As I was wrapping up our interview, the third-most-important-person-at-the-United-Nations suddenly exclaimed “Wait, you haven’t asked me about the art scene!”
I was up at the offices of the United Nations Development Programme interviewing its administrator, Helen Clark, for a cover story for Next, a great New Zealand monthly magazine with the lady-friendly tagline “Role models, not supermodels”.
Getting there had involved a hilarious moment of Conchordian doofusness on my part. I’d showed up at the United Nations with a box of lamingtons for Helen. So there I was, at the United Nations. The really grand-looking place with all the flags on the East River in Manhattan. I’d seen it on the telly, so I knew I was in the right place. I rocked up to the security guard and told him I was there “to see Helen Clark”. He glanced at the lamingtons, looked back at me, asked me to write down her name, went to his computer, then came back and pointed, amused, behind me. “You need to go there.” I turned around, my back now to the United Nations, and followed his finger over the road to… an unremarkable office block nowhere near the main UN compound.
I realised I had a lot to learn about the development world.
The Next article was timed to raise the profile – in New Zealand – of the Millennium Development Goals ahead of this week’s MDG Summit in New York City. A clunky name for an important set of priorities, the eight MDGs constitute a 15-year commitment by “the world” to deal with some of the most basic – and critical – issues relating to hunger, poverty, sanitation, preventable disease, and women’s and children’s rights. Yup, heavy stuff. So heavy, even Bono had some things to say about it in the New York Times this weekend.
Helen Clark – fresh from her role as New Zealand’s Prime Minister – is pretty much in charge of the MDGs, so this week is a big deal for her. (She’s Facebooking about it here. UPDATE: And Tweeting about it here) In the Next article (not available online, sorry) she talked about how, with just five years to go to meet the goals, it’s been rocky.
There have been some improvements on the hunger and education goals, but just as many slip-backs in other areas, thanks to a ten-year global train-wreck of recession, natural disasters, food crises and climate crises. “Things have been pretty tough,” she said. “Maternal health is not a good story. The numbers have not shifted much at all… Because women’s status and needs are low-priority in too many places.”
It’s sometimes easy to feel smug about living in New Zealand. And thanks to living away for a bit, I now know that it’s easy to feel smug about coming from the South Pacific (and being able to return there). And yes, it’s pretty bloody cool that Aunty Helen is in charge of the UN’s big week this week.
But wipe that smirk off your faces, New Zealanders.
We have a lot of work to do. Plus, our neighbours need us. Oxfam’s Barry Coates, in the NZ Herald this week, writes that “the Pacific ranks with sub-Saharan Africa as the two regions in the world making the least progress towards the Millennium Development Goals”.
“Nearly 18,000 children die each year in the Pacific, many of them from preventable causes. As is often the case, women bear much of the burden. Some of the highest levels of violence are against women. And of the 10 countries in the world with no women in Parliament, five are in the Pacific.”
My clever friend Marianne Elliott, who just passed through NYC for a week, stayed over last night and confirmed Barry’s statistics for me (she spent much of last year doing a lot of this work for Oxfam before taking time off to begin writing her book). Marianne – a development community veteran – was also one of the people I turned to ahead of the interview with Helen Clark. Coming from the arty side of the fence, I wanted to make sure I covered off what I needed to know in a development sense. But there’s only so much you can fit in an article (especially when you need to leave room for Peter Gregoire’s spectacular photos), so I didn’t get to include one of Marianne’s most urgent queries: “There’s a sense in the development/NGO community that world leaders have been backing away from their commitment to development. How do we encourage nations to renew their commitment to development?”
Helen agreed that there’s been a backing-away: “The G8 … made the commitment in 2005 at the Gleneagles summit that they would double their development cooperation funding by 2010 over 2004 levels, so they gave themselves six years. Well, this hasn’t happened, at all. And they said specifically that they would double to Africa within that global figure. Well this hasn’t happened. They’re not even halfway there, so there is that issue that developing countries do get cynical, and they see another promise, and no dollars. I think around the MDG summit, there’ll obviously be advocacy for promises to be kept. I mean, the Secretary-General’s report on the MDG summit that was issued in March was called ‘Keeping The Promise’!”
Me: “So would you like to see a lot of noise around the MDG summit?”
Helen: “Yes, in terms of countries keeping promises that they made to fund. And also really, I guess, governments being supportive of the efforts we’re making to try and make a difference.”
Hello New Zealand. Make some noise! Here’s Barry from Oxfam again:
“We have promised to give 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income in overseas development aid by 2015. We give less than half of that (around 0.3 per cent GNI). We are well off-track and need to do far better.”
Helen agreed. “Be an advocate for your country’s development assistant budget, because it really does make a difference.” But she’s one to talk! This underfunding situation is not exclusive to the current government; New Zealand’s overseas development contribution was well below 0.7 under her leadership, too.
