Exit Interview: The Asia Foundation’s David Arnold

February 22, 2023 The Asia Foundation
Exit Interview: The Asia Foundation’s David Arnold
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Exit Interview: The Asia Foundation’s David Arnold
Feb 22, 2023
The Asia Foundation

As president and CEO, David Arnold steered The Asia Foundation through 12 momentous years. 

Show Notes Transcript

As president and CEO, David Arnold steered The Asia Foundation through 12 momentous years. 

John Rieger (00:03):

David, are you really as calm in a crisis as everybody seems to believe?

David Arnold (00:08):

I think I project calmness on the outside.

Tracie Yang (00:12):

That's a skill.

John Rieger (00:14):

Saying thanks to our outgoing president and CEO, David Arnold, the exit interview today on InAsia from The Asia Foundation. I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (00:22):

And I'm Tracie Yang. Capping a long career in academia and international development. David Arnold steered The Asia Foundation through a momentous decade that included the brief, the ill-fated flowering of democracy in Myanmar, the fall of Afghanistan, the global disruptions of COVID 19, and a host of unpredictable challenges in a dynamic in rapidly changing Asia.

John Rieger (00:44):

As the foundation prepares to welcome new leadership. In 2023, he joins us to share his reflections on 12 eventful years at the Foundation's helm. Outgoing president David Arnold, welcome to InAsia.

David Arnold (00:55):

Thanks very much. It's great to be with you.

John Rieger (00:56):

David, before you came to the foundation 12 years ago, you were the head of the American University in Cairo, and it's almost proverbial now to compare leading an academic institution to herding cats. How does it compare to leading The Asia Foundation?

David Arnold (01:11):

Well, these are very different institutions and a very different culture between an academic institution and a philanthropic development organization like The Asia Foundation. In some ways the American University in Cairo felt like being the mayor of a small town because there was so many different constituencies and a concentrated geographic setting where people lived and worked and studied altogether. The Asia Foundation is a operating nonprofit with offices decentralized across 18 countries in Asia plus Washington and San Francisco. So the challenges of leading and communicating across multiple time zones and ensuring that everybody felt a part of a single foundation was very different from the environment in a university setting.

John Rieger (02:07):

What would you say is the greatest challenge to leading an organization like The Asia Foundation?

David Arnold (02:12):

Well, as I mentioned, this is a decentralized organization, so making sure that everybody felt that they were full citizens of TAF, whether they were in San Francisco or they were in Mount Penn or they were in Kabul. We were communicating as effectively as possible across the foundation so that no one felt that they were being left out. And it's a challenge to do that with so many different cultures and so many different operating environments in which we're working.

John Rieger (02:43):


Tracie Yang (02:44):

Yeah. I'm always curious about the personal qualities that make an effective leader and chairman of the board, Tim Kochis recently shared some thoughts on that subject at an event in your honor, let's listen.

Tim Kochis (03:03):

David has led this organization with incredible memory. I'm just astounded at how extensive, flawless your memory is for everything that we do and all the people we do it with. You constantly astound me. And grace, this is a very graceful man. He doesn't have any hard edges, or at least not that I've been able to observe.

Tracie Yang (03:36):

I hear a lot of knowing laughter in the audience. So I guess it must be true that you have an awe inspiring memory. Do you think you have other traits or a personal history that made you a good fit for The Asia Foundation?

David Arnold (03:52):

Well, I'm not sure how fantastic my memory is. I think I've mastered the art of learning about 10% of what I need to know about all of the things going on across the 18 country offices and more than 300 different projects or programs underway at different points in time. But I think the key from my perspective in terms of my tenure here has been the experience that I've had living and working in Asia for a number of years, as well as working in the Middle East and learning to appreciate and respect people's points of view and to listen carefully and ensure that you're actually hearing what people have to say.

John Rieger (04:39):

Could you share a bit of your history living in Asia and the Middle East?

