Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and now administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, talks to Save the Children's Brendan Cox about why Tony Blair is wrong on Islam, the future of international development, and why she foresees an upswing in conflict.

Helen Clark is one of a select group of social democratic leaders to have won three national elections, serving as Labour prime minister of New Zealand between 1999 and 2008. In 2009, she became the top official at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), taking on the third most senior position at the UN, and she has recently been touted as a candidate to be the first-ever woman to become UN secretary general. Brendan Cox is Save the Children UK's director of policy and advocacy and previously worked as international development adviser to the British prime minister.

Brendan Cox: Can we start with the scale of the humanitarian challenge we currently face. From South Sudan to Syria and the Central African Republic to Mali, it's been some time since we saw so many simultaneous large-scale humanitarian crises. Are you confident the international community can respond adequately?

Helen Clark: You're right that many crises are coming at the system at the same time. Last November the super typhoon that struck the Philippines was a storm like humankind had never seen before. It left even a middle-income country with significant experience in dealing with storms needing support. This came on top of Syria, which has required an unprecedented level of response. And it was followed in December by the Central African Republic – which has been experiencing strife since March – falling into an abyss and then the eruption of conflict in South Sudan.

These conflicts are not the whole story. Off the news agenda now but still a big problem is Mali. And of course the general public of the world are now vaguely aware of what is going on in northern Nigeria with the abduction of the school girls. The list of horrors goes on.

All that said, we should not forget the good news stories – the countries which are stable and getting on with it. The problem, however, is that with money being diverted to crisis after crisis it is hard to get money to stable but still poor countries. The trend of more aid spending being diverted to these conflict emergencies, which started in the first decade of the 21st century, has if anything intensified. When you add the fact that traditional donor budgets are for the most part pretty tight, this makes it harder to make the investments necessary to address the very significant development deficits which still exist.

The immediate response is to ask whether we can we get more peacekeepers and police to address conflict. But this is just a bandaid covering the bruising caused by the underlying drivers of these crises. The longer-term response – which should be part of the approach to development which emerges when the current Millennium Development Goals come to an end in 2015 – should focus more on these drivers. This gets into the most difficult areas of debate. How do you address the underpinnings of peace and of stability – what is the role of government, rule of law and human rights in the new agenda? This is a very confrontational issue, but an important one.

BC: Is your sense that there are some common underlying causes of this convergence of humanitarian crises, or do you think it is just bad luck?

HC: I do think that there is something more than bad luck.

If you take natural disasters, the world now has more people living in exposed places, with the climate change threat making these places more risky than ever before. Growing populations in places which are inherently at risk represents a big development challenge. What's more, leaving the Philippines aside, many of the countries most exposed to climate-related natural disaster are also those in that belt across Africa – from the Sahel through to Somalia – which are experiencing a coincidence of exposure to disaster, poor governance, continued conflict, weak institutions and a perpetuation of extreme poverty – all things which reinforce each other. Without a significant change in trajectory by 2030 these countries will still have many people in extreme poverty.

In a similar way, the underlying causes of the uprisings in the Arab states are still there: very serious deficits in governance and rights and pressing challenges in areas of employment and education. Unaddressed these too will remain highly problematic.

BC: So are we set to see more conflict in the future?

HC: Yes, I do think we will see more conflicts and uprisings of the kind we have seen across the Arab states. I think that we are now so globally interconnected – young people in particular are so interconnected – that the single spark that caused the fury and fire in Tunisia triggered events across the region. It didn't happen by accident: it happened because people had the means to link up. And that is not going to go away: we will see it play out in other places where there are governance and participation deficits.

BC: Is this increase in conflict coming at a time when the international community will be less likely to effectively respond to conflicts? Would you say that there is a significant backsliding from the framework which emerged after the Rwandan genocide and human rights abuses in Bosnia – the 'responsibility to protect'?

