Charity Awards 2024

Dr Hany El-Banna: The happiness builder

The winner of the 2023 Daniel Phelan Award for Outstanding Achievement is Dr Hany El-Banna, the architect and driving force behind Islamic Relief Worldwide. Tania Mason went to Birmingham to meet him.

The co-founder of Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) never had any plan to create what is now the world’s largest Western-based Muslim international aid and development NGO; indeed, Dr Hany El-Banna insists he “does not believe in planning or strategy”. He simply follows his instincts, talks to people whom he thinks can help, trusts in Allah, and things get done.

Dr Hany El-BannaAnd he can certainly claim to have done things. Today, IRW operates in 40 countries, employs around 450 people, and is among the top 30 UK charities by income. Its impact over the last 40-odd years has been phenomenal – its work touches millions of people each year, of all faiths and none, through emergency aid and development programmes in areas including education, health and livelihood support, and it advocates on behalf of those in need, particularly women and girls, refugees and people affected by climate change. In 2009, when the then-heir to the throne, Prince Charles, visited IRW’s Birmingham HQ to mark its 25 years in operation, he said: “I am acutely conscious that none of Islamic Relief’s achievements would have been possible without the vision, passion and sheer dedication of a truly extraordinary and remarkable man – Dr Hany El-Banna.”

Dr Hany – whose first name translates as ‘happiness’ while El-Banna is ‘mason’ in Arabic – came to the UK from Cairo in 1976 with a newly-minted medical degree. He had assumed he would stay here for three or four years, doing further medical study, before returning to Cairo to get married and set up his own clinic. He worked at hospitals in Reading and Glasgow before landing a job in the pathology department at Birmingham’s Dudley Road Hospital (now City Hospital) in 1981 and continuing his studies at Birmingham University. But his medical career didn’t progress as quickly as he’d hoped, because he kept failing his exams. With a wry, typically self-effacing grin he confides: “I have to be honest, I’m not very good at studying. I’m not very intelligent, I’m just average. But the dream of my mother was to see me as a doctor.”

The early 80s was also a period of awakening for the young Dr Hany. He was appalled by state-sponsored massacres in Syria and Lebanon in 1982. A visit to Bosnia opened his eyes to the oppression of Bosnian Muslims by the Tito regime. Then, during a trip to Sudan for a medical conference in 1983, he saw horrific photographs of the famine in Ethiopia. He showed these photos to his family in Cairo en route back to the UK, and discovered a talent for fundraising that would come to define his life. “I raised about 1,500 Egyptian pounds, and the youngest donor was nine years old, who gave me about 20p.”

Upon his return to Birmingham, Dr Hany called on his friends at the Islamic Society at Birmingham University and collected a few hundred pounds more. He opened a bank account for the cash raised. “It was easy to open a bank account then, there were no restrictions, they didn’t need to know who your great-grandfather is.”

Birth of Islamic Relief

Dr Hany El-BannaThe next major marker in the evolution of what would become IRW occurred a few months later when Dr Hany heard that a passionate young singer called Bob Geldof was convening a group of pop superstars to record a Christmas single to raise money for those affected by the famine. Band Aid and the two Live Aid concerts that followed stirred something in the young doctor, and he was plagued by the apparent absence of UK-based Muslim organisations providing aid for such disasters. This prompted Hany and his friends to give a name and some structure to their ad hoc fundraising efforts, and in 1984 Islamic Relief was born. (Similar moves were afoot among a group of El-Banna’s London-based contemporaries, and he also became a founding trustee of Muslim Aid).

Ironically, although Hany’s mother had wanted him to be a doctor, he believes it was her influence that set him on his humanitarian path. She was an active member of Wafd, the Egyptian nationalist liberal political party, and during Hany’s childhood, one side of their house was always filled with members of the local community, while the other side played host to his father’s friends and colleagues from his post as professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al Alzhar University. “It was my mother, really, who taught me to be a community worker,” he says. “I did not understand that when I was there, but it was a gene from my mother that popped up when I saw Bob Geldof doing what he was doing.”

In 1985, Islamic Relief launched its first project, sponsoring a chicken farm in Sudan; the charity worked through local organisations from the outset. That same year, its founders hired a small office in Moseley, Birmingham, and from there raised £100,000 for the famine response, walking door to door, mosque to mosque, appealing for donations.

In 1989, the organisation gained charitable status. By this time, Hany had started a new job at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Maternity Hospital and was continuing with his medical studies, eventually completing his doctorate in foetal pathology in 1991. But Islamic Relief was growing fast as it responded to new disasters around the world: flooding in Sudan in 1988; an earthquake in Iran in 1990; and a cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991. “You could say that those three major disasters made Islamic Relief,” Dr Hany muses. “We manage to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds, and we opened our first international offices in Bangladesh and Sudan.”

