Tunisian philanthropist deepens ties to higher-ed

Investcorp co-CEO Hazem Ben-Gacem renews his focus on education with new, $2m gift to Harvard office.

Hamida Ben-Gacem was one of the first children from his village to go to school. After attending university in Morocco, he returned home to Tunisia to work at the Ministry of Finance, before a scholarship from the Ford Foundation took him to the United States. In 1972, he became the first Tunisian graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Two decades later, his son, Hazem, graduated from Harvard College, the first step in a career that has seen him become co-CEO of Bahrain’s Investcorp, a global investment firm with assets worth $35bn.

Now, in recognition of the doors that opened up for him during his career due to his degree, 50-year-old Ben-Gacem has gifted some $10m of his own money into a variety of scholarships and programmes to help create opportunities for others.

Ben-Gacem, who spent part of his childhood in Abu Dhabi, first created a fund to pay for the tuition and living costs of Tunisians accepted at Harvard College, the university’s undergraduate school, in 2016.

“I could see how many Emiratis, Saudis and Kuwaitis, etc, were getting funding to study abroad and the benefits that gave them, so I wanted to do something for the next generation of Tunisians,” he explained. 

Then, in 2019, the businessman launched a second scholarship to pay for two Tunisians a year – one male, one female – to do either a Master of Public Administration or a Master in Public Policy Programs at the HKS.

The HKS scholarship, which is named after Ben-Gacem senior, is open to mid-career professionals with at least six years’ experience of working in the public sector.

The idea, Ben-Gacem, said, was to target people with “a certain professional mindset” who were passionate about working in the public sector and contributing to society.

A third scholarship programme to support medical students in Tunisia is due to launch later this year.

“There’s only so much we can do as individuals, but if we can be a catalyst for some bigger action, that would be terrific.”

Hazem Ben-Gacem

These three initiatives are complemented by a donation that, in 2017, allowed Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) to open its first overseas office.

Located in Tunis, the CMES office is a platform for Harvard University students and faculty to further their scholarly work on the Middle East and North Africa region. It serves as a base for PhD and research students, as well as hosting J-Term students on field trips.

In January, Ben-Gacem renewed his commitment to the CMES with an additional donation of $2m to pay for the centre’s operations in Tunisia for a further six years.

“From the beginning, the hope has been to establish an outpost where Harvard faculty and students would come to discover Tunisia – its history, language, culture, art, and people – and integrate this experience into their scholarship and education,” said Ben-Gacem.

He also hopes those who spend time in Tunisia at the CMES will go on to become ambassadors for the country in their career.

The father-of-three, who splits his time between Bahrain and London, told Philanthropy Age: “I have been fortunate in my career, so I wanted to find a way to support others. I think everybody agrees there is no better gift you can give someone than education.”

More importantly, he added: “I hope these scholarships will inspire others in the region to do something similar… to create a multiplier effect. There’s only so much we can do as individuals, but if we can be a catalyst for some bigger action, that would be terrific.”