You should know… Benjamin Holzman

Photo by Jared Feldschreiber
Photo by Jared Feldschreiber

Benjamin Holzman says the world is getting better. The 32-year-old native of Sydney, Australia, views the planet from his seat in The World Bank in Washington, where he coordinates a citizen engagement program devoted to holding government officials accountable.

Holzman holds a Bachelor of Arts in history and international relations from The University of New South Wales, and later took courses in political science at McGill University.

He received a master’s in urban policy and international development from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Holzman began working for social change in the Habonim Dror youth movement in Australia. He was selected as an AJWS World Partners Fellow, which took him to working in India. He also spent some time as a multimedia journalist at the Australian Jewish News.

He spoke with us about The World Bank and embracing idealism.

What is the most exciting aspect of working at The World Bank?

It’s really one of the most important institutions when it comes to international development. What’s particularly great about it is that it is very large. It has a wealth of people with expertise in all kinds of areas. It deals with every aspect of anything that might relate to international development.

And what is your role as a consultant?

I’m working on the parliamentary strengthening team, which works with parliaments all around the world to improve their functions, particularly around accountability. I spend most of my time working as a community online manager for a few networks that we have for those who work in parliaments on issues around transparency, accountability and making sure that public funds are spent the ways they should be spent.

What is the Jewish angle to your career?

My [greatest] influence was my involvement with Habonim Dror, which is a socialist-Jewish Zionist youth movement. It has many chapters around the world. That really switched me onto issues of social justice: issues of fairness, community and also embracing idealism. [This got me to] thinking about how we can move the world from the reality of Point A to the ideal of Point B in a very practical way — all the while remaining idealistic.

What is your involvement with Tzedek?

Tzedek is a U.K.-based Jewish international development organization similar to the American Jewish World Service. It has a number of programs to raise awareness of international development around the world, particularly working with disadvantaged communities. I was a coordinator for their volunteer program in Northern Ghana.

As for Pedalling for Peace, was that your brainchild?

It was an idea I came up when I learned that The Parliament of the World’s Religions was taking place in Melbourne. This is the largest interfaith gathering in the world, which takes place every five years in a different city somewhere in the world. It happened to be in Melbourne while I had moved back to Sydney for a couple of years. That really enthused me, and I wanted to do something in conjunction with it. So I organized this event called Pedalling for Peace, an interfaith bike ride from Sydney to Melbourne. We had four cyclists: a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian and a Baha’i. We wanted to make a point that people from different backgrounds can not only get along with each other, but also can accomplish something great.

You made a documentary about it.

Yes, to get our message across, I brought on a student filmmaker and we shot the whole journey and then we worked together to produce a 15-minute documentary, which we then used in schools when we did follow-up programs. We actually launched the DVD showing at Parliament House of New South Wales. It had the involvement of many Members of Parliament, which was a big honor for us.

How has your Jewish identity coincided with your work with international development?

I’ve been fortunate to work with many people of different cultural, national backgrounds. I have a sense that most feel the same way — that their cultural heritage has led them to this sort of work. I think it’s part of the universal components of Judaism, which I find to be the most valuable — that everyone counts and that the dignity of the individual is paramount.

Is there a biblical story that may have intrinsically inspired your work?

I suppose the Exodus story speaks a lot to me. It’s all about personally experiencing what it’s like to be part of the downtrodden and what it’s like to not have freedom. When I was growing up and my parents and I were deciding which high school I should go to, the main question was whether I should go to one of the Jewish day schools or to a public school. I wound up going to a public school, which was very diverse, and I was very fortunate to be exposed to all kinds of people. And in a way, I think that’s the best kind of Jewish education one can ever get.

What do you say to the next generation that would want to work at The World Bank?

I would only recommend people who are very passionate about international development and poverty alleviation to pursue it. The world is developing very quickly, and in another decade or two, the amount of work that will be legitimately needed for the types of things that traditional international development has dealt with will be much more limited. We’re seeing the number of people living in extreme poverty plummeting. So, for that reason, I would only recommend people who are very passionate about international development and poverty alleviation to pursue it. Ultimately, the goal is that we all put ourselves out of a job — and as an optimist, I think we’ve been pretty successful thus far.

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