The godfather of Muslim philanthropy

In the mid-1990s, when Dr Hany was in his early 30s, he quit the medical profession and devoted himself full-time to IRW. The war in Bosnia marked a new era for the agency; Dr Hany put himself in personal danger by travelling to Sarajevo during the siege, and IRW established new models of relief through sponsorships and aid distribution in camps.

By this time, he had already had a profound impact on many young British Muslims, who were themselves motivated to eschew more conventional careers in medicine or law and pursue a humanitarian pathway.

“He is really the godfather of the Muslim charitable and humanitarian sector – the initiator of Muslim philanthropy and organised work in the humanitarian space that paved the way for what it looks like today,” says Jehangir Malik, former CEO of Muslim Aid and one of those young men inspired by Dr Hany in the 80s and 90s. “He’s one of those crazy, visionary types who won’t be stopped just because he doesn’t know how to do something. So much of what’s happened over the last four decades in this space can be attributed to him designing it and sticking at it.”

Dr Hany realised early on that it made sense to open fundraising offices in rich countries to support poor countries, so before long IRW had expanded to France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Sweden, and the USA. “In Europe, the atmosphere at the time was very conducive to us, very welcoming. I would sit in the plane reading the airline magazine, and on the map I would draw circles around the places I wanted us to go to next. There was no planning, no strategy, no experience, nothing. You just put your right foot in the right place, and you’ll be pushed by Allah.”

He admits that in the organisation’s early days, he behaved as something of a “dictator” and must have driven his trustee board to distraction. “Yes, because I wanted to swerve,” he laughs. “They wanted to go in straight lines, and I am not a straight-line man.”

But it’s not hard to see how Dr Hany is able to cajole people into following his lead. He has a confident yet unassuming manner, and his eyes betray a cheeky twinkle – he is always ready with the next joke or amusing anecdote. He is also given to spontaneous displays of emotion, becoming easily overwhelmed, and he believes fervently that his life’s success is down to his faith. “If you decide for Him, He decides for you. If you give what you have, you get what you want.”

Islamophobia and September 11

As IRW expanded, it enjoyed good relationships with governments across Europe and the US. It was registered with the United Nations in 1993, and a year later became the first Muslim NGO to receive UK government funding. Dr Hany met often with ministers and officials in London and in the US State Department. He spoke at the World Economic Forum and other major events. He says that while Islamophobia did exist, it was not a major barrier to IRW’s operations. But then the September 11 attacks occurred, “and the punches started to come”.

Dr Hany recalls that in the aftermath of 9/11, he defied the advice of IRW’s head of media that the organisation should lay low and keep its head down. He felt the best course of action would be to stand its ground and confront the media head-on. This tactic paid off: he recalls facing down some “very aggressive” journalists who seemed determined to link IRW with the terrorists but were unable to do so, and ended up broadcasting programmes that portrayed the charity favourably.

“They believed that we were clean, because we were clean – we had done nothing wrong,” El-Banna says. He adds that he knows this because ever since 1995, when IRW found itself facing a financial crisis – largely caused, Dr Hany admits philosophically, by his own lack of planning and strategy – the organisation had made sure it had first-class financial and regulatory controls and standards in place.

“But if we had lowered our heads and said nothing, we could have been axed. The FBI and the IRS came to our office for a kill after 9/11, because George Bush had said, ‘close them down’.” Dr El-Banna is certain that the organisation was only saved because it robustly defended itself, and because of its “very good relationship with the British government”.

However, the political climate shifted seismically after 2001, and Muslim organisations were treated with much greater suspicion, which has caused no end of practical problems for IRW and other Islamic agencies in the years since. In 2014, for instance, IRW faced accusations from Israel, and later the United Arab Emirates, around IRW’s work in the West Bank. Israel claimed that some of the charity’s funding was filtering through to Hamas, and so the government there designated IRW as a terrorist organisation. Dr Hany remains convinced that this was a purely political decision as, over the years, IRW has commissioned hundreds of independent audits and reviews, and none have ever found any evidence of links with terror groups. But even today, the charity continues to face “crippling” restrictions from governments and banks and is forced to meet extensive criteria in order to move money around the world.

Dr Hany avoids being drawn on politics, believing fervently that humanitarian work can only be delivered effectively if organisations remain impartial, but he does say: “We are still in the era of September 11. We feel sorry, sometimes, for the civil servants. But the climate has changed, the atmosphere has changed – we don’t have the same relationships that we had before.”

World Humanitarian Action Forum

Even before 9/11, Dr Hany had begun to feel that the work that IRW was delivering, vital though it was, was not having sustained impact. He was also frustrated that IRW had become such a large institution that it was unable to action his ideas as quickly as he would have them.

