The planet is under pressure like never before. With a ballooning population consuming ever-more of its resources, the profligate way in which humanity operates is starting to backfire. Writer Jamie Joseph spoke to Helen Clark, United Nations Development Programme administrator and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, about the global path we are all on, and where opportunity lies.

I've spent the last days of July stalking Helen Clark's Press Secretary in the race to make deadline and lock in a time slot with the hyper-busy administrator as she flew from Addis Ababa to Lusaka, and then finally catching up with her in London en-route to New York. When I tell her I'll be heading to Africa this month on a 14-week mission, 'Solving Poverty Saves Wildlife', she rattles off a bunch of places I might want to check out with a pronunciation so crisp it would rival someone raised in a Maasai village. I ask if she had the names written down on a piece of paper in front of her, and she laughs. "No, I don't," she replies.

Clark has an incredible memory, and appears at ease trekking through the world's wild and dangerous places, whether she's offering the 'elbow bump handshake' in an Ebola-affected country, or riding a camel in Mongolia.

But when it comes to the top global issues facing humanity, Clark has taken on one billion problems, with at least a seventh of the world's population living in extreme poverty.

The world is drying up, and with growing demands from agriculture and energy production squeezing out every last drop, countries aren't going to war over water, yet, but water in shared basins is already being used as leverage, and in extreme circumstances, as a tactical weapon.

Advertisement

Isis rebels now control most of the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates, the two great rivers that flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south, hindering the flow to Iraq and much of Syria.

Helen Clark visits Ebola affected countries, does the elbow bump handshake used to prevent transmission. Photo / David Lowthian, UNDP
Helen Clark visits Ebola affected countries, does the elbow bump handshake used to prevent transmission. Photo / David Lowthian, UNDP

"Isis is not in itself one of the greatest threats facing humanity," says Clark. "But I do think they're a symptom, a breakdown of civility; the tip of the iceberg."

When we discuss global food challenges Clark tells me that she has just completed a trip to Zambia where 42% of children have stunted growth due to malnutrition. Currently the biggest challenge on food production is how to support the world's farmers to adapt to an unstable climate. All across Africa farmers are now saying they do not know when the rain is coming - they do not know when to plant. And then there is the compounding issue of discrimination against women farmers, who make up about half of all farmers on the African continent.

Helen Clark with Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and US Democrat Party candidate Hillary Clinton.
Helen Clark with Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and US Democrat Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

"Women start off on the back foot," says Clark. "Customary laws often trump their legal right to inherit land, they lack access to credit financing, and they're excluded from sourcing the best seeds and fertilisers. There have been a range of calculations that suggest that if women farmers started on the same footing as men we would boost food production substantially, with a positive impact on family income and food supply. There are a number of barriers to overcome."

Population growth is another complex problem, and Clark points out that in New Zealand, just two generations back, the families were a lot bigger. So what changed?

"Women got access to education and to sexual reproduction health services, and women's status rose overall. Now that is the trajectory." She argues that when countries can achieve those things we start to see population rates come down. "And, if you don't have a functioning social security system for old age, for example, your children are your wealth. Social protection for older people and people with disabilities are all part of the solution."

The people of Namelok in Kenya's Amboseli region have had to learn to adapt to change. Christina LoNigro / UNDP
The people of Namelok in Kenya's Amboseli region have had to learn to adapt to change. Christina LoNigro / UNDP

The millennium development goals (MDGs) have driven the most successful anti-poverty movement in history, but the results are still plagued by inequality. As we move on now to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) the strategy will need to change.

"The scale of the environmental challenges is far more obvious now than it was in the year 2000. This is hindering the movement of people out of poverty because of the impact it is having on people's lives. So the SDGs are a much more consciously people and planet together kind of agenda."

Advertisement

She explains that while poverty has come down, inequality hasn't in many countries. UNDP estimates that whopping 70% of people in developing countries live in societies than are less equal than they were in 1990.

UNDP Administrator Helen Clark takes a camel ride in Mongolia. Photo / UNDP
UNDP Administrator Helen Clark takes a camel ride in Mongolia. Photo / UNDP

But perhaps the greatest failure of this generation is our apathy in reacting to climate change. There are growing fears that governments will fail to commit to meaningful emissions reduction targets at the upcoming Paris climate summit in December, and that there is no plan B.

"I think that citizens who care about climate change should use all available means, including the law. So undoubtedly that historic case in the Netherlands [where a citizen lawsuit requires the Dutch government to bring down emissions] will encourage others to do the same," says Clark. "This is a global issue that affects everyone, but I just don't see the level of citizen mobilisation around this issue that I saw in my relative years around the war in Vietnam, or nuclear weapons, or apartheid. Things change when citizens make it a big enough priority."

Helen Clark with Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Helen Clark with Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The earth now stands on the brink of its sixth mass extinction, and humans are to blame. A huge win for nature in developing countries would be if more businesses coming in from key investment countries did their development of natural resources in sustainable ways. But how do we hold them accountable to nature and biodiversity?

"I think there are some interesting coalitions that are being built around this," says Clark. "If you take for example, palm oil, we estimate now that 90% of palm oil retail buying power globally has committed to a deforestation-free supply chain. UNDP helped to bring together this coalition of governments, both donor governments who put up the money for protecting forests, and developing governments who are prepared to act with effective regulation. And then combine this with the buying power of the big retailers and consumer pressure, and then suddenly there is not much point of clearing land for palm oil, because no one is going to buy it. We need to spread that movement to other areas of production."

Just before Helen Clark is whisked away to her next meeting, she tells me that she truly believes New Zealand could play a leading role in tackling many of these global challenges.

"The idea of aid as charity has long since gone. How do you strengthen national capacity to make a huge difference across the board? How do you reduce poverty and inequality while conserving vital ecosystems? The Pacific, where New Zealand puts a lot of its efforts, is also extremely vulnerable to disaster risk, so there is plenty to be done with the New Zealand dollar in the Pacific."

Jamie Joseph is the founder of savingthewild.com.
This global challenge series has been made possible with support from Lincoln University. Lincoln University is among our more progressive on these issues, with three overarching organisational goals; to feed the world; protect the future; and live well. It's with these three goals in mind that every Lincoln course is now designed, and first and second-year students are required to undertake courses in understanding global challenges and the opportunities that lie in solving them.



Like what you see? For weekly Element news sign up to our newsletter. We're also on Facebook and Twitter.