"Emergency Development" Needed in Syrian Refugee Crisis – Podcast with UNDP’s Helen Clark

May 10, 2016

With the World Humanitarian Summit looming, and in the absence of a unified global response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the head of the United Nations Development Programme Helen Clark says governments and international institutions are shifting their focus from traditional humanitarian relief to more sustainable ways to help millions of displaced people.

“Emergency development has become the name of the game,” Clark tells me in a new CGD podcast, “because even though humanitarian relief spending has tripled in the last decade, it’s still not enough. So the emphasis is, how do you shrink the need for it by supporting people’s innate resilience to stand on their own feet?”

Click below to hear more of Clark’s thoughts on the global refugee crisis:


What Should the World Do?

Of the nearly 5 million Syrians who have fled their country, around 90% are now in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. They mainly live not in camps but amongst local populations, causing tensions and straining local infrastructure. Clark acknowledges the need for a more developmental response for the millions who will not be returning home anytime soon: “[H]ow do we support the people caught up in these devastating events to build their own resilience? To have an income, to have the water, the power, the services, to be able to put their children into school?”

Around 10% of Syrian refugees have tried to make the often perilous journey to Europe. In response, several EU governments have implemented strict border controls and enacted tough laws restricting the movement and rights of refugees.

“Where Europe does need to be helpful,” says Clark, “is with the UN High Commission for Refugees in helping orderly relocation of people with a processed and agreed refugee claim to be able to settle elsewhere.”

UNDP at 50: What Does the Future Hold?

As UNDP Administrator, Clark oversees the UN’s largest agency, with a budget of more than $5 billion a year. 2016 marks 50 years since its founding. At that time, the then-Secretary General said the new agency would put the UN on the "frontline of the war on want." Today UNDP operates in 170 countries, including high middle-income countries such as Mexico, which raises questions about its future purpose. But Clark is quick to defend its large footprint.


“I am a strong defender of UNDP’s universal presence,” she says, “because we learn a lot from being active in the whole spectrum of countries. And we’re also extremely supportive of south-south cooperation and sharing knowledge of what works in different contexts. So what we learn, for example, operating in a high middle-income country like Mexico, becomes very relevant to countries trying to move up the development ladder. They want to know how did Mexico do social protection, how did it get its electoral system to a good state? So there’s a lot of knowledge sharing going on from one’s presence in a high middle-income country, right through to a least developed country.”

Clark has held the position of UNDP Administrator since 2012. Before that she was Prime Minister of New Zealand. She is a candidate to succeed Ban Ki Moon as UN Secretary General next year.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.