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Having an impact as a development economist outside of a research university: Interview with Alix Zwane

David McKenzie's picture
When you study for a Ph.D. in economics, the pathway to success and happiness as a development economist seems very straight and narrow. The implicit (or explicit) metric of success is to publish lots of articles and become a professor in a research university, and you are taught by people who have done this, and surrounded by lots of classmates aspiring to do the same. But there are many other ways to use the skills of your Ph.D., contribute to the world as a development economist, and have a great job and happy life following different paths. Since Ph.D. students tend to know a lot less about what life as a development economist outside of a research university looks like, we thought we’d profile some people doing interesting jobs outside of a research university. We thought we'd kick off this series by interviewing Alix Zwane, the CEO of the Global Innovation Fund.

Development Impact (DI): What you do in this job, and what does a typical day or week look like for you?
GIF is a unique, hybrid entity, backed by leading agencies like DFID, USAID, DFAT, Sida, the government of South Africa, and also by the Omidyar Network. Our task is to make grant, debt, and equity investments to accelerate innovation. We don’t have a target financial rate of return, but we do seek to maximise the social value of the work that we do and then report on the social rate of return accordingly.
My job is to set the strategy of the organisation in collaboration with the board of directors, including our investment policy and process, but also the process through which we use economic analysis to assess the success of our investments. But I don’t hold the pen on these things. My job is to hire great people, hold them accountable for their work, and empower them to choose the investments we make, as well as help me to engage with our board and donors to explain the emerging impact of our portfolio.
A typical week for me can be quite externally focused. I spend a lot of time engaging stakeholders, whether that is our donor partners or others in the wider development sector, partly because there are key messages we want to get out into the world, but also to keep stakeholders aligned around what we’re doing so we can get their feedback, course-correct, and be responsive. Internally, I am always challenging myself to be a cheerleader for the organisation – to set the tone and vision, and empower the great leaders we have at GIF.
DI: How much of your time do you spend a) doing research; b) reading research done by others; c) travelling in developing countries?
To be honest, if I spent a great deal of my time doing research now, there’d be something wrong with the way I am doing my job here at GIF! But it wasn’t the case that the minute I left academia I stopped writing papers. I was fortunate enough to have co-authors who were willing to work with me and with whom I had great relationships even when I was more in the policy and grant space. But over time, as I’ve moved into a more executive role, part of my self-discipline has been to move away from doing research towards becoming a consumer and supporter of research. I value the skills that I developed during my days conducting research, but it’s OK for me that it isn’t part of my day-to-day work anymore. That said, at GIF, economics is at the heart of what we do – if we are going to think about the social value of the innovations that we support then we need to understand the economics of the problem that entrepreneurs and innovators are tackling, and to understand the evidence of impact for us to assess whether an investment makes sense for GIF. Reading research
When it comes to reading research, I do still make time for some of that – after all, it’s important that I have a good level of understanding of where some of the key conversations in development are. But in some ways, that’s a luxury I let myself indulge. When I was at the Gates Foundation – and I was a programme officer rather than being in an executive role – I consumed a lot of research, and did a lot of thinking around the gaps in the literature where, if we had more evidence, the Foundation would be even more effective. That’s how the Gates Foundation came to support urban services initiative at J-PAL – namely, our deliberate understanding of literature that made us realise we don’t know enough about how to deliver services in urban areas.  I had a great partner on this in Radu Ban, another economist working outside of academia, for whom I have tremendous respect.
I’m still very interested in the question of how we make public services work for poor people. It was a theme of my own work when I was doing research, it’s the core of some of the research we funded at the Gates Foundation, and at GIF some of the things we fund that I’m most excited really get to the heart of that too. How do you incorporate behavioural nudges into social protection programmes to make them more effective? How can we support the development of technologies that make it easier for banks to manage anti money-laundering rules and know their customer regulations in developing countries so remittances can be provided? This remains a topic I am endlessly fascinated by.
Increasingly – and partly because of conversations that I have had with folks in the Canadian government about their feminist international development policy – I am also interested in agency. How we understand intersection between people’s understanding of themselves as the protagonist in their own story as opposed to being a supporting character, and how that intersects with the choices they make and the risks they can and cannot bear. A lot of research around graduation programmes shows that hope plays a key role, and that is just as important to long-term impacts as life skills. I’m very taken by that proposal, and wonder about the extent to which, for women especially, there’s some other part of hope that might be about agency, and how we support that and scale it in a sustainable way.
I don’t spend as much time in developing countries as I would like. The nature of my role means that a lot of my time is spent in donor countries rather than where our programmes are,. But I make a concerted effort several times a year to go and engage with partners that GIF has invested in. It helps to keep me sharp, energised, and realistic.
Even though that’s the case at GIF, throughout my career since I left academia I have spent an enormous amount of time in developing countries. When I was at the Gates Foundation there was a period of time where I was in India or Bangladesh one week a month. At Evidence Action I spent a lot of time in Kenya, India, and also some time in Malawi. So my current role is actually more anomalous for me. But what I would say is that it is certainly possible to have a career outside of academia where you spend a lot of time in developing countries.
