The Next UN Secretary-General? – Part II: Helen Clark

This is the second piece in a series studying potential candidates for the position of the United Nations Secretary-General, which is set for election in 2016. It is unknown at present whether or not Ban Ki-moon will stand again – for a combination of reasons, including death, Security Council veto, and personal preference, no Gen-Sec has ever sat through more than two terms, although there is no official limit to the time that an individual can spend in office. The first part of this series proposed current UN General Assembly Chairman Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian diplomat, as a potential candidate. This second article proposes Helen Clark, a politician from New Zealand, as another.

Candidate IIHelen Clark

Clark, unlike Jeremic, may be a favourite amongst the Security Council members, and is certainly popular amongst the rest of the UN members. She is experienced, powerful, and answers the calls for increased female representation in the UN executive: she would, incidentally, be the first female Gen-Sec. Clark would also be the first to have already served as a head of state prior to her election – former generals Kurt Waldheim of Austria, and Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru were both heads of state after their stints at the UN. Not only does Clark appeal to the power-sceptics and the feminists, but her role as chief administrator of the UN Development Program has exposed her as an important figure in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Domestic Political Career – Trained in political theory in her home-country New Zealand, Clark became a member of parliament in 1981 and held several cabinet positions before being elected the first female Prime Minister of the country in 1999.  Her time in office began with a sweeping victory, followed by a decade of economic growth and low unemployment. She was known for her ‘people’s policies’, that included increasing the minimum wage, and providing interest-free student loans. Clark was also engaged in international socio-economic and cultural development programs during her time in office, as a member of groups such as the Council of Women World Leaders, that campaigns for women’s rights all over the globe. Despite being defeated in 2008, Clark is held in high opinion in the Kiwi political sphere.

UNDP Administrator – A year after defeat in the New Zealand 2008 general election, Clark was appointed to what is considered the third highest position within the United Nations: that of Administrator to the UN Development Program. Appointed personally by Ban Ki-Moon, Clark also had much support from the south Asia-Pacific, and much of the global north, including then-British PM Gordon Brown.  Earlier this month, she was reappointed to the position for a second four-year stint, but could cut this a year short if she were to stand for the role of Gen-Sec. Despite the distinctly humanitarian and philanthropic discourse surrounding the UNDP – “sustainable human development and poverty eradication will continue to be at the heart of what the UNDP does” – her time as chief administrator has come under some criticism. The UNDP’s own board released a performance report earlier this year that proved to be rather scathing, criticising the relationship between the organisation’s budget and the material effects of its activities. The board wrote that it considered the US$5.7bn, and the undertakings funded by such capital, to “have only remote connections with poverty, if at all”, highlighting Clark’s trickle down approach to development as ineffective. Her recent reappointment to the leading role will, however, has given the Kiwi a chance to silence her critics, if she can lead the UNDP to success over the course of the next four years. Clark, for the good of both world development and her own reputation, must engage effectively if she is to stand a chance against a host of candidates for the UN Gen-Sec role in 2016.


Clark ticks many boxes in many different ways; her experience is almost unmatched, her friends stretch far and wide, and her image as a powerful female leader is certainly an asset from which the UN executive could continue to benefit. The question will be as to whether a second term as UNDP administrator will make or break her. Should the organisation implement some, in the board’s views, effective policies, Clark may stand a very good chance. However, a continuation of debatable success may hamper her odds. Compared to Jeremic, Clark has far less to do in terms of pleasing the international sphere; but her task of dazzling the UN executive is probably the toughest mission of all the candidates.


UNDP Administrator Biography. 2013, Available at Retrieved 24/04/2013

‘Scathing report of Helen Clark at the UN’, 16/01/2013. Available at Retrieved 24/04/2013

‘Helen Clark to serve in UN role for another four years’, 13/04/2013. Available at Retrieved 15/04/2013


9 thoughts on “The Next UN Secretary-General? – Part II: Helen Clark

  1. Helen Clark’s problems is that she comes from the Western European UN region and that she doesn’t speak French. This is an unofficial requirement for the job. It looks like it may be Eastern Europe’s turn at rotation. Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski is a promising candidate. He is eloquent and popular and he speaks French (and Pashtun).

    1. True, Clark may be difficult to mould to the perfect UN Gen-Sec model. However, just because she hails from NZ does not mean one should rule her out. It is only the Security Council that is (unofficially) denied the Gen-Sec spot. I personally would also hope that her lack of fluency in French would not hinder her if she chose to stand; power in the international is transforming, and while English may always be crucial, Mandarin and Arabic are becoming increasingly significant to international diplomacy. Certainly more so than French.

      As for alternative candidates, the article published prior to this suggests Serbian diplomat Vuk Jeremic as a potential candidate, not on the basis of language, but on determination and experience (

    1. Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign head of state. This article does not determine what form of head of state Helen Clark was; obviously it was referring to the elected/political and/or mandated head of state

  2. José Ramos-Horta, United Nations’ special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS).
    he has the potential to be the successor. He speak France and Spanish as well Portuguese well along with English.

  3. She is head of government, no common used definition of head of state would include her position. As to your knowledge of NZ political history she wasn’t the first female head of government, she replaced a female right wing head of government when she was elected.

    Also Javier Perez de Cuellar was never head of state of peru, he was head of government.

    1. Thank you for your engagement. I agree, the use of ‘Head of State’ is this instance is misleading, as has been commented previously. But the article never suggests that Helen Clark was the first female head of government of NZ; only that she would be the first woman to hold the role of Gen-Sec

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