“New Zealand has been at the lower end of the donors historically,” she concurred. So when I asked her about the current lot’s performance in the aid and development area, I didn’t expect anything other than a diplomatic side-step. After all, in recent articles in the New Zealand media, there’s consistently been the observation that Helen won’t be drawn to make political comments on John Key’s government.
Except, as it turns out, when it concerns her “portfolio”. Again, I couldn’t fit this in the article (I was too busy gushing about how good she looks at 60. Does she what!), so here’s the guts:
“I think we had very passionate and committed ministers, going back to Matt Robson, Marian Hobbs. And, actually, Winston [Peters] really put his heart and soul into that development work. He’s very passionate about development for the Pacific. And you know, the aid level was steadily building up, and of course we did make NZ Aid semi-autonomous, which has been reversed. So I know there’s quite a lot of chatter in the development community, about that.”
It reads fairly innocuously, I know, but this comment came with the Helen Clark (TM) steely-gaze-and-slight-smile, and I could practically feel the invisible knife twisting in Murray McCully’s side. (As the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, he’s our man in New York this week). I suffered the same look a little later as we were talking about universal healthcare (or “socialised medicine” as it is sometimes pejoratively labelled in the US). I mentioned what I thought was a brilliant scheme at a Brooklyn hospital, where artists can earn credits towards health-care in return for art services. With a withering laugh, Helen responded “Paint a ward and get your hip done?”. Ouch.
And then we got talking about the art scene. In what little spare time she has in New York, Helen’s been bathing in opera (Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a favourite, as is Puccini’s Il Trittico). She also frequents the Met and MoMA, and she’s supported Kiwi Rajeev Varma’s “little show”, D’Arranged Marriage. (Her official review: “Very funny”.)
The fact that the administrator of the UNDP was keen to talk about art wasn’t surprising; during her entire stint as Prime Minister, Helen was also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, overseeing a pretty heavy investment in the portfolio (at least in the early part of her tenure, when her government introduced a thing called the Cultural Recovery Package). She took the arts professionally as well as personally.
For a few fascinating years there I had a front row seat, working as press secretary & advisor to Helen’s associate, Judith Tizard. Watching the effects of the investment was… interesting. Everything starts well, but money only goes so far, and then the lobbying begins anew, the administration changes, priorities shift and the begging bowl is out again before you know it. I learned a lot about the administrative side of art, and I saw some extraordinary things (of the creative, not political variety. I saw those too, but that’s a story for another time and another blog…).
One very strong memory: We went to one of New Zealand’s highest-security prisons to visit the art programme that was being run there. After a short and powerful karakia, we received boisterous hello hugs and kisses from the inmates’ Art Komiti. I shut down the self-interrogation about what these men might have done to be in here for a long, long time, and ordered myself to view them as the artists they had become on the programme. They showed us the large, circular artworks they’d created on the course, we were given beautiful, raw bone carvings, and over morning tea the fellers told us about the transforming effect of art; about how it had given many of them another way to express themselves, especially the men of few words.
Robyn Hughes, the amazing woman who tutored the inmate artists, retired this year after 17 years. In this recent NZ Herald article she describes how a focused art project can provide constructive, long-term benefits for a person who’s landed inside for an impulsive criminal act. From the article:
“In [the prison] context, if you don’t have the discipline to finish something, it’s easy to leave it. The idea of finishing, which people outside may think is the norm, is not the case, so it may be a major thing to finish something.”
The other day, I went up to Auckland Hospital to meet a friend’s wee baby girl who was recovering, in an over-achievingly quick manner, from a successful open-heart operation. On the way to her ward, I walked along a corridor lined with those same large, circular artworks that I’d seen, freshly-finished, at the prison. They’d been gifted to the hospital. Knowing what I knew, seeing the actual room they’d been created in – which required being escorted through a multitude of prison doors – I had to stop for a moment and catch my breath. It was so cool.
Just as cool was the fact that Baby Overachiever had been fixed up so quickly and safely on the public purse (with a little philanthropy thrown in for her parents’ flights and accommodation). These are things I take for granted, and yet, for the Pacific and other developmentally-critical parts of the world, the Millennium Development Goals are so outrageously basic, it’s embarrassing. As Helen Clark succinctly put it: “People should be freed from extreme poverty; shouldn’t live in hunger. Every child should be able to go to school. Children shouldn’t be exposed to preventable death. Mothers shouldn’t die from avoidable episodes in the course of pregnancy and childbirth. People have a right to clean water, to clean sanitation. No new HIV/AIDS transmissions, as basic as that.”
Here are those goals, printed on a soccer ball that Helen gave me. Not a bad swap for a box of lamingtons.