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Helen Clark
Helen Clark official photo (cropped).jpg
Clark in 2016
37th Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
10 December 1999 – 19 November 2008
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor-General Michael Hardie Boys
Silvia Cartwright
Anand Satyanand
Deputy Jim Anderton
Michael Cullen
Preceded by Jenny Shipley
Succeeded by John Key
8th Administrator of the
United Nations Development Programme
In office
17 April 2009 – 19 April 2017
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
António Guterres
Preceded by Kemal Derviş
Succeeded by Achim Steiner
Minister of Foreign Affairs
In office
29 August 2008 – 19 November 2008
Preceded by Winston Peters
Succeeded by Murray McCully
27th Leader of the Opposition
In office
1 December 1993 – 10 December 1999
Deputy David Caygill
Michael Cullen
Preceded by Mike Moore
Succeeded by Jenny Shipley
12th Leader of the Labour Party
In office
1 December 1993 – 11 November 2008
Deputy Michael Cullen
Preceded by Mike Moore
Succeeded by Phil Goff
11th Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand
In office
8 August 1989 – 2 November 1990
Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer
Mike Moore
Preceded by Geoffrey Palmer
Succeeded by Don McKinnon
11th Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
In office
8 August 1989 – 1 December 1993
Leader Geoffrey Palmer
Mike Moore
Preceded by Geoffrey Palmer
Succeeded by David Caygill
29th Minister of Health
In office
30 January 1989 – 2 November 1990
Prime Minister David Lange
Geoffrey Palmer
Mike Moore
Preceded by David Caygill
Succeeded by Simon Upton
Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Mount Albert
Owairaka (1996-1999)
In office
28 November 1981 – 17 April 2009
Preceded by Warren Freer
Succeeded by David Shearer
Personal details
Helen Elizabeth Clark

(1950-02-26) 26 February 1950 (age 73)
Te Pahu, New Zealand
Political party Labour
Peter Davis
(m. 1981)
Parent(s) George Clark
Margaret McMurray
Alma mater University of Auckland

Helen Elizabeth Clark ONZ SSI PC (born 26 February 1950) is a New Zealand politician who served as the 37th prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, and was the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017. She was New Zealand's fifth-longest-serving prime minister, and the second woman to hold that office.

Forbes magazine ranked Clark the 22nd most powerful woman in the world in 2016, down from 20th in 2006.

Early life

Clark was the eldest of four daughters of a farming family at Te Pahu, west of Hamilton, in the Waikato. Her mother, Margaret McMurray, of Irish birth, was a primary school teacher. Her father, George, was a farmer. Clark studied at Te Pahu Primary School, at Epsom Girls' Grammar School in Auckland and at the University of Auckland, where she majored in politics and graduated with an MA (Honours) in 1974. Her thesis focused on rural political behaviour and representation. As a teenager Clark became politically active, protesting against the Vietnam War and campaigning against foreign military bases in New Zealand.


Deputy Secretary of Defense
With Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon, 26 March 2002

Clark has worked actively in the New Zealand Labour Party for most of her life. In 1971 she assisted Labour candidates to the Auckland City Council, three of whom were elected. Following this, she stood for the Auckland City Council herself in 1974 and 1977. While generally polling well, she never won a seat, missing out by only 105 votes in the latter.

Clark was a junior lecturer in political studies at the University of Auckland from 1973 to 1975. In 1974 she sought the nomination for the Auckland Central electorate, but lost to Richard Prebble. She instead stood for Piako, a National safe seat. Clark studied abroad on a University Grants Committee post-graduate scholarship in 1976, and then lectured in political studies at Auckland again while undertaking her PhD (which she never completed) from 1977 until her election to Parliament in 1981. Her father supported National that election.

Clark served as a member of Labour's national executive committee from 1978 until September 1988, and again from April 1989. She chaired the University of Auckland Princes Street branch of the Labour Party during her studies, becoming active alongside future Labour politicians including Richard Prebble, David Caygill, Margaret Wilson and Richard Northey. Clark held the positions of president of the Labour Youth Council, executive member of the party's Auckland Regional Council, secretary of the Labour Women's Council and member of the Policy Council.

Clark was elected to Parliament in 1981 as the member for Mount Albert, an electorate she represented until 2009.

Clark meets US President George W. Bush at the White House, 22 March 2007

Clark held numerous Cabinet positions in the Fourth Labour Government, including minister of housing, minister of health and minister of conservation. She was the 11th deputy prime minister of New Zealand from 1989 to 1990 serving under prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore. After Labour's narrow defeat in the 1993 election, Clark challenged Moore for leadership of the party and won, becoming the leader of the Opposition. Following the 1999 election, Labour formed a governing coalition, and Clark was sworn in as prime minister on 10 December 1999.

