Notes from the Field

‘In Asia’ Interviews New Asia Foundation President David D. Arnold

February 9, 2011

In January, development and philanthropy veteran and former president of the American University in Cairo David D. Arnold began as The Asia Foundation’s new president. In his first interview, he speaks to In Asia about development challenges in Asia, the shifting economic landscape, and the Foundation’s cutting-edge work in good governance.

Q: As a development veteran who has lived and worked for years in Asia and the Middle East, what do you believe are the most critical and urgent development challenges facing Asia today?

Asia is a vast and diverse region, and it is important not to over-generalize. Different countries and sub-regions face different development needs and challenges. The strength of The Asia Foundation is that our extensive network of field offices staffed locally and longstanding relationships with local partners on the ground enable us to tailor and adapt programs to the unique needs of each country in which we work.

Having said that, one of the common threads that runs through many of the countries where we work is the need to undertake legal reforms and improve basic governance systems and processes. Several Asian countries have experienced rapid economic growth during the past two decades and are now finding that they need to realign their legal and political systems to meet a new set of economic, social, and political needs and challenges. More than half of our work across the region is broadly focused on governance, law, and civil society initiatives.

Another area of cross-cutting regional concern is management of conflicts – at both the international and sub-national levels. The Foundation has a long history of supporting so-called “track-two” dialogues to help resolve international disputes between and among various countries of the region, and is now increasingly active in conflict management and peacebuilding efforts between minority populations and central government authorities in carefully selected settings. It is widely recognized that security is a vital prerequisite for development; our conflict resolution work is therefore closely and integrally connected to our broader development goals.

Q: Good governance – once a term rarely used in the mainstream – now regularly appears in major news stories as a prerequisite to any nation’s long-term developmental success. As new head of The Asia Foundation and a former governance expert for the Ford Foundation in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka many years ago, to what do you attribute this shift among the development community and broader public?

Governance – good or bad – has always been a major factor in the health of a society or institution of any kind. But today, many countries of the region are facing increasing pressure to improve and strengthen their governance systems in ways that will foster transparency, enhance civic participation, and promote responsiveness, especially as it relates to economic concerns. Good governance – essentially the process of decision making and how those decisions are implemented – increasingly is seen as essential not only for the delivery of public goods and services, but also to create an environment that will be conducive for investment and economic growth. Governance reforms are also necessary to make sure that the benefits of economic growth are widely shared and that GDP growth translates into improved living standards and economic opportunities for a large segment of their population. Without making the needed improvements in their legal systems, governing institutions, and policy-making mechanisms, many countries of the region are likely to see their economies stagnate and living standards decline. This is one reason that the Foundation places major emphasis on helping countries reform their legal systems, create transparent and accountable government institutions, and increase citizen participation in shaping the policies and decisions that directly affect their lives.

David Arnold meets with the Minister (left) at the Ministry of Women's Affairs on a recent trip to Kabul.

David Arnold at the Ministry of Women's Affairs on a recent trip to Kabul.

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