The Role of Turkish NGOs in Southern Africa

The Role of Turkish NGOs in Southern Africa

January 22, 2018

Relations with Africa constitute one of the prime orientations of Turkish foreign policy. Although Turkey and Africa have historical relations since the Ottoman time, it can be said that Turkey´s interest to develop relations with Africa is relatively new. Geographically, Turkey has always regarded North Africa as a part of its near-abroad, and the Ottoman legacy has played an instrumental role in this regard. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, has always been regarded by Turkish society as a distant and unknown region. Turkey’s enhanced presence in sub-Saharan Africa today, therefore, is something novel. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of some Sub-Saharan African countries when they were emerging from the shackles of the British and French rule in the 1950s and 1960s. But after this first warm welcome, the relations did not develop as it should be, due to unsuitable conditions of the Cold War era.

The relations actually began in 1998, with the launching of the “Action Plan”- a document prepared by the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs, which constituted the framework of political and economic engagements between Turkey and the continent. 2005 was an “African Year” in Turkey, and enabled the creation of a new impetus for the bilateral relations. The Turkey-Africa Summit in 2008 in Istanbul, ushered in a new era and enhanced the relations. Turkey has given a further boost to its Africa policy as of 2013. We may describe this period as one wherein relations have been transformed into a mutually reinforced political-economic partnership. In accordance with the decision taken at the 2014 Turkish-African Summit held in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit will be held in Turkey in 2019.

Turkish diplomatic involvement coupled with the educational outreach, humanitarian activities and private-sector investments, have already given Turkey a deep footprint on the continent in general, in the Southern Africa in particular. Unlike other emerging economies like China and India, Turkey’s objectives in the continent are not limited to business alone, which gives it a more sustainable future in the region, since it enables both a grassroots social presence and continuous political engagement. One of the most important examples of the Turkish cooperative engagement is offering scholarships to African students. Until recently,  undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students from all African states have been offered by the government agencies. More than 5.000 students from sub-Saharan Africa have been enrolled in Turkish universities between 2000 and 2012. Today the number is more than 10.000. Not only public institutions but also NGOs play positive roles in educational projects. For example, Since 2007, the IHH introduced a foreign student program, especially for African students. Turkish universities, civil society organizations, and public bodies have been working separately but somewhat in a coordinated way together to provide educational opportunities for sub-Saharan African students. Other public institutions, as well as about thirteen civil society organizations, work in more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries. Activities are arranged in different areas such as specific development programs concerning agriculture, health, and professional training, education etc. Turkey has also joined six other countries at the African Union as an observer country, become a non-regional member of the African Development Bank, increased its trade and Foreign Direct Investment to more than $6 bn and increased humanitarian development assistance through the public and private organizations.

Developing and intensifying ties with African countries is likely to continue in future as it is supported widely by civil society in Turkey. One-third of $4,3b Turkish foreign development assistance is gone to the African countries. That means, about $1,5b foreign donations was for Africa. The share of Sub-Saharan African Countries in this direct about 50% of public development funding was spent on projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. And the NGO share in this direct foreign assistance is about $1b, and the African portion is %31 percent that means Turkish NGOs spent more than $300m for Africa. 

The Role of NGOs in the Relations
Turkish NGOs' and civil society organizations' humanitarian relief activities in Africa play a critical role in enhancing soft power of Turkey at the international level. There was a fear before that whether the Turkish governments cooperated with Turkish NGOs and civil society organizations having different identities would damage the Kemalist ideology, but such meaningless and visionary fear was gone thanks to the ruling party. Since 2002, Turkey has strengthened its relations with different Turkish NGOs and civil society organizations regardless of their identities and values and encouraged them to take more responsibilities in different regions hit by poverty, diseases, war, conflict, and natural disasters such as earthquakes.

The policy of Turkish NGOs in Africa, which is to provide humanitarian relief assistance to everyone regardless of their religion, race, nation, and social status, has strengthened the role of Turkish NGOs in Africa. African people have provided their support to the Turkish NGOs and civil society organizations due to their service to everyone without discrimination and any conditions. Furthermore, the Turkish NGOs have developed a complementary policy which aims to make comprehensive projects to reduce humanitarian problems. For instance, they do not only focus on education problems in a conflict area but also healthcare, agriculture, and human rights and liberties. Developing a comprehensive humanitarian aid policy has made the Turkish NGOs and the civil society organizations stronger, more transparent, more humanitarian and more effective in world politics compared to other Western NGOs.

Civil society organizations have undertaken many development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, making Turkey one of the largest international development donors to the continent. As for the African budget of Turkish NGO’s are about $500m and one-third of it is for southern Africa. Half of the donations is for humanitarian assistance, a quarter is for development and the rest is for logistical purposes. Before the public agencies began its operations in sub-Saharan Africa, the activities NGOs were ad hoc, single country emergency aid campaigns in the form of supplying food, clothing, and medicine, mostly at times of crisis or religious holidays. Such campaigns have also evolved into more sustainable and long-term development assistance in the form of construction and infrastructure projects. For example, since 2005, IHH has taken part in projects, such as building schools, providing medical check-ups, and drilling water wells. Initial cooperation with the local NGOs enabled them to gain know-how and new networking opportunities for these NGOs and helped them accelerate and extend their activities. 

IHH’s construction projects in sub-Saharan Africa have increased since 2005. Since then, the number of countries to be assisted increased as well from ten to 30, with more than sixty construction projects. While it has been argued that several health NGOs were operating in sub-Saharan Africa before 2006, cultural interaction has not only been limited to academic initiatives. Civil society organizations emerged to promote intercultural exchange as well as to promote humanitarian projects. In 2010, IHH’s African Project number was about 60, and the budget was about 2,5 million Euros. After 5 years, the number of projects increased to 130 and the budget