Tarek Ben Halim

Tarek found the experience of being a philanthropist rewarding but cautioned others that it takes more time and money than expected. “You have to operate outside of your comfort zone.”

Tarek Ben Halim

Personal story

Tarek Ben Halim, founder of venture philanthropy fund Alfanar and convinced proponent of democracy, died from cancer on 11 December last year at the age of 54. A former managing director of Goldman Sachs, he took on the job of deputy director of private sector development with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) after the war in Iraq, but resigned when he found that general policy of the CPA was a programme of privatisation, without regard for the opinions of Iraqis, Arab culture or Iraqi law. Alfanar now provides financing for many small non-sectarian organisations in Egypt, including the Bashayer women’s project, which provides jobs for women and runs health clinics, and the Wadi El Nil association for the protection of quarry workers. In 2003, he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "I am an Arab of Palestinian and Libyan descent, and I firmly believe that the Middle East needs relief from the self-serving, unrepresentative governments that have, with few exceptions, ruled the Arab world since the 19th century."

Source: Daily Telegraph, 20 January 2010



“The most exciting part for me is spending time with the projects and hoping that if we continue to be successful, in five-to-ten years’ time we might be able to alter lives. You have to be in it for the long-term.”

This article chronicling Tarek Ben Halim's contribution to the Arab world was written in 2009.

Tarek Ben Halim wants to make a difference in the Arab world by supporting grass-roots projects. His inspiration comes from his parents’ experience of being exiled from their home countries of Palestine and Libya.

“I am a very nationalistic Arab and very proud of Arab history, but, at the same time, I am very frustrated with the Arab governments who have not achieved enough in terms of economic and social development.”

He believes that there is a silent agreement, not just in the Arab region but everywhere, to maintain the status quo, allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to stay poor. “There is very little interest in developing the potential of the less well off; wealthy people are prepared to see poor people as beneath them. As Arabs, we should do something about it.”

Tarek has done something about it. He set up a venture philanthropy fund in 2004, now called Alfanar, which means ‘lighthouse’ in Arabic. The aim is to support organisations that improve the lives and opportunities of poorer communities in the Arab region. The fund backs creative ideas that address entrenched problems. Examples include the Egyptian Association for Social and Economic Rights, which supports potters in Cairo to access economic rights and opportunities, and the Bashayer Women’s Project, which provides employment to women and runs health clinics and outreach services.

He is very modest about this achievement: “Alfanar is a work in progress, I’m not sure it will succeed, but it is a risk worth taking.”

Tarek has been in business for 25 years and has really noticed the difference between running a company and a charity. “People always ask what percentage of a charity’s revenue is spent on administration – they never ask that of business. If you want NGOs to do well, you need good quality people and marketing. The yardstick should be whether you are effective or not.”

Previously a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, Tarek currently is a non-executive director of the MAF Group in Dubai and an Advisor to the Central Bank of Libya.

Funders such as business and government wield too much power over NGOs, demanding short-term results in return for their investment, argues Tarek. He believes that this changes the nature of what charities do. His philosophy is to support projects that will have a long-term benefit.

He says a lot of funders are driven by their own ego and their need to leave a legacy. “If you ask them for money to support something that may take thirty years, they are not interested.”

There is a lot of work to do in the Middle East to improve the governance of charities and to strengthen civil society, according to Tarek.

In the future, he would like Alfanar to be seen as an Arab philanthropic institute and not associated with his name. The charity has recently appointed its first chief executive and plans to expand into other countries. “The challenge will be to maintain our quality and reputation.”

Tarek wants to spend time engaging with potential donors in the Arab world, explaining the benefit of Alfanar’s work, which may not be perceived as high profile or glamorous, but may be effective long-term. He has observed that people are often suspicious in the first instance, asking why he is involved and who is backing him. Some wealthy Arabs also prefer to be involved in projects backed by celebrities or royalty.

Overall, Tarek has found the experience of being a philanthropist rewarding but cautions others that it takes more time and money than he had expected. “You have to operate outside of your comfort zone.”

His top tips for new philanthropists include: recruiting a good team; challenging accepted norms of how things should be done; and understanding the issues that face potential beneficiaries.


This personal story is tagged under

  • Inspirational donations
  • Promoting philanthropy