with the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, H.E. Helen Clark.

The session was opened by moderator Ambassador Mxolisi Sizo Nkosi of South Africa to the United Nations in Geneva. He delivered a powerful address about the impact that climate change with the example of this week’s floods in the KwaZulu-Natal province in eastern South Africa, which have killed hundreds and left thousands without shelter. Her Excellency Helen Clark extended her condolences and sympathies for the situation in South Africa and noted that these events make the case for why immediate action on climate change is so compelling. Rhetorically, Madam Clark asked, “how many communities have to have these lived experiences before something drastic is done?”

Ambassador Nkosi started the discussion with a question about what is needed to truly make climate change a priority given the multitude of other crises facing the world today. Her Excellency acknowledged that the agenda is very crowded, with a plethora of challenges. She noted that COVID-19, for example, has been a setback for sustainable development with huge resources being diverted to cope with the fallout of the pandemic. She argued that to galvanize political will and resources, there needs to be demand from citizens. “We need to empower citizens to act and demand actions from their leaders”. Clark added that individual citizens have to step up – “it is not enough for us, as citizens, to say to our leaders that more needs to be done. She stressed that in the face of these crises we should not walk away and say it is too hard. Tremendous citizen activism and public demand when it comes to climate change do influence governments.

Ambassador Nkosi then asked what will it take to move the needle on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and ensure that they are truly gender-responsive? Helen Clark responded to this by saying that citizens who have a voice and can lead on advocacy need to hold governments accountable and ensure that they are following through with their commitments. Similarly, Clark argued that advocates in countries in the global north, need to ensure that their countries are pledging for climate change adaptation and mitigation – something that disproportionally affects Low-Income Countries. Countries that have not contributed significantly to climate change.

Clark also highlighted that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) launched a report at COP26. She noted that the report studies 89 revised/updated NDCs to identify and understand how many, and to what extent, countries have integrated gender into their plans. IUCN found that 78% of NDCs include at least one mention of gender – up from 40% in the 2016 IUCN baseline analysis. Clark also pointed out that Latin America and the Caribbean are regional leaders, with 18 out of 18 NDCs including gender considerations. Although optimistic about these results, Clark argued that moving forward, there needs to be clearer and stronger guidance from the Climate Change Conventions’ Secretariat on how to develop gender-transformative NDCs. In order to ensure that the NDCs are truly gender-responsive, policymakers have to engage communities and listen to the wide range of voices of women and girls and they also need to empower women leaders and civil society to speak up.

In response to the question posed by Ambassador Nkosi on “how can we truly ensure that youth are able to shape the legacy they will inherit?” Clark voiced optimism. She said she is “excited to see the passion young people have brought to this debate” and that it has been a “long time since we have seen youth as politically outright as they are now on climate”. Clark added that countries need to provide real and meaningful youth engagement.

Helen Clark also argued that it is important to acknowledge the role of indigenous knowledge and to meaningfully engage indigenous peoples. She stressed that we “need to source policy input and engagement from across the society, never forgetting the perspectives and inputs of the most marginalized”.

To conclude, Clark emphasized that it is important to engage women leaders in debates at all stages of determining national and global strategies for climate change. She encouraged the champions to engage with women and to seek their expertise and knowledge in finding solutions. She also encouraged the collection of gender-disaggregated data. According to Clark, to better advocate for policies to fight climate change we need to focus on how the climate crisis is affecting human health and human well-being, and in particular the health impacts on women.

Hosted as part of the Nest Fund, which is a temporary, informal “network of networks,” focused on groups of senior-level women leaders from government, business, philanthropy, and media, as well as key allies and male champions convened by the United Nations Foundation (UNF) Girls & Women team, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Nest creates a high-level network to raise and amplify key Generation Equality commitments made at UN Women’s Generation Equality Forums in Mexico City and Paris in 2021.

The goal of this leadership exchange was to highlight one of the six Action Coalition goals established at the Generation Equality Forums: to “deliver tangible impact on gender equality and girls’ and women’s human rights.” With her longstanding commitment to reversing climate change at its current pace, Her Excellency Helen Clark, member of the Council of Women World Leaders, spoke to the Action Coalition theme of feminist action for climate justice. Helen Clark is a respected global leader in sustainable development, gender equality and international co-operation. She served three successive terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand between 1999 and 2008. While in government, she led policy debate on a wide range of economic, social, environmental and cultural issues, including sustainability and climate change. She then became the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator for two terms from 2009 to 2017, the first woman to lead the organisation. She was also the Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the Heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues.