The IDRC in Egypt: an interview with David Malone

Sara Abou Bakr
22 Min Read
David M. Malone, former head of the IDRC


David M. Malone, former head of the IDRC
David M. Malone, former head of the IDRC

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is one of the few organisations funding development research in Egypt. Operating since 1971, the IDRC is well-known to researchers seeking funding for innovative ideas.

Retiring head of the IDRC David Malone sat with the Daily News Egypt for a candid talk on Egypt, the IDRC mission and ways to help Egyptian research.


We are interested in the work of IDRC and your personal history. I noticed that you studied at the American University in Cairo?

Yes, I studied Arabic at the AUC in 1976 and returned in 1984 to study Arabic again before reposting to Jordan and Syria. I loved my four years in Cairo and I loved coming back to study four more years after that.

So how is your Arabic?

Not good. I grew up in Iran and I went to Iranian schools so Farsi often comes out first. But what’s fun is that I understand what goes on around me and that was very useful when I was dealing with politically-charged situations and people had no idea I could understand them, so I often learned more than I was meant to.

You said you love being in Egypt when you were a bit younger; how do you feel about it now?

I feel very much at home in the centre of Cairo because I used to walk everywhere and those days in Cairo the traffic jams were worse than they are now… worse!

Cairo has grown tremendously but the centre has actually changed very little. It is much more polluted and the architecture has not changed, but an economic and social change reflects the affluence that grew in Egypt at the beginning of economic liberalisation policy. However, that affluence actually didn’t trickle down much.  The early benefits of this policy were soon diverted into channels that in fact created much greater inequalities in Egypt.

There were two other problems; one was that the very significant agricultural progress in Egypt was based on unsustainable water use. The second problem was that all the focus on education was getting more people into the educational system, but there was no focus on quality in what they were learning. This was a problem not just for Egypt internally because elsewhere in the world education was improving. Parents could not know that what the children were being offered here in public schools was simply not keeping up with education in Asia in countries like Indonesia, China and even Pakistan.

Korea turned into a developed country in 50 years so the education that never seems urgent as a policy problem is tremendously important, and if the quality of education suffers, society as a whole suffers because jobs that need high skilled and educated individuals will not be created.

And this is one of the main problems we have in Egypt right now: education?

Absolutely, connected with very rapid population growth. When I first came to live here, the population was about 36 million and when I left four years later it was probably 39 million. Now we probably have around 90 million and the population is very densely concentrated; there are few cities outside the Nile Valley. Also, this growing population needs jobs, the young people need jobs and for the jobs they need two things; good quality education and an economy that is capable of dynamism and job creation.

Besides education, what is the second major problem that Egypt needs to focus on?

Water. I think Egypt within a year or two needs to think very seriously about water. Egypt has a lot of free water from the Nile but hasn’t been using it all that well. Meanwhile, there are many hungry people upstream the Nile in Ethiopia, Sudan, Southern Sudan, Uganda and these countries feel that the treaty that establishes sharing the Nile is very unfair. They discussed this officially with Egypt but of course if in the long term they are not satisfied with their share of the water, they will just take it and there is nothing much Egypt can do about that.  So thinking seriously about water, water use, how can we produce more in agriculture with less water is the issue, instead of how can we produce more using more water. It is much more precious than oil or minerals.

What do you think are the steps that Egypt should take?

Research is something Egyptians are very good at. Given the opportunity to do research, they are excellent at it. In fact, universities all over the world are filled with Egyptians [with dual nationalities]. The talent and skill exist within Egyptians but there has often been a lack of resources in the past for research in Egypt because education was not being favoured and the universities were not adequately funded. The model was free education for everybody [regardless of] quality. So it was very difficult for Egyptians within Egypt to conduct high quality research as of when I came here in the mid 1970s.

However, when one does fund research in Egypt, as IDRC has been doing for nearly 40 years, one discovers first of all if the research is policy-relevant; if it can help the economy and the society, if the research will be adopted in Egypt, if the government will listen to researchers who can demonstrate the different approaches would help, and if the technical capacity exists in Egypt for high quality research as it exists in other countries like India, China, Brazil, and South Africa.