DI: Tell us about one accomplishment in this job that you are particularly proud of.
Above all else, I am really proud of the team I have been able to assemble here at GIF. When GIF was conceptualised, it was intended to support innovation in the public and private sectors. We are tasked with using rigorous evidence of impact as a positive screen on investments, but also to be really realistic about market tests as a signal of sustainability and the potential for scale – so quite a tricky proposition. I am proud of the fact that I have been able to work with an amazing group of people here at GIF to take that set of ideas and make it into a real thing. Now GIF is something that other people are looking to as a potential example of the kind of tools we might need to enhance the quality of blended finance and measure the impact in “impact investing” in a way that hasn’t been done before.
I was incredibly fortunate to recruit a group of economists to our analytics team, including Ken Chomitz and Michael Eddy, who have put together an approach for ex ante measurement of impact that we call Practical Impact Assessment. The use of this tool has helped our investors have better conversations about what we should and shouldn’t do. I really hope Practical Impacts grows to have impact far beyond GIF, and that we can be part of the larger conversation about how aid engages with the private sector in an ambitious and helpful way.
DI: How did you end up in this job?
I did a PhD at the Kennedy School initially thinking my dream job was to be part of the Harvard Institute for International Development. I don’t think I had been at Harvard even a year before the Institute shut down, and so I had to make a new plan. When I finished my dissertation I had a couple of policy job offers, and a job offer from UC Berkeley. I went to Berkeley where I learnt a tremendous amount working with academics such as Ted Miguel and Ann E. Harrison, but I also realised that for me, the seminar room wasn’t the right place to spend my career – I wanted to see how I could engage on the larger policy agenda of how we make philanthropy and foreign assistance as effective as it can be, and it’s something I have worked on ever since.
I was also fortunate enough to be part of the first team that set up, and after a couple of years there, I was recruited to the Gates Foundation where I had an amazing time focusing on a question I care about deeply: how do you make public services work for poor people? I then took a bit of a risk by leaving to set up Evidence Action, but I believed deeply in the organisation’s mission: to create sustainable service delivery models for evidence-based development interventions, working in partnership with academics, governments, and other service providers who are thinking about how to translate research results into resilient business models. That was an amazing experience, and I remain a huge fan of the work that Evidence Action is doing.
My role at GIF combines all those experiences: thinking about sustainable business models, how we fund and scale those up, how we ensure value for money of aid resources that we’ve been tasked with investing, and how we share lessons and findings and stories from that work with the wider community as well advance the agenda about how we actually measure impact in the real world. I feel very fortunate that this is where I find myself today.
DI: What do you like most about it, and what are the main downsides compared to being in a research university?
I really love the range of people that I engage with deeply here in this role at GIF. People whose expertise and experiences are so different from my own, and from whom I get to learn so much. We have people in our team who formerly worked for the UK government who have taught me so much about strategic information flow and management, people who worked for the Indian government whose insights around scaling innovation I have found invaluable, and then also people who are career-long investors, whose insights around things like risk are so crucial to what we do.
When it comes to comparing GIF to life at a research university, there are two things I would call out.
One is simply being around young people. Sometimes you lose sight of the sparks that come from being in a university, engaging with students. I sometimes miss that. I recently gave a talk at Oxford as part of the university’s ‘Distinguished Speakers’ series – I got a lot of energy from interacting with the students in the audience, and it reminded me what a pleasure that can be.
Another thing is having time to pause and reflect – to think quietly, and centre oneself. In the busy world of impact investing, this is something I have to consciously make time for. It’s easy in a job that’s so externally focused to become reactive rather than taking time and space to think carefully and find your north star.
DI: What tools from your Ph.D. do you use most?
I think for me it isn’t so much about individual tools – it is more about habits of mind that continue to stand me in really good stead. The first of these is just generally being trained to be careful, analytical, and thoughtful about what conclusions can be drawn from data presented to me. And to ask questions: how do we know that? Are we sure that’s the theory of change, or the causal relationship?
The second thing is comfort with rigorous intellectual engagement. You learn in a PhD programme how not to let your own personal ego be too close to a position you’re arguing. That can stand you in good stead in professional world – to help you be resilient and bounce back when you lose arguments, which all of us do from time to time!
It also makes you respect, appreciate, and value deep expertise. I find that really useful in this job where our team members have to draw on experts from all sorts of different fields when making investment decisions and not being afraid to say when we don’t know something. It helps you to be a lifetime learner regardless of whether you’re in a learning institution or not.
DI: Are there things you wish you had done more of as a student, or do you have any other advice for budding development economists thinking of jobs outside of a pure research track?
One of the things I wish I’d done more of as a student was to practice really good self-care, especially around exercise. I’ve found as I’ve grown older that that’s really critical for being successful in stressful, complicated jobs. I wish I’d learnt this earlier, because grad school can be stressful and complicated too.
In terms of advice for folks thinking about jobs outside of a pure research track, I’d recommend learning management and leadership skills. Those are practices – they are not things that come naturally to anyone – and it’s important to take them seriously. It’s part of how you’ll be assessed, what will make you successful, and what will make you happy. But it’s not something you learn in a typical PhD programme!