Clark became the second woman to serve as Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the first to have won office at an election. She also served as the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage throughout her premiership. She had additional ministerial responsibility for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) and for Ministerial Services. During her period in office, women held a number of prominent elected and appointed offices in New Zealand, such as the Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice—these major offices of state were simultaneously occupied by women between March 2005 and August 2006. As a female head of government, Clark was a member of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Clark led the Fifth Labour Government, which implemented several major economic initiatives including Kiwibank, the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme and KiwiSaver. Her government also introduced the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, which caused major controversy.

A strong supporter of nuclear disarmament, Clark pursued a policy of peace-making within the Pacific region. She set herself the task of making New Zealand the first ecologically sustainable nation, describing this as "central to New Zealand's unique national identity". Her government's major policy achievements include the Working for Families package, increasing the minimum wage 5% a year, interest-free student loans, creation of District Health Boards, the introduction of a number of tax credits, overhauling the secondary school qualifications by introducing NCEA, and the introduction of fourteen weeks’ parental leave. Commentators praised Clark (along with Michael Cullen, the Minister of Finance) for overseeing a period of sustained and stable economic growth, with an increase in employment that saw a gradual lowering of the unemployment rate to a record low of 3.6% (in 2005).

In foreign affairs, Clark sent troops to the Afghanistan War, but did not contribute combat troops to the Iraq War, and ordered a deployment to the 2006 East Timorese crisis. She was ranked by Forbes as the 20th-most powerful woman in the world in 2006.

Helen Clark-Condoleezza Rice
Clark meets US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 20 March 2007

She advocated a number of free-trade agreements with major trading partners, including becoming the first developed nation to sign such an agreement with China. After three successive electoral victories, her government was defeated in the 2008 election; Clark resigned as Prime Minister and party leader on 19 November 2008. She was succeeded as prime minister by John Key of the National Party, and as leader of the Labour Party by Phil Goff.

Clark resigned from Parliament in April 2009 to become the first female head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In 2016, she stood for the position of secretary-general of the United Nations, but was unsuccessful. She left her UNDP administrator post on 19 April 2017 at the end of her second four-year term and was succeeded by Achim Steiner. In 2019, Clark became the patron of The Helen Clark Foundation.

Reputation and legacy

Helen Clark and John Key-3, UNDP
with her successor as Prime Minister, John Key, 22 September 2009

Early in her career Clark gained a reputation as a capable advocate of nuclear disarmament and public health policy. Clark's government was pragmatic, managerial, concerned with stability, and focused on incremental changes over grand projects.

Australian PM Kevin Rudd meets with UNDP chief Helen Clark
Clark with Australian Prime Minister (and Labour Party leader) Kevin Rudd, 12 February 2010

In January 2009, two months after losing office, Clark was voted 'Greatest Living New Zealander' in an opt-in website poll run by The New Zealand Herald. In a close race she received 25 per cent of the vote, ahead of Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata at 21 per cent. Then Prime Minister John Key said he was not surprised by the poll, saying "she is well thought of as a New Zealand Prime Minister."


Clark was the first defeated Labour Prime Minister to immediately resign the party leadership rather than lead it in Opposition. She served as the shadow foreign affairs spokesperson in the Shadow Cabinet of Phil Goff for several months before retiring from Parliament in April 2009 to accept a position with the United Nations (UN).

United Nations Development Programme

Helen Clark Visits the National Assembly for Wales, 11 April 2012 - Ymweliad Helen Clark i Gynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru, 11 Ebrill 2012 (7083412441)
Clark at the Welsh Assembly, 17 April 2012

Clark became the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on 17 April 2009, and was the first woman to lead the organisation. She was also the Chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and departments working on development issues. The New Zealand Government strongly supported her nomination, along with Australia, the Pacific Island nations and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown. She also received the support of the five countries on the bureau of the UNDP board (Iran, Haiti, Serbia, The Netherlands and Tanzania) and was unanimously confirmed by the General Assembly on 31 March. She was sworn in by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 27 April 2009. In this position, Forbes deemed her the 23rd most powerful woman in the world.

Helen Clark in Iran
Clark wearing hijab in Tehran during a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, 4 August 2013

In 2013, Forbes upgraded her position to 21st most powerful woman in the world after she was appointed to administer UNDP for a second term and for her potential future as UN Secretary General. She was the only New Zealander to make the list.

Clark was recognised for her managerial style of leadership. During her tenure, she was an advocate of China's Belt and Road Initiative. She worked to reform the administration and bureaucracy of UNDP, with an emphasis on greater transparency in the organisation. The Publish What You Fund campaign ranked UNDP as the most transparent aid organisation in the world in 2015 and 2016, under Clark's administration.

In February 2015, Clark visited Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to express solidarity with those working to prevent the spread of Ebola.

During her tenure, the ratio of women to men at UNDP reached 50%, including at the most senior level of the organisation.

