April 10, 2024

Accelerating Low-Carbon Development: Meet Alix Peterson Zwane

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

The Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability this month welcomed investor, social entrepreneur and innovator Alix Peterson Zwane, Ph.D., as the first executive in residence with the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project (EAP) at Duke University.

Profile photo of Alix Zwane
Alix Peterson Zwane is the inaugural James E. Rogers Energy Access Project executive in residence. The position offers opportunities for the Duke community to engage in purposeful partnerships with external experts on energy access and energy transitions in low- and middle-income countries.

Zwane comes to Duke with two decades of experience advancing evidence-based aid and international development at a range of institutions, including Evidence Action, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google.org, Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley. Most recently, she served for more than eight years as the first CEO of the Global Investment Fund (GIF), a hybrid investment vehicle based in London. Backed by leading bilateral aid agencies, corporations and foundations, GIF accelerates evidence-based innovation in low- and middle-income countries through early-stage debt and equity investing, as well as grantmaking.

During her first week at the Nicholas Institute, Zwane took some time to discuss what brought her to Duke and how international aid and development can be better targeted to improve people’s lives while minimizing environmental impact.

What interested you in working with the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project at Duke?

I have spent most of my career working on how we can identify and advance effective international development assistance. How do we know it when we see it, and how can we use that evidence to build and maintain a coalition for development? In the 21st century, development will be inseparable from climate because rapid growth in emerging markets is critical to climate adaptation and mitigation. To meet mitigation targets, we really have to pay attention to how carbon-intensive this growth is. I can’t think of a better platform and team to advance this next effectiveness agenda—accelerating models for low-carbon development—than the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project, with its track record of visionary and policy-relevant action research.

What role does innovation—particularly in finance—have in accelerating climate-friendly development in low- and middle-income countries?

Collectively, we have a shared interest in rapid, inclusive growth in developing countries. This is a moral imperative, and it’s also practical. We saw in the COVID pandemic what an interconnected world we live in. From a climate perspective, for developing countries, the best adaptation strategy is economic growth and development. We need new ways to finance this growth, incentivizing greener choices and subsidizing them when they come at a financial premium. At the Global Innovation Fund, we built a track record that demonstrated some ways to do this, including blended financing mechanisms. Innovative ideas generated and piloted by trusted institutions like Duke can help drive these premiums down, as well.

Your career has focused on “evidence-based” aid and development. How can governments, the private sector and philanthropic organizations better evaluate whether their investments are making the intended impacts?

One challenge that I am excited about is making a greater effort to pay for outcomes, rather than activities. For example, Operation Warp Speed paid for the first Covid vaccines by committing to prices and minimum purchase volume guarantees. It did not simply pay for manufacturing directly. We can do more of this in international development and climate, where we have focused a great deal on whether developed countries have met monetary pledges, and less on whether these pledges have led to meaningful impacts. If we know the outcome we want, we can focus on measuring that and rewarding it, rather than risking disappointment that the activities we funded did not get the results we wanted.

The EAP executive in residence position is inspired by and modeled on the Rubenstein Fellows Academy at Duke University. As a Rubenstein Fellow, the late James E. “Jim” Rogers worked with students and faculty to tackle global energy access challenges after he retired as CEO and chairman of the board of the electric utility company Duke Energy.

In 2017, Rogers and his wife, M.A., provided the inaugural gift to establish what is now known as the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project at Duke. M.A. Rogers generously provided additional funding in 2021 to expand EAP’s work, including through the executive is residence position.