Most aid donors do not fund research; IDRC is quite unusual. The biggest funders of aid research, of development research are first, The Gates Foundation, which didn’t exist 12 years ago; secondly, The British Development Ministry which has just doubled its research programme to about $600m or $700m; and third, much smaller but still significant is the IDRC, we spend about $260m per year around the developing world.

So, Egypt has received a lot of aid from many donors but not so much for research that would allow Egyptians to solve their own problems; that’s what I like about development research. The basic idea is you provide support to good ideas that can influence policy and all of this is in the hands of the people or the region itself. It’s not being dictated by Canada or an international institution; it’s home grown.

We hear that your time at IDRC is coming to an end soon.

This is my last trip for IDRC and I wanted to help introduce the new director because the Arab world has always mattered to IDRC, but we have also somewhat struggled here because as research quality increased in Latin America, in Africa and also in Asia, it has not really increased that much in the Arab world because there was not much support from the government for research.

Secondly, high quality research in countries like Egypt is often private-sector-driven, and that’s good! We want the private sector to be thriving but in several Arab countries the private sector does not have much of a role.  The high quality research is often invisible because it goes on behind company doors so to speak. However, the more broad research that intends to be of use to society, the quality has not improved enough in the Arab world, and the best Arab researchers are [mostly] outside the Arab region.

What types of research does the IDRC usually fund and how do you choose your partners?

Sometimes we launch a global competition in the developing world, or regionally. We would choose a few countries that share an important issue and we’ll put out a call for proposals from researchers and then judge these proposals in a competitive way. Which are the best ideas? What are the chances they would be able to complete this research programme? But we also read all proposals that come to us unsolicited.

One of our programme officers will assess it to see if it can be developed. We [currently fund] research on agriculture, water, climate change adaptation, other environmental issues, governance, justice, urban violence, economic policy, social policy, equality of women and participation of women and the economy, science and technology and innovation.

Do you only fund organizations?

No, we fund individual, groups and consortia of research institutions. For example, when countries begin to be successful, like Brazil, India, China, South Africa, or Colombia, you realise they actually need better regulation because the economy is taking off without good regulation. So we support a network of legal experts who are developing ideas on what forms of regulations are necessary, but avoid stifling entrepreneurship.

In the Arab world, there is a network of economists that we have supported many years now, called The Economic Research. It’s in a network format [with] economists from all over the Arab world. Many of them go on to hold top jobs in their economy, such as central bank governors or finance ministers.

The individual has to be able to convince us that she or he has the research infrastructure necessary to carry up the research. If the researcher is, for example, a professor at a university, and has resources at their disposal, then absolutely. It varies enormously, but we always want it to be policy-relevant. If it cannot be of use to the society, we will not do it.

 How many of the researchers who IDRC funded here in Egypt actually got the chance to implement their research?

I think quite a lot of them did, but not always in the way they expected. How you eventually advance your research results is unpredictable. We always insist that researchers have a strategy; once they have finished their research, they take their results and insist on a strategy as to how to take the research to the policy level. Sometimes the policymakers are not interested. Sometimes the government changes.

There are all sort of reasons why this does not necessarily work immediately. Sometimes 20 years later, the person whose research you supported was unsuccessful at first, but then becomes the president of Brazil, and then the research they did, not just with our support, becomes actually quite relevant. So we have supported people who became president of Brazil, president of Chile, prime minister of India, and ministers in many countries. You never know what the future holds.

What is the most successful research in Egypt the IDRC has helped?

I think there has been quite a lot of successful research actually. Some of it was related to agriculture over the last 30 years, and the technical side of the Agriculture Ministry is actually very competent. Some of the past agriculture ministers who were more technocratic than political were highly competent. One example is something like new crops that can work in Egyptian soils that have never been tried, or that require less water or that adapt to a level of salinity that other crops of the same type cannot stand.

Have you considered forming a lobbying group that can convince governments that research could actually the society?

Often I would say that within governments there are friends of research. For example, it there are those in the cabinets of India and Canada that are real friends of research. It’s nearly always clear who within a government system believes in science-based policy, and through them you can work. Smart researchers who want their research to be used know how to do that.

But in Egypt for example the research mentality barely exists.

I agree with you. I think Egypt is behind the curve on research. If you look at China, Korea, Japan, why did they prosper at different times? Because they understood that to be ahead of the market, you have to be engaged in research. Most of it was conducted by the private sector in Japan and Korea. In China this was government-supported but with the same basic idea: if you want to be a market leader, you invest in research.

How is the current situation in Egypt affecting the work of IDRC?

It isn’t affecting us, but the IDRC has been funding less at the Arab world than it used to. Not because we don’t want to, but because the research proposals we get are not as strong as the research proposals we get in other parts of the world. This speaks to the weakening of the quality of higher education and of the research communities in Arab societies; it does not speak to the weak capacity of Egyptians for research.

How do you evaluate strong research?

There is no perfect way.

The lesser of bad methods is usually peer review. The reason I say it is not perfect is every member of the peer review panel has their own prejudice, has their own, you know, craziness. Nobody is perfect so even peer review is imperfect. And that is why we do not use that methodology for everything; that is why we empower our programme officers at IDRC to dialogue with the researchers and research groups.

The Gates Foundation has a very interesting methodology that we adopted for some of the medical research we fund, and it was quite original when Gates started it. They say whatever your idea is send it in, and then they pay quite a lot of money for leading people in the field involved to read every idea. Out of maybe 5,000 ideas, they would take a 100. They will give you $10,000 to develop your idea, but not a lot of money until it is fully developed. 100 applicants would come back with their ideas a bit more developed.

The Gates Foundation would give $100,000 to 20 applicants to further develop their idea. So 20 people go off and develop it and then The Gates Foundation grants the jackpot, between three to five million dollars. It can be an individual or it can be a team. In our medical research project, we made this methodology available to some young Canadian medical researchers. We call it Rising Stars. They came to Ottawa not long ago for a conference. We gave them white boards and said they had 60 seconds to explain their $100,000 idea. They were so exciting, so even though some of them didn’t win millions of dollars, they might two years from now.

It is about creating an atmosphere of exciting ideas, how you develop ideas and how you grow in skill and ambition.

A number of aid programmes are having problems with the current permits in Egypt. Are you suffering from any problems?

No, we are not. We have a status we negotiated with the government of Egypt. We have been here for 35 years. The government of Egypt understands that IDRC is a small part of the Canadian aid envelope. On the contrary, I met with the minister of cooperation and the foreign minister to make sure that they are not unhappy with us because I had read similar things, [but] they were very encouraging. They think we use our status honourably and that the cooperation ministry is quite excited about the small things we do because they are not as large when compared to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) or the World Bank.

What is the plan for Egypt in the next couple of years?

Well we have no country-specific plan. We are not like classic aid agencies which have an Egypt programme. Even regionally we don’t have a regional plan. We don’t say we are going to spend $30m in the Arab world next year; it depends on the proposals, but we will almost certainly have calls for proposals in the Arab world next year. I’ll give you an idea of one that is coming towards Egypt; with our support, the University of Alexandria is creating a centre for research on adaptation to climate change.

These are very smart researchers whom are very accomplished, but they didn’t have the resources within the university to apply science to the problem of climate change in Egypt, particularly the delta which is severely threatened. With a grant of  more than a million dollars, we made it possible for them to have a specialised centre with the resources for the next number of years to work on this problem.

There is another research programme coming to Egypt, but not quite yet. With the help of some of my colleagues about 15 years ago, a research community in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos began in a field we called echo health; the intersection of environmental factors with animal and human health. It was aimed at studying viruses and why they develop.

Many of the viruses that affect the rest of the world develop in a small part of southern China, northern Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Why? We know already but most diseases develop at the intersection of animals and people living close together. Mostly in farms in poor countries animals and people live in close proximity to each other. We are investing a lot of money in expanding the network of scientists in Asia who work on these factors, but we also want to expand it to a few other countries to see what we can learn from the same factors in their countries.

One of the countries we have chosen is Egypt; so in about a year we will be calling for proposals from Egyptian scientists.

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Politics editor at Daily News Egypt Twitter: @sara_ab5
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