Movers and shakers: David M. Malone

January 25, 2011
Yasmeen Mohiuddin

David M. Malone’s appointment in February as president of the International Development Research Centre seems a natural step for a man whose career embodies the worldview of the crown corporation. Both Malone and IDRC, which aims to assist developing countries in nurturing local research groups to tackle social, economic, and political issues, are familiar with the problems facing such countries and the potential the global research community has to address them.Most recently, Malone was Canada’s high commissioner in Delhi, where IDRC has a regional office, and his selection has been met with praise in the two worlds that he has known best—diplomacy and research.

Malone was born in 1954 in Ottawa, the son of an Australian mother and Canadian father who was recruited by the then-Department of External Affairs. Thus began a childhood spent in the Netherlands, France, and Iran, a country he returned to in 2004 for the first time in 25 years. The early exposure to a cosmopolitan lifestyle appealed to the young Malone, who says his parents’ frequent travels encouraged him to seek a job that would enable him to do the same.

“Kids often default into the sort of professional lives of their parents and I think I did that very much, having grown up internationally,” says Malone. “I think simply having moved around as a kid and lived in different societies, all of which I’d liked and had liked learning from, it was something I wanted to continue to do during my life.”

He studied business at Montreal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales before following his father’s footsteps by joining the Department of External Affairs for a career that would lead him to postings in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, among other countries. After completing a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Malone returned to External Affairs to assist Sylvia Ostry, then deputy minister of international trade and one of Canada’s key players in international economic diplomacy.

He credits Ostry with teaching him a thing or two about the delicate art of diplomatic negotiation. “I learned a tremendous amount from working with her, both on the substance of the issues, but also on how much personal style can matter,” says Malone. “Sylvia had a tremendous personal style that was a major force in international economic relations.”

He would put those lessons to use while working for two of Canada’s permanent representatives at the United Nations in the early 1990s, Yves Fortier and Louise Fréchette, before becoming deputy permanent representative from 1992-94. He also took charge of the working group of the UN’s special committee on peacekeeping during Canada’s ill-fated deployment to Somalia, which partially contributed to the country’s reluctance to participate directly in future missions. But there are other reasons for a decreased Canadian presence in UN peacekeeping operations in recent times, according to Malone. He points to Canada’s participation in NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan as part of a trend seen in many western countries, whereby increasing numbers of governments are bypassing the UN in favour of more practical and efficient regional organizations and “coalitions of the willing.” But a reduced ground presence in conflict-ridden countries hasn’t stopped western nations from being the primary funders of the UN budget, including most of its peacekeeping expenses.

Malone says that because Canada was actively involved in peacekeeping missions in Haiti and Somalia while he was at the UN, the views of Canadian ambassadors were always sought out and held in high regard, allowing the country to speak authoritatively on those and other conflicts.

“Canada had the capacity to punch above its weight at the UN,” says Malone. This was due in no small part to the influence of Fortier and Fréchette. “I concluded that personal engagement by Canadian ambassadors, their capacity to add value to UN processes, often by being rather critical of the way business was done, made Canada matter more than simply going with the flow.”


Malone addressed this internal criticism while serving a six-year term as president of the New York-based International Peace Institute, a position he held until 2004. In many ways it was a continuation of his previous work that dealt with the details of UN peacekeeping operations. Much of the institute’s research is focused on the UN and affiliated institutions, but being at arm’s length from the UN gives it the flexibility to both work closely with it and freely criticize it. During Malone’s tenure, the institute gained a reputation as a place where diplomats and scholars could debate contentious issues outside the confines of UN protocol, and also made progress in conflict prevention and coordinating peacekeeping efforts with other international actors.

“The IPI under David was an absolutely indispensible institution in New York,” says Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN between 2000 and 2004. He adds that much of the criticism of the UN and calls for its reform have to do with the public perception of the institution and its work, rather than the reality. In the face of certain debacles, such as the oil-for-food scandal and the failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide or come to any consensus over Iraq, critics overlook much of the work that goes on away from the spotlight.

“The UN is an institution that needs a lot of help, a lot of reform, but it’s not a basketcase,” says Heinbecker, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo. “There have been a raft of innovations over the years. The UN has adjusted significantly to the changing times.”

While IDRC doesn’t come in for nearly as much hostility as the UN, Malone will still deal with the challenge of keeping the centre relevant in the face of changing government priorities while increasing its visibility domestically. Although the centre has received well in excess of $100 million dollars in government money over the last five years, as well as millions of dollars from partners such as the Canadian International Development Agency and Britain’s Department for International Development, it often goes unrecognized in much of the research community in Canada.

That’s due largely to the fact that it deals with issues in the developing world, rather than in Canada. “That poses an extraordinary challenge to the leadership of the institution,” says Fen Osler Hampson, director of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and co-editor with Malone of From Reaction to Conflict Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System. “When you don’t have a natural constituency at home, you’re always exposed and you’re always vulnerable.”