HC: The inability for the UN Security Council to find a way forward on Syria has quite a lot to do with what happened in Libya. The Security Council did resolve to give a mandate, but then having given it, a number of states saw it exercised to a degree that they had not envisaged. This has made it much harder on Syria. It is true that when chemical weapons came into the picture the international community acted, because a very clear line had been crossed. But beyond this the daily horror of death continues.

As for the responsibility to protect, I think it inevitably runs into geopolitics. Some situations will get a much readier response than others. It is interesting to compare the rapidity of response to, say, South Sudan as opposed to the Central African Republic. Because South Sudan is such a new state – one which has had both considerable support to get up and going and also an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission – the Security Council was on the case quickly. But the Central African Republic seems to have been overlooked and neglected.

BC: Tony Blair recently argued that radical Islamist fundamentalism is a major block to development and requires even greater attention. Given the situation in northern Nigeria, but also the tribal areas of Pakistan and Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan, to what extent do you share that diagnosis?

HC: I am reluctant to even invoke the word 'Islam'. Islam is so misrepresented in the way it is invoked by particular terrorist groups. Any group can claim inspiration from one religion or another, but the fundamental issue is not religion – it is that there is fanaticism and a willingness to use any means to pursue a movement's ends. We need to be focusing on the underlying causes and drivers of this fanaticism: are there significant issues of exclusion in society? Are there issues of inequality? Is it about poverty, or about people and communities not being allowed a voice?

What asking these questions highlights for me are the burning issues that exist in particular national contexts. Take, for example, the inability, almost 70 years on from the end of the second world war, to address issues in Palestine. These still burn away, but they just have to be addressed and closed in order to get some peace and stability.

So, I think we have to be very careful how we address this question. Dealing with it from a developmental perspective – asking what the causes and drivers are – is what will make a positive difference. That would be the constructive way to go.

BC: Everyone would agree that groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab represent a perversion of Islam. And most would accept that your focus on underlying development issues is part of the solution. But can I push you on whether it is sufficient? Tony Blair would probably argue that there is something else going on which needs to be combatted in its own right.

HC: If I stand back and look at why young men pick up guns and join these groups, is it fundamentally any different from the reason why young people pick up a gun to kill an elephant and rip its tusks out? I think that poverty and lack of constructive activity are drivers – people will drift to groups who have the money, and then they can be sucked into the ideology of these groups. I would be surprised if that wasn't very much at play in northern Nigeria.

BC: Can we turn to a more positive recent trend. Over recent decades there has been a 'great convergence', as poorer countries have been catching up with rich countries. Do you think that this will continue? And assuming it does, what are the implications in terms of how we promote international development?

HC: The convergence will continue. We should keep it in context of course: poorer countries will not catch up in my lifetime or anytime soon beyond. Take China – it may be the world's largest economy but GDP per capita remains extremely low, only making it into the global top 100 in the last couple of years. But you're right that continued convergence will have implications for development policy. A lot of things have to change.

Countries increasingly do not want others doing things for them. They want the capacity to do things for themselves, and that includes the capacity to grow their own economy and mobilise their own tax revenues to pay for things themselves. It was interesting that at the recent Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation – a partnership bringing together nation states, business and other organisations – Nigeria put the issue of domestic resource mobilisation front and centre in the discussion. These countries want to go beyond aid.

That is not to say that aid is unimportant. It can still be vital, both for the poorest countries – including those we talked about earlier which are hit by conflict – and also in a broader range of contexts. The challenge is making it smarter and a lot more 'catalytic', for example around building up the capacity of important institutions and countries' readiness to access a range of finance options, with the carbon market a big opportunity on the near horizon.

BC: With countries like Nigeria asking for more national level control, will this require a shift in thinking in the development sector – from Save the Children to the UNDP – away from a predominantly technical approach and towards one which involves taking a more political stance? I'm thinking in particular here about high and growing inequalities within many countries. Will addressing this require serious engagement in national political debates about the need to fairly redistribute resources?