“I was travelling all the time, I had a lot of authority, and as founder and president I had even heavier weight. That created a big gap between me and the executive. This is not a negative, it’s just natural. And so I found new initiatives to do, because by then I felt that the relief work and development work was not enough. We needed to have communication, networking, coordination – especially after September 11. I knew we needed to communicate more with the other side of the world.”

These thoughts prompted Dr Hany to reach out to his friend and counterpart at the British Red Cross, Nick Young, to propose an idea for an ambitious cross-sector, multilateral event that would demonstrate the value of the work of Muslim NGOs and disprove the idea that they were foils for terrorism. They took the proposal to the UK government and the UN, and both agreed to support it. As the concept developed, its remit evolved and they realised a wider consultation was needed. So, ahead of the planned event, Dr Hany visited 14 countries to meet with grassroots groups and hear first-hand the problems they were facing and what they needed to achieve more impact for their communities.

The first two-day Humanitarian Forum took place in London in May 2005, co-hosted by Dr Hany, Nick Young and the UN’s humanitarian affairs lead, Jan Egeland. Day one was attended by more than 40 Muslim organisations from around the world, and on the second day they were joined by Western agencies such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Care International. Representatives of the German and Swiss governments attended too. It was a great success – the organisers were able to present the findings of the consultation and build a consensus about what further work was needed to build bridges between northern and southern NGOs, support capacity-building, and drive up standards in the international sector.

After the success of the inaugural event, the Humanitarian Forum went on to establish itself as an important player in the development space and became the vehicle through which Dr Hany continues to facilitate greater cross-border collaboration, localisation and advocacy. Its impact also spurred him to progress another of his ideas – an entity to support, connect and represent UK-based Muslim NGOs.

Muslim Charities Forum

“We started discussing the Muslim Charities Forum in 2004 or 2005, but to get six Muslim organisations together and to agree on something, took three or four more years,” he grins. It was worth the perseverance: today, the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF) is a highly respected and influential umbrella body in the UK sector. Dr Hany stepped down as its chair at the end of 2022 and the post was filled by Moazzam Malik, a recent director general for Africa in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Both the Humanitarian Forum and MCF were registered as charities in 2008, the same year that Dr Hany decided to formally step down from his leadership role at IRW to concentrate on their development. And his ideas kept coming: Zakat House was a London-based property hub for start-up Muslim organisations, which operated successfully from 2010 until the Covid pandemic scuppered its business model. The International HIV Fund was established to encourage Muslim organisations to play a greater role in HIV prevention around the world; its operations are now incorporated within Human Appeal International. And Dr El-Banna has helped UK-based Somali and Yemeni diaspora groups to organise themselves under umbrella organisations, so they can more effectively support development efforts within those countries.

In 2017 he worked with the UN to produce the first World Humanitarian Action Forum (WHAF) in Istanbul, the successor to the Humanitarian Forum and an event described by Sir Nick Young as “the voluntary sector equivalent of Davos”. As part of this, Dr Hany launched another multinational consultation, this time involving nearly 2,000 stakeholders in 35 countries. WHAF now takes place biennially, convening representatives from civil society, governments, academia, media and philanthropy in an effort to reimagine the aid sector to be fairer and more inclusive.

Now in his early 70s, Dr Hany has relinquished most of his formal roles, including chairships of IRW branches in far-flung places and chairship of MCF, but he still can’t rest. He continues to chair WHAF and still travels constantly to support communities in countries that need funding and assistance. He was in Jordan when the recent earthquake devastated Turkey and northern Syria, and joined teams in the field to support relief efforts. If he sees need or suffering, he simply has to do something about it. “It’s something in my blood,” he says. “I can’t stop.”

Sir Nick Young can’t sing his praises highly enough. “Everybody just falls for his charm. His skill really is making people alive to possibilities and persuading them to work together.

“In countries all over the Middle East and the Gulf, the voluntary sector is now doing so much better than it was before Hany’s intervention. He raised a lot of money to help groups build their own capacity. He started going to real crisis situations and gathering groups of agencies together and persuading them to collaborate and bring about a cooperative approach. He’s been extremely successful at that, and he is still doing it.”

The El-Banna years

  • Founder and chair, the Humanitarian Forum (now the World Humanitarian Action Forum) 2006 – now
  • Founder and chair, Muslim Charities Forum 2008 – 2022
  • Chair, Zakat House, 2009 – 2022
  • Chair, International HIV Fund 2008 – 2015
  • Awarded the OBE for services to the community 2004
  • Co-founder and president, Islamic Relief Worldwide 1984 – 2008
  • Founding trustee, Muslim Aid UK 1984 – 1999
  • Doctorate in foetal pathology, Birmingham Medical School 1991
  • NHS doctor, 1977 – 1994
  • MMBCh in Medicine, Al Azhar University, Cairo, along with a Diploma in Islamic Studies 1976