Zara Sarzin

Into Africa

By Vivienne Skinner
March 11, 2006


It's a typical day in a typical week and Zara Sarzin has arrived in central Kampala. She's on bank business but she's not trying to cash a traveller's cheque. She is the bank, the World Bank, and Uganda is part of her patch. And it's not money so much that concerns her but AIDS and poverty and education and things as basic as a glass of clean water. If she's not in Uganda, it's Kenya or Mozambique or Tanzania. Wherever it is, it's a long way from her temporary home in Washington, DC, and her "real" home in Sydney.

Sarzin, 30, has just started a second year-contract with the World Bank, a deal that began as a one-off 60-day assignment in 2004 but has become a way of life. Friendships, relationships and her passion for yoga have to be squeezed into the gaps between her schedule - which last year saw her spending up to three weeks of every six in Africa.

Her business card describes her as "Consultant, Water and Urban, East and Southern Africa" and, though she's not a "permanent", gaining her job was a big achievement: the bank's annual entry-level program attracts 10,000 applicants for 30 positions.

Sarzin's father, an obstetrician, died when she was two and at 14, with her mother, brother and sister, she arrived in Australia in 1989 from Cape Town, part of a wave of migration from South Africa. Many such migrants had to leave most of their wealth behind, but the Sarzins arrived with nothing.

"I felt the pressure," Sarzin says. "My brother and sister and I all chose very pragmatic careers. I remember Mum putting a lot of emphasis on a woman being capable of looking after a family financially, as she herself really struggled."

So Sarzin picked a bachelor of economics at Macquarie University, majoring in actuarial studies, graduated in 1995, and joined MLC. "Being an actuary is about making financial sense of the future, managing financial risk wherever there's uncertainty."

She managed a small team in MLC's retail financial services and when it was acquired by the NAB, Sarzin was part of a team sent to London to help integrate its operations with its British acquisitions.

The nine-month contract turned into 18 and it was then that Sarzin decided to do something different, something that would do little to advance her existing career. She decided on an international relations program at Johns Hopkins University's European Studies campus in the Italian city of Bologna.

"This was as crazy as it could get for me. I thought why not, after so many years working hard, I'd do something I really wanted to do. I'd always dreamed of living in Italy. And it was in Bologna that I had an epiphany. Up to that point, everyone around me had thought in the same quite linear way. And now I was meeting people who valued unconventional experiences and ideas. It challenged my whole way of thinking."

She mixed classes in Italian history and language with international relations theory.

Though MLC had given her leave of absence, she realised after her 12 months in Italy that she could not go back. "To finish the master's program I had to go to Washington and I realised my career was heading in a quite different direction."

"The atmosphere at Johns Hopkins in Washington was completely different to Bologna. It was very serious; every professor was a 'name'. All the big think tanks are there. And, of course, you're in proximity to institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank."

Course completed, Sarzin gave herself two months to find a job or fly home. Just short of the deadline came her big break. "I was hired by the World Bank to look at service delivery in Uganda," she says.

Today much of her work deals with the effects of HIV/AIDS and the financial ruin it brings. She presented a paper recently at the World Bank on World AIDS Day. "What's so sad is that HIV/AIDS is preventable and then we have the Bush Administration promoting abstinence rather than condom use."

Sarzin wants to come home soon. "I would love to stay in the development field, perhaps working for AusAID or as a consultant, find a way to leverage my actuarial skills, pull the threads of my career together."

Curriculum vitae

NAME: Zara Sarzin.

AGE: 30.

QUALIFICATIONS: Bachelor of economics, fellow of the Institute of Actuaries of Australia, MA in international relations and economics, Johns Hopkins school of advanced international studies.

WORK MOTTO: "Excellence in everything I do."

LUCKY BREAK: Being offered a short-term consultancy at the World Bank.

Whilst in Bologna Italy at the Johns Hopkins University's European Studies campus, Zara a keen photographer contributed  her skills to an exhibition named - a day in the life of bologna




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