HC: Yes. Taking the point about inequality first, it is not enough to just address poverty. We have the paradox of poverty falling as inequality increases. Over 70 per cent of the population of the developing world lives in countries that are more unequal today than they were 20 years ago. This growing inequality can, in itself, be a huge driver of tension and frustration in society. It is potentially explosive. And reducing inequality has a range of benefits. If we look at the societies which have done the best on this, probably the Nordic countries, they also tend to be the happiest. So you have to have strategies which reduce both poverty and inequality.

With the way that the world is moving, inequality is not going to fall of its own accord – it must be targeted. Indeed, we know a lot about the policies that work. It is not rocket science. It requires universal basic services; equality of opportunity. It is about setting the basic floor that nobody is going to fall beneath, but creating it as a platform for opportunity and job creation in the economy. Policies on labour rights and skills are important too.

You also asked about a more political approach to development. Within each individual country the UN has already become focused on equity – for example, on how we move towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals without leaving people behind. The high-level panel on the future of the international development framework, of which David Cameron was a joint chair and which reported last year, put equity front and centre. So I do think the time is right for some strong advocacy on policy and building capacity around these issues at the national level. In fact, to be successful, this kind of advocacy has to happen at the national level and national governments have to believe in it. More than that – a concern for inequality has to burn in the souls of national governments; they need to want societies where everybody is going to be lifted, and where the poor will be disproportionately lifted.

The experience of countries which have been successful in reducing inequalities is instructive. It is so important, for example, to share the post-Lula experience of Brazil, where they really tackled both inequality and poverty. Latin America remains highly unequal, but there are examples of governments which have really tried to dig into that inequality spiral. How did they start to turn the tide? How can other national governments learn from this?

BC: With Lula wasn't it at heart a revolution in political will – not merely some kind of technocratic advance?

HC: Absolutely. I am not one who thinks that development is purely for technical experts, it is also about values. That is why the cause has to burn in the soul of politicians and governments – and it burned in Lula's soul. Lula was an activist who had campaigned for social justice and workers' rights all of his life. He was a man with a mission determined to make a difference, and he did. Leaders with political will can really move mountains to reduce inequality. The development sector can provide a lot of insights into the range of policy options and we can help countries to share experiences, but in the end it has to go to the top of the national political priority list.

BC: So you are saying that reducing inequality should be at the heart of future thinking on development? The counterargument some would put to you is that there is a risk of losing sight of the fact that there is still so much to do to eradicate extreme poverty. We still live in a world where 6 million children die before their fifth birthday from entirely preventable causes. Is getting distracted into talking about inequality diverting resources and effort away from what really matters most, eradicating extreme poverty?

HC: I think you can both lift people over a poverty line and make society fairer. It requires policies which increase wages, with disproportionate gains going to the poorest. If societies really want to move along the trajectory of an emerging economy with people who are healthy, properly housed, educated and skilled, then these issues have to be tackled. It is not just about getting people over a $1.25 or $2-a-day line – it is about how you establish a society where everyone feels that they have got a stake and a chance and can contribute.

BC: And what about countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Central African Republic – isn't inequality a bit of a sideshow for them? As you said earlier, extreme poverty in these contexts looks set to remain high fo the foreseeable future.

HC: Even in these poor, drought-prone, conflict-prone countries, inequalities matter. For example, without addressing inequalities between cities and rural areas you set up another problem – a disorderly migration to cities which lack opportunities. According to UN Habitat – which works on the urban environment – for the first time in human history we are witnessing urbanisation without industrialisation. This raises the question of how people will survive without that basic economic underpinning.

BC: Can we look ahead to 2015. It is going to be a huge year for multilateralism and the UN system in particular. In September we have a summit to define the future of development policy – what should replace the current Millennium Development Goals – and three months later, in Paris in December, we have another one on climate change. These come at a time when it is hard to point to any big recent multilateral successes. How optimistic of success are you?

