For all the chatter around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is one truth self-evident to Helen Clark: countries won’t achieve anything unless they open up and listen to their citizens.

She points to Syria, which was “a stable middle income country that probably achieved all of the Millennium Development Goals, but was not sustainable because of its repression of voices and refusal to give up power”.

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand has recently taken on a new role promoting transparency initiatives with the Open Government Partnership, having stepped down from running the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) earlier this year. She speaks exclusively with GovInsider about how to tackle corruption; the problem with cuts to the UNDP; and steps to encourage more women into politics.

Hidden in plain sight

Truth be told, I almost walked straight past Clark before our interview. She was slap bang in the centre of a busy coffee shop, leaning over her notepad writing a speech in long form. There were no security guards or flunkies in sight for this former world leader, so I simply didn’t spot her.

New Zealand clearly takes a modest approach when it comes to its former leader, but Clark’s words still have heft. She broke the glass ceiling in her nation’s politics, won three terms in office, and then ran a large chunk of the United Nations.

Her message is simple – clean government comes first, before citizen engagement or public private partnerships. “You won’t achieve the SDGs if you don’t have a capable public service that is honest”.

“Often the focus at these meetings is very much on civic engagement and co-design and so on,” she notes. “It’s fashionable these days to talk about the private sector”, she adds, but ultimately “the state has essential functions” – clean government has to come first.

Some academics have noted that corruption is not a top priority for developing nations. Perhaps, they moot, there is such a thing as ‘good corruption’, which greases the wheels of commerce and gets things done a little bit faster?

Clark is strong in her rebuttal of this view. “It’s toxic for trying to build some kind of positive relationship between citizens and state. It lowers engagement – who’s going to bother voting? So it’s just bad, bad bad,” she says.

“It’s toxic for trying to build some kind of positive relationship.”

Graft also takes money away from vital public services. “In a lot of developing countries, that is scarce resources that are trickling away, and sometimes not even trickling. That is robbing people of the resources that should have gone to the public body”.

How to cut corruption 101

New Zealand has always fared well on corruption, ranking number one in the most recent world rankings by Transparency International. But it’s to Singapore where Clark turns when asked how to advise developing nations.

Anti-corruption efforts need “leadership from the top,” she says. Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s first Prime Minister, always wore white to indicate purity and made clean government “a keystone” of his vision. While Singapore needs more civic space and participation, she repeatedly argues, “in terms of cleaning up they didn’t do a bad job”.

Public service reform is also crucial, and from her time at UNDP, she points to movements in Central Asia to build ‘one stop shops’. GovInsider readers are likely familiar with these initiatives, where governments pool different services in one location, often in a physical office that can be easily monitored to reduce opportunities for kickbacks.

What is the point of the UNDP?

One stop shops are one of many initiatives promoted by the UNDP, but it is facing questions over its purpose by donor countries. The United States reduced their funding for the UN in December, cutting $285m of its funding and warning of “inefficiency and overspending”. So what is the point of funding the UNDP at all?

First, Clark argues that UNDP is good at partnering with organisations “which many of the UN agencies are not – they’re quite headquarters-focused”. Second, the UNDP is the place that can coordinate between agencies such as UN Women, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. “It was always the logical place to have the coordination function for the system, which is what they just said that they would remove at the behest of the new regime in New York,” she says. “If you take UNDP out, you will have no-one in the development system that has that overview and can join the dots together”.

Third, it has a large number of country offices, which makes it closer to citizens and able to bring in civil society. For the agency to prosper, it will need to cement these strong relationships with nation states, Clark says. “Providing that UNDP continues to have relationships of trust at the country level and works closely with its funding partners, it will continue to do okay”.

Is there room for efficiency in the agency? No chance, Clark replies. “We’ve made so many efficiencies. The place has run out of efficiencies, truly”. In her time there, she cut 200 senior jobs and reduce the management from 60 per cent to 40 per cent of the agency in one fell swoop.

Clark’s defence of UNDP is strong and immediate. It is no wonder that, as Foreign Policy magazine quoted an anonymous diplomat saying: “She is one of the most aggressive turf warriors the UN has ever seen”.

Women in politics

One of UNDP’s key initiatives is to bring more women into government and politics. Clark was a trailblazer in New Zealand and gives three key steps for improving political diversity.

First, set quotas for women. “There’s no doubt that quotas work to get the habit established that there will be women elected”, she argues. Second dedicated funds should exist to support women in their political campaigns. “The old girls’ networks aren’t as lucrative as the old boys’ networks,” she says.

Third, political parties should champion equality and change their culture. “Women have to come into the parties, try to break the cultures and reshape them.”

“Break the cultures and reshape them.”

Both the Presidents of the United States and of the Philippines had well-publicised jokes about sexual assault come to light during their election campaigns. Is this environment inherently off putting for women? “I think for women it’s really a battle cry to mobilise,” Clark says. “It’s not inherently a dirty business, and women can bring the tone up”.

And with that, our time is up. There are no flunkies here to remind us, but Clark has to speak on a panel about getting more women into government. It’s part of her role with the Open Government Partnership as she speaks at their annual summit here in Tblisi, Georgia.

We’re a long way from New Zealand, but it’s clear she’s constantly on the go. Clark left the United Nations earlier this year, but roved across multiple issues in our interview from the horror of renewed conflict in South Sudan, to the optimism of Greece and Macedonia agreeing to rename the country, allowing the latter to achieve its EU aspirations.

“There are a lot of good news stories out there if you look for them”, she concludes. For this political battler, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.