David Arnold (04:42):

Sure. Well, I had the opportunity to live and work in South Asia during my tenure with the Ford Foundation. I started in the Ford Foundation headquarters in their Human Rights and Governance program. I was the first program officer working in the field of governance and moved to Delhi in 1991 with my family to become the Ford Foundation representative for India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Spent seven wonderful years in South Asia. In a later stage in my career, I was, as I mentioned at the American University in Cairo. And so my wife Sherry and I spent eight years living and working in the Middle East, traveling extensively across that part of the region.

Tracie Yang (05:29):

I think you have a very unique perspective in the Asia Pacific and how the development sector has evolved. How has it changed since you were first there?

David Arnold (05:40):

Oh, I think it's changed dramatically. I think it's important to just recognize how far Asia has come in such a relatively short period of time. Many, many parts of India are virtually unrecognizable from the time that we were there in the 1990s. That was just the very beginning of the opening up and liberalization process in India. And now the Indian economy is very much part of the interconnected global economy. They're going to be hosting the G20 later this year. And the role of international development organizations like The Asia Foundation is much diminished frankly, in comparison to the extent to which less developed countries like India at the time relied on that kind of development assistance. So the role of organizations like TAF really has to shift from being aid providers and providing technical assistance and outside advice to really being catalytic and facilitators for important policy reforms and changes and also helping to serve as the connective tissue between and among different Asian countries.

John Rieger (07:00):

We've already referred to your tenure with The Asia Foundation as eventful, and we've spoken to a number of your colleagues who agree. Let's listen to a few of their thoughts.

Speaker 5 (07:10):

His last few years of his tenure led us through COVID 19, the fall of Afghanistan, the political violence and Myanmar, political and economic turbulence in Sri Lanka, constricting civil society space. Any of those problems in and of itself would be daunting, and David exhibited extraordinary leadership in dealing with all of those.

Speaker 6 (07:31):

We had an emergency call after the coup, and I remember I gave a presentation to him and a couple of other people and at the very end he said, "Thank you. How can we help you? What is it that we can do for you?" And I was totally flummoxed. When I worked at foreign affairs, no one would ever make that kind of offers.

Speaker 7 (07:50):

David really serves us with his steady hand, very thoughtful, very warm, very encouraging and very kind, very supportive. Somehow it's like saying, "I know this is heavy on you, we'll figure it out together."

John Rieger (08:09):

The foundation's, John Brandon, Mark McDowell and Sandra Hamid. David, are you really as calm in a crisis as everybody seems to believe?

David Arnold (08:18):

I think I project calmness on the outside.

Tracie Yang (08:23):

That's a skill.

David Arnold (08:24):

But I think that what I would say is in any of those crisis situations, the number one priority, concern and consideration is the safety and wellbeing and security of our staff, remembering that this is the TAF family and that we need to look after our family.

Tracie Yang (08:44):

So then what stands out for you as the most exciting or perilous moments of your tenure?

David Arnold (08:50):

Well, there have been lots of exciting parts, and the perilous parts have been some of the major political upheavals and changes that have taken place in the region. I think most noteworthy has been the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the takeover by the Taliban in August of 2021, Afghanistan was our largest single country program. At one time we had more than 175 staff. And so when that change came, even though we had carefully planned for contingencies and taken all of the measures necessary to ensure that we could pivot very quickly in the event that we needed to evacuate staff or that we needed to close down operations, it was still clearly a crisis moment. We were fortunate to have a security committee of the Board of trustees and really a wonderful team in Afghanistan to help work through what we needed to do, how we needed to do it, taking every precaution that we could to ensure that we were not in any way putting our staff in greater jeopardy.

Tracie Yang (10:06):

I mean, we also heard from Myanmar country representative Mark McDowell. And I can imagine since you oversaw the reopening of the foundation's office in Myanmar in 2011, that there was great disappointment in 2021 when so many of the decades gains were reversed.