In addition to IDRC’s efforts and achievements occasionally remaining unnoticed at home, its status as a well-funded crown corporation means the centre has to work doubly hard to prove its worth to doubters who are suspicious of big-money government enterprises. Malone hopes to refute this stereotype through continuous dialogue between CIDA and the departments of finance and foreign affairs, among other government branches. “We have to make sure we’re not duplicating what others are doing and that what we do complements what others are trying to do in Canada,” he says, adding that he has spent much of his time since arriving back in Ottawa communicating with peers and receiving feedback on public perceptions of IDRC.

Malone will have to tread somewhat more carefully than he did at the International Peace Institute, maintaining IDRC’s autonomy without alienating its main source of revenue. “If you become too much of what I call a policy advocate or a policy champion to be seen criticizing government, chances are, particularly when money is tight, your budget is going to fall on the chopping block,” says Hampson. “You have to be very strategic and very politically attuned in terms of how you manage the domestic profile of the institution, the priorities that you establish for the institution, so as to ensure its long term health and survival.”

Not that Malone expects an easy ride.He acknowledges IDRC’s stellar international reputation, but warns that there is plenty more work to be done in ensuring the centre continues to make progress. “Complacency is the enemy of continued achievement so we keep having to look for new angles that are of interest to Canadians beyond IDRC in the developing world that we could work on,” he says. “We constantly have to be thinking about where further research in the developing world could make a real difference, and where Canada and Canadians can help make that difference.”

David Malone and leading Indian scholar Alka Acharya

Heinbecker, who worked with Malone in the Department of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1990s, says he has confidence in Malone’s ability to use both his diplomatic and research experience to IDRC’s benefit. “He is one of the few people who has strong grounds on the academic side, a good reputation and considerable strength and at the same time has been a practitioner and knows where reality begins and ends,” says Heinbecker. “One of the difficulties you find with curiosity-based research in university is it’s very often unlinked to anything that’s happening in the real world. One of the difficulties of the real world is that it’s very often so preoccupied with the impossible, whatever problems seem so intractable that nothing can be done, and it sometimes takes a fresh eye from the outside to create some sort of way forward.”

Indeed much of IDRC’s work effectively combines the practical and theoretical aspects of research, unlike many institutions where the thinkers and doers are kept carefully apart, and never the twain shall meet. “The solitudes are bigger than I had imagined between the academic community and the practitioner community,” says Heinbecker. “And David probably did as well as anybody ever has.”

Having successfully made the transition between public servant, diplomat, and researcher several times, Malone’s academic career has led him to top universities in North America and Europe, including Columbia University, the University of Toronto, and the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po, places where he says he has excelled in his niche of writing and research.

“Research is non-hierarchical. You’re only as good as your research or writing are, no matter what your position is, and I’ve always enjoyed critiquing in the world of ideas,” says Malone. He made a mid-career return to this world to obtain a doctorate at Oxford University in 1997, which focused on decision-making in the UN security council, and he freely admits that he only started taking a serious interest in policy-related research in his later life, by which point he was well entrenched in the foreign service. It has proven to be a fruitful endeavour.

“The number of foreign service officers who went back and got a doctorate in the middle of their careers is damn few. The number who’ve successfully run a kind of NGO think tank are probably fewer,” says Heinbecker. “David can move back and forth between the academic world—sort of the think tank world, diplomacy, policy jobs, and Ottawa with real ease and real expertise. That makes him a pretty rare character.”

“He is someone who in terms of his career has made a point of reaching out to the academic and policy think tank world,” agrees Hampson. “That’s not true of many of his peers who are in government. A lot of them aren’t particularly interested in what the academic community and the socalled advocacy policy think tank community have to say about foreign policy or international policy.”

Malone has also made an effort to reach out to colleagues in other countries who are keen to facilitate a progressive discourse on international relations. While visiting Iran on a personal visit in 2004, he had the opportunity to connect with Iranians in a manner that would have been impossible had he been on government business. “Many of the audiences I was able to engage with were in university, very impressive young people, often very impressive scholars who were seeking to understand the rest of the world, who were seeking to establish where Iran could constructively fit into it,” says Malone. “So I felt those weeks in my life, beyond the pleasure of returning to a country I’d loved as a child, were very worthwhile.”

It may be that Ottawa is only one of many more future destinations for Malone, but as a man who has spent a lifetime moving to and from some of the world’s great cities, he adheres to a very worldly interpretation of the word “home.”

“Essentially big cities that are open where I have the linguistic skills necessary to connect with the life of those cities make me very, very happy,” he says. “Those are the places I feel most at home, but I was born in Ottawa, I’ve always liked Ottawa, and I’m happy to be back.”

This article appears with permission from the International Journal, Canada’s pre-eminent scholarly publication on international relations. It was originally published in Autumn 2008, 63:4.