UN Development Chief Gives Obama a Pass for Rio+20 Absence

Photographer: Hama Boureima/AFP/Getty Images

Helen Clark (R), administrator of the United Nations Development Program, visits a sheep breeding project in the village of Molia, western Niger, that has been hit by a months-long food crisis in Feb 2012. Close

Helen Clark (R), administrator of the United Nations Development Program, visits a... Read More

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Photographer: Hama Boureima/AFP/Getty Images

Helen Clark (R), administrator of the United Nations Development Program, visits a sheep breeding project in the village of Molia, western Niger, that has been hit by a months-long food crisis in Feb 2012.

As prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark championed sustainability in its many forms -- climate change, women and leadership, the nation's relations with indigenous people. As administrator of the United Nations Development Program since 2009, Clark oversees the organization's work in 177 nations advocating for democracy and environmental health, and fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS. I spoke with her in New York before the start of the UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Q: Paralyzed by money, political deadlock or fear of further economic shock, many national governments say they can't tackle sustainability issues right now. They need to ensure their citizens get their next meal. What do you tell them?
A: We have been pushing very hard on triple-win policies -- where countries agree to design a set of policies that all lead up to sustainable development. Take Ethiopia: they pay unemployed people to work, and the work is prioritized around irrigation, reforestation, etc. It's in the dry region of the country, but with some income, you can put food on the table. That's now helping some 8 million people.

Q: Corporations seem to be usurping the role of nation states and international organizations. Are they encroaching on your turf?
A: Big corporations are a fact of life. Nothing's going to change that any time soon. That’s why I tend to focus on what are the rules around the activity, what partnerships can you form, what support can you give to the progressive elements.

Q: U.S. President Barack Obama is not attending the Summit. Does that suggest world leaders aren’t taking sustainability seriously?
A: I've been a leader in an election year and I can tell you that you look at every single thing you've got to do, and flying out of your country isn’t always the first thing you need to do.

Green is a reporter for Bloomberg News who writes about international affairs and water.

Read complete Bloomberg News coverage of the UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

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