HC: I think we have a huge opportunity. Take the post-2015 development framework. There has been a huge amount of global citizen involvement to date and expectations are high – we have to go for broke. There will be a post-2015 agenda with a new set of global goals and targets. The issues are more about what form the framework will take. The jury is out, for example, on how focused it will be and whether it deal with the full range of issues – but there will be an agenda. It's clear, of course, that the negotiations will be tough. In the end, developing countries will be very focused on the 'means of implementation', on money, knowledge and technology transfer. The west's pockets are less full than they have been for a long time, but nevertheless financial commitments will still go a long way to getting resolution.

On climate change – whether aspirations will be 100 per cent fulfilled remains to be seen, but I am optimistic enough to think we'll get outcomes. Ambitious mitigation commitments by developed countries will help in getting commitment from others, so this is certainly not a time for putting up the white flag. It is a time to maintain high ambitions. The question is whether everyone will dig deep into their wallets.

Stepping back, these two summits coming together presents us with a bigger opportunity – to demonstrate that it is possible to have economic and social progress at the same time as you maintain environmental integrity. We cannot carry on with a world where we throw away the climate, air and water we need, or where we completely deplete natural capital. There is a chance to forge a really transformational vision which says that the way in which development has been practised throughout the ages has got us into a pretty difficult state, and that we need to pull up here and find another way. We can state clearly that we're not going to accept that the price of economic growth is growing inequality; we are not going to accept that the price of economic growth is an environment in tatters, seriously undermining the survival of the many.

BC: Next year's challenges for multilateralism reflect a wider issue: after failure on climate change at Copenhagen, Security Council inaction post-Iraq – reinforced by disagreement about the Libyan intervention – and dormancy in trade processes, do you worry about the ability of states to now act multilaterally?

HC: Some people talk of 'multipolarity without multilateralism'. The issue is that we are dealing with institutions that were set up as part of the postwar settlement. We have mechanisms and institutions that do not reflect the second decade of the 21st century.

This general challenge is manifesting itself particularly acutely for some key institutions. The International Monetary Fund [IMF] is one I would highlight. There is gridlock on the kinds of reforms that would increase the sense of ownership over the IMF. If this situation continues then there is a very real risk that countries will start to look for other mechanisms of cooperation. The reality is that the levels of capital now in major emerging economies are sufficient to potentially replace the current international financial institutions. So to keep its relevance as a multilateral institution, the IMF must reform – this has become a pressing concern.

BC: Do you think we are more likely to see existing multilateral institutions replaced, or reformed?

HC: The situation is different for different institutions. The desire to reform the existing UN structures will continue – if you didn't have the UN you would have to reinvent it. The focus will stay on reform of the Security Council, making it more relevant to changing times. In the end, informal multilateralism doesn't get the legitimacy that the UN has. The position is more precarious for the international finance institutions. Countries have a lot of options as to where they look for cash now, and a lot of those options do not have conditionalities attached to them.

BC: Finally, to take a political turn. The left appears to be on the backfoot from Britain to Australia and New Zealand to India. As a past leader of a successful social democratic government, what would be your advice for today's centre-left leaders?

HC: I think one has to take the long view and recognise that this is partly just the electoral cycle. There was a time, when I was New Zealand's prime minister, that there were centre-left governments across much of Europe, and some of them were quite long-lived. But what goes around comes around in democratic politics.

Looking to the future, I think that the key thing is for parties to be reinventing themselves continually – you have to stay in touch with the emerging society and not the society that spawned a movement. All the old constituencies which have formed the basis of social democracy – organised labour, women, the liberal middle class – remain extremely important. But the centre-left also needs to stay in touch with young people, develop pragmatic relations with business, and embrace new ways of communicating. It really is an issue of being open to new ideas, updating policies and responding to the emerging challenges.