SITUATED AT AFRICA’S NORTHERNMOST POINT, Tunisia has a rich heritage that goes back to the beginning of recorded history. From its indigenous Berber tribes to the influential Phoenician city of Carthage, a metropolis founded during the Iron Age whose ruins today are a popular tourist attraction, Tunisia is a cultural treasure. Until 1956, it was under the rule of other powers, including the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and France.

Since independence, Tunisia’s leaders have moved the nation in contradictory directions. Policies veered from the nationalization of agriculture to social and economic liberalization to authoritarianism characterized by the repression of speech. Public corruption, long a problem, was compounded by challenges such as high inflation and unemployment. Those issues came to a head in 2010, when demonstrations against unscrupulous officials led Tunisia’s autocratic president of 23 years to flee the country. The protests also ignited the movement known as the Arab Spring, during which uprisings across much of the Arab world toppled several regimes, including those in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

On the banks of the Charles River, Hamida Ben-Gacem MC/MPA 1974 (top left) in Cambridge with his family.
Hamida Ben-Gacem MC/MPA 1974 (top left) in Cambridge with his family.

More than a decade later, Tunisia is still experiencing many of the obstacles it knew for so long. A 2020 poll by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. nonprofit focused on the expansion of democracy, revealed widespread public discontent: An overwhelming number of Tunisians—87%—said they believed their country was headed in the wrong direction, and 78% felt that corruption had a negative impact on their lives. 

Harvard College graduate Hazem Ben-Gacem AB 1992 and his wife Karen Frank MBA 1997, an alumna of Harvard Business School, are determined to advance good government in Tunisia and in the Arab world through their significant philanthropy to Harvard. In recent years, their generosity has helped Harvard to establish its Tunisia Office, which was the first overseas branch of the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They also created fellowships for student financial aid at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Medical School. 

“Investing in the education of future generations of public leaders will make the region—and the world—a better place for all people for years to come.”

Hazem Ben-Gacem AB 1992

The fellowship at HKS is named in honor of Ben-Gacem’s father, Hamida Ben-Gacem, who was the first Tunisian to graduate from the Kennedy School. After earning his Mid-Career MPA degree, in 1974, he returned to his home country and worked in various public service jobs until his retirement.

Says Hazem Ben-Gacem, “Through this fellowship, exceptional leaders from Tunisia and beyond are able to attend the Kennedy School, learn essential skills, and go on to effect positive change in their regions. There is no shortage of problems—and helping leaders receive the benefit of an HKS education will in turn help achieve solutions to so many problems.”

A man casts his ballot Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Tunis.
A man casts his ballot Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023, in Tunis.

Tunisia’s challenges are not unique but part of a complex and interconnected set of issues facing the diverse nations that compose the Arabic region. Those challenges, which include war, political instability, economic and social inequality, and authoritarianism, have stymied progress for generations, making it even more important to cultivate leaders who apply evidence to solve problems. To open more doors for future Kennedy School students, Frank and Ben-Gacem commit not only their resources but also their time to HKS: Frank is chair of the Kennedy School’s Dean’s Council and both she and Ben-Gacem are on the Dean’s Executive Board.

“The Kennedy School is the best place in the world for people to learn the skills needed to solve complex public problems,” she says, “and receiving financial aid is an important factor in determining whether students can enroll.”

Despite the intense and historic challenges facing politics and policy in the Middle East, the couple remain optimistic about the power of education to change lives. Says Ben-Gacem, “Investing in the education of future generations of public leaders will make the region—and the world—a better place for all people for years to come.”

Photographs by Martha Stewart, AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, and provided by Hazem Ben-Gacem AB 1992 and Karen Frank MBA 1997.