Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zeeland

Helen Clark
Helen Clark, Keynote speaker and Prime Minister of New Zealand 1999–2008. Photo: David Lagerlöf.

Educators must play a prominent role in preparing the rest of us to navigate the future: Volatility is the new normal

During a one-day conference at Karolinska Institutet, students, teachers, researchers, and other higher education professionals were invited to explore how to take responsibility for and be inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals in educational programs, research, and collaboration with society.

Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zeeland, the first woman in that position, was one of the keynote speakers at the well-attended conference. The moderator, Carl-Johan Sundberg, professor at Karolinska Institutet, pointed out that Helen Clark began her political activism already in the 1960s, and continues to be a strong voice internationally for sustainable development, climate action, gender equality and women’s leadership, peace and justice, and action on non-communicable diseases and HIV. “She is truly sustainable”, said professor Sundberg when he gave the word to her. Feet steadily on the ground, Helen Clark gave the audience no opportunity to think that the responsibility for achieving the SDGs was on someone else, outside the room. Since we all live, work and consume we all consequently have a responsibility to transform and rethink. “Implementing an Agenda of this scale and ambition requires society-wide and economy-wide transformation, it requires thinking and acting outside the silos. It requires us to be highly conscious of links between the different policy areas”, she said. As a former politician, she finds the 2030 Agenda truly challenging also when it comes to the nature of our governments. “Are they responsive, inclusive – and do they really listen?” She made no secret that it is an absolutely vital task for today’s educators and universities to inspire present and future generations to think and act for sustainable development and to seek as much knowledge as possible to be able to do so. Being at Karolinska Institutet, where also representatives from the University of Gothenburg, Chalmers University of Technology, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences were present, Helen Clark said she was reminded of the role Sweden has played throughout her time of working with international development issues.

Helen ClarkHelen Clark, Ole Petter Ottersen, Sir Michael Marmot.
Helen Clark, Ole Petter Ottersen and Sir Michael Marmot. Photo: David Lagerlöf

“I have seen Sweden stepping up on the global development agenda scene, including this one. But achieving the agendas requires society-wide obeisance. We are all in this boat together and we need to row it together in order to get where we want to be.” 

Mrs. Clark is convinced that educators in particular have a prominent role in preparing the rest of us to navigate a future in which volatility is the new normal. “The pace of change we face is very, very fast and this argues against traditional silo approaches to education. It calls for cross-disciplinary curriculums and research.” At the same time, human activity is pushing the world towards its very limits. And this matter, especially in terms of health. The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health in 2015, reported that continuing environmental degradation threatens to reverse the health gains we have achieved. According to the Rockefeller Foundation Lancet Report “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.” The latest state of global climate report does once again paint a bleak picture of where we are heading. Helen Clark said that she personally thinks that the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, was right when she told the economic leaders meeting at Davos earlier this year: “Our house is on fire.” Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity. “We are so to speak mortgaging our future, which has such significant implications for our health and well-being”, said Helen Clark, referring to a recent experience in Afghanistan, meeting people who had been displaced from remote villages into poor suburb camp settlements due to severe drought. “They are in very poor state of health. When you see a 5-month baby weighing only 2,8 kilos, you will never forget it. These communities are pushed to the limits by decades of conflicts, and the draughts are straining people already living on the margins.”  Helen Clark has some hope in Sweden and the collected huge expertise across health and environment.

“That is why I think a place like this country is so well equipped to be a leader in finding solutions to the linked challenges that we face. And we have to address them holistically.” 

To conclude: Here we are again in 2019, many commissions, many agendas, many declarations later. But while more and more research is focused on SDGs, addressing poverty, reducing inequality and tackling the effects of climate change, according to a new report, described in University World News, it is very much dominated by European nations, less North America, Asia and Pacific regions. In the regions where SDGs are key concerns the SDG related research is still much smaller. Helen Clark: “We have the 2030 Agenda which says: Think holistically and consider how the decisions we make in one area will effect another. If we want to ensure the future health and well-being of the people on the planet, we must address the wide-raging determinants, whether they’ll be poverty, marginalization, and discrimination, whether they be aggressive marketing and trade of unhealthy substances or the consequences of unhealthy lifestyles, whether they be climate change by diversity lost or pollution of air and water.” Soon world leaders will again go to high-level global summits, for the Paris Agreement, for meetings about sustainable development goals, universal health coverage, financing for development, and so on. “I hope that those leaders would go, prepared to acknowledge the unvarnished truth: that we haven’t enough action and commitment yet, that we are not yet on track to 2030. That has to change. If I could make a point today, that would be that it is not enough that countries like Sweden and other western countries act. We do need global action to make a difference for the vulnerable. Without international solidarity, this is not possible.” The impression Helen Clark is left with from working with governments around the world is that they are hungry for information, facts, and evidence.

“Researchers need to contribute evidence for policymaking. Universities are badly needed for implementation of 2030 Agenda.”

Written by: Ulrica Segersten

Rethinking higher education at Karolinska Institutet.
During a one-day conference at Karolinska Institutet, students, teachers, researchers, and other higher education professionals were invited to explore how to take responsibility for and be inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals in educational programs, research, and collaboration with society. Photo: David Lagerlöf.

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