On 24 May 2016, a Foreign Policy article alleged that Clark's tenure as Administrator had "left a trail of embittered peers and subordinates", and accused her of "undercutting the UN's promotion of human rights". The article centred on an allegation that her senior staff retaliated against a critical report of the UNDP by forcing out an official who had participated in the investigation. Both the UNDP and Clark have denied the claims.

On 26 January 2017, Clark announced that she would not seek re-election as UNDP Administrator after the completion of her four-year term. She said it had been an "honour and privilege" to have served in the role. She left UNDP on 19 April 2017.

United Nations Secretary-General selection

Helen Clark 2016
Clark at the United Nations General Assembly, July 2016

In January 2014, a Guardian interview with Clark raised the possibility that she could take over as UN Secretary-General after Ban Ki-moon's retirement in 2016. She did not confirm her interest, but commented: "There will be interest in whether the UN will have a first woman because they're looking like the last bastions, as it were." She also said in the same interview that: "If there's enough support for the style of leadership that I have, it will be interesting." In response, Prime Minister John Key said the New Zealand Government would support a bid, but cautioned that it would be a tough task to get the job.

On 4 April 2016, Helen Clark officially submitted her nomination as New Zealand's candidate for the 2016 UN Secretary-General selection. In an interview on the same day, Clark stressed that she was running as the gender-neutral best candidate and not "on the basis of being a woman."

The UN's role in the Haiti cholera outbreak has been widely discussed and criticised. There has been indisputable evidence that the UN is the proximate cause for bringing cholera to Haiti. Peacekeepers sent to Haiti from Nepal were carrying asymptomatic cholera and they did not treat their waste properly before dumping it into Haiti's water stream. When asked about compensation for victims, Clark has declined to take a position, calling it "legal issues."

Straw polls were taken by secret ballot in October 2016. Clark finished fifth place in the sixth poll; her candidacy was effectively vetoed when three of the permanent Security Council members voted against her.

Clark's bid for Secretary-General is the topic of a documentary film, My Year With Helen, directed by Gaylene Preston, which premiered in February 2018.

World Health Organization

On 9 July 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed Clark as co-chair of a panel reviewing the WHO's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the response of governments to the outbreak.

Personal life

Helen Clark and Peter Davis, 2010
Then Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand (left) pictured with Clark and her husband, Peter Davis, on the occasion of Clark's investiture as a Member of the Order of New Zealand, 17 February 2010

Clark married sociologist Peter Davis in 1981, shortly before she was elected to Parliament. Davis had been Clark’s partner for 5 years but she had come under pressure from some Labour members to marry for political purposes, despite her personal reservations about marriage. Davis is currently a professor in medical sociology and was director of COMPASS (Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences) at the University of Auckland.

Clark is a keen hiker and mountaineer. In August 2008, an expedition group that included Clark and her husband became stranded on the Two Thumb Range, a spur of the Southern Alps, when their guide (and Clark's friend), Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, collapsed and died from a suspected heart attack.

Awards and honours

For almost nine years, Helen Clark shouldered both the powers and responsibilities of being Prime Minister confidently and adeptly. That only four other New Zealanders (Seddon, Massey, Holyoake, and Fraser) have held the Office for longer speaks much of Helen Clark's acumen, abilities and judgement.

—Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand

  • In 1986, Clark was awarded the annual Peace Prize of the Danish Peace Foundation for her work in promoting peace and nuclear disarmament.
  • In 1990, Clark received the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal.
  • In 1993, Clark was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal.
  • In 2002, she was presented with the Nuclear-Free Future Award, for "installing New Zealand at the forefront of the world political movement to rid the earth of nuclear weapons".
  • In 2005, the government of the Solomon Islands awarded Clark (with John Howard) the Star of the Solomon Islands in recognition of New Zealand's role in restoring law and order in the Solomon Islands. This award allows her to use the post-nominal letters "SSI".
  • In January 2008, Clark won the United Nations Environment Programme Champions of the Earth award in recognition of the government's promotion of sustainability initiatives.
  • In April 2009, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Auckland, her alma mater.
  • In the 2010 New Year Honours, Clark was appointed a Member of the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand's highest honour, for services to New Zealand.
  • In September 2017, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Zealand Women of Influence Awards
  • In December 2017, she was awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.


  • Clark is the patron for The Helen Clark Foundation.
  • Clark is an Honorary Member of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
  • She was the patron of the New Zealand Rugby League between 2002 and 2011, and has served as the patron of the Mount Albert Lions rugby league club for over 20 years.

In popular culture

In 1996, Clark guest starred as herself in popular New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street. A satirical book, later adapted as a play, titled On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover, by Richard Meros, was published by Lawrence and Gibson in 2005. Clark has also guest-starred on bro'Town, the New Zealand animated television series.

See also

Women's History Month on Kiddle
Women Scientists of Antiquity
Mary the Jewess
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