David Arnold (10:25):

Well, absolutely, and I think all of us were so hopeful about the prospects for Myanmar as it moved from 50 years of military dictatorship to a democratic opening. We were fortunate to be invited to reestablish a foundation presence in Myanmar after a very long absence and quickly developed, I think great partnerships and working relationships with NGOs, civil society organizations, government leaders. As Myanmar went through the peace building process, sought to rebuild its economy and reestablish democratic institutions. So there was certainly great hope and a sense of optimism, and we were fortunate as a foundation to host Aung San Suu Kyi, here in San Francisco, and in fact, to take the board on their very first visit to Myanmar in 2016 and to have the opportunity to meet with many of the reformers and political leadership of Myanmar at that time. So yes, there's no question that the current situation in Myanmar is discouraging and does not auger well in the short to medium term. One can only hope that the seeds that we and others helped plant during that democratic opening will germinate, and that the long-term picture for Myanmar will be much brighter.

Tracie Yang (11:59):

Well, at the same time, there are exciting new areas to pursue such as the Pacific Islands.

David Arnold (12:06):

Well, again, this is an opportunity for the foundation to reestablish an office in a very important region. We had an office there up until the mid 1990s when budget cuts required the foundation to do some downsizing, and I was really delighted to have the chance to travel to Fiji with Gordon Hein and with our trustee Stephanie Fahey to formally inaugurate the new Regional Asia Foundation office in Suva, Fiji in November of last year. And I think we're off to a very, very promising and very exciting start in terms of the programs and activities and the amazing staff that we now have working in the Pacific.

John Rieger (12:52):

One of your greatest legacies with the foundation will be the creation of LeadEX, our leadership and exchange division, including the launch of The Asia Foundation Development Fellows Program in 2014. This next testimonial is from Badruun Gardi, a 2014 development fellow from Mongolia, and now a fellow at Harvard. Guardian's mother founded the first NGO in Mongolia after the transition to democracy in 1990. And the foundation, which was an early presence there, supported her. Let's hear more of this story. Here's Badruun Gardi.

Badruun Gardi (13:26):

The early nineties were an incredibly difficult period for Mongolia. We were one of the poorest countries in the world. We had triple digit inflation. For a while we had food rationing. I remember standing in long lines with my mother waiting to get her daily rationing of bread and butter and sugar. And in 95, my mother received a TAF scholarship to spend a year in the US and this was something that completely changed the trajectory of my life and same for my mother. And in 2014 when the Development Fellows program was established, I knew I had to apply. I was lucky to get selected, and then spent this incredible year of learning with nine other Asians.


Through the program I was fortunate to travel to Myanmar where I met this incredible Burmese young man who ended up directly inspiring me to start an organization in Mongolia. So this nonprofit that I started in Mongolia, which has been my pride and joy for the last seven years, is a direct result of the Development Fellows program. So as you can see, my life has been completely transformed through the LeadEX programs, and I know I speak not only for myself, but now the hundred and seven development fellows that we have and the hundreds of participants who've taken part in the LeadEX programs, when I say thank you, David.

John Rieger (14:59):

That's just one of dozens of inspiring stories that we could have called from the Development Fellows program. I would like to hear, David, your philosophy of leadership. What makes a leader? How is one formed and why do we need them?

David Arnold (15:17):

Well, let me start by saying that when I first joined the foundation, I spent a lot of time talking to longtime staff and partners of the foundation about the foundation's work over the years and asking what has made the biggest difference and what has had the most lasting impact. And invariably, the conversation almost always turned to individuals, young and emerging leaders in different fields that had benefited from the foundation's support and encouragement early in their careers. And as a result of opportunities like the Development Fellows program or various other exchange programs the foundation has sponsored over the decades, they really had been boosted into a higher trajectory in terms of their careers and their impacts. So I quickly realized that this was a part of the foundation's history that we really needed to revisit and to renew and refresh and update and to reintroduce. And I must give enormous credit to David Kim and his remarkable team of colleagues for their creativity and crafting programs that really speak to what the development needs and leadership needs are for the current generations of up and coming leaders.


From my experience, I think there are basically three essential elements to successful leaders. Obviously, knowledge is a critically important piece of that. You want people that are substantively grounded and expert in their respective areas of endeavor. I think equally important is what I would characterize as leadership skills. It's the ability to communicate, the ability to inspire, to create an environment that encourages collaboration and teamwork. And then third is really commitment. And I think one of the things that absolutely shines through as you speak with folks who have been selected for the Development Fellows program and many of these other programs is they really are committed to bringing about positive changes and improvements in the lives of their citizens and the trajectory of their countries and in the world at large. And it's these three things, the knowledge, the skills and the commitment that to my way of thinking really define effective leadership.

John Rieger (18:05):

I come from a generation that grew up with a certain skepticism about leaders. As Bob Dylan said, don't follow leaders and watch your parking meters. And so for every leader, there must be followers. Why focus programmatically on leadership when there is so much followership and so many people in that category who need to be uplifted?

David Arnold (18:31):

Well, I think effective leaders play a catalytic role. They're change agents, and if they're the kinds of leaders that we try to identify and nurture through the LeadEX programs, they're what we would characterize as servant leaders. They are focused on not just serving their communities, but also bringing along people with them and seeing their role as being supporting and encouraging and facilitating, but also helping to spark reforms and changes and improvements that are going to have a wide impact in the lives of citizens and in the societies in which they're embedded.

John Rieger (19:20):


Tracie Yang (19:21):

Everyone here is very excited about welcoming the foundation's new president, Laurel Miller, who comes to us with an extensive background in both government service and the NGO sector. There's a tradition among US presidents to leave a personal letter in the president's desk for their successor. What advice would you leave for Laurel in such a letter?

David Arnold (19:46):

Well, I think she's off to a fantastic start, and I don't think she necessarily needs advice from me. I guess my observation would be that Laurel is very much aware of TAF's history, a remarkable history spanning almost 70 years now. And I think she's appropriately appreciative and respectful of what the foundation has accomplished and the contributions it's made over these years. I guess my advice would be that while it's important to respect that history, to honor that history, it's also important not to be captive to it. So I guess I'm a great believer in what I characterize as raging incrementalism. It's finding the right blend between continuity and change.

John Rieger (20:43):

David, now that you're leaving us, have you made any crazy plans for the future? Are you going to go vanning with your wife or maybe spend a few months binge-watching Netflix?

David Arnold (20:57):

Nothing that exotic. We do have some personal travel plans. We have some family events coming up this year that we're very much looking forward to having the time to enjoy and savor. So there's not going to be any shortage of things to keep us fully engaged and occupied. And I also have to say that The Asia Foundation has been a really important and meaningful chapter in both my life and in my wife's life. Sherry's time being associated with the foundation. We certainly continue to be active supporters of the foundation and look forward to staying connected in the months and years ahead.

Tracie Yang (21:40):

You never really leave The Asia Foundation.

David Arnold (21:44):

I hope that that's true. I think it is true. This is an extended Asia Foundation family

John Rieger (21:50):

Outgoing, president of the Asia Foundation, David Arnold, thank you for joining us today and good luck.

David Arnold (21:56):

Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure.

John Rieger (21:58):

That's our show for this week.

Tracie Yang (22:00):

And if you like this episode of the InAsia Podcast, why don't you head on over to wherever you get your podcasts and subscribe so you can binge out on our entire archive. Your brain will thank you.

John Rieger (22:10):

I know mine does, and I've heard every one.

Tracie Yang (22:12):

Until next time, I'm Tracie Yang.

John Rieger (22:14):

And I'm John Rieger.

Tracie Yang (22:15):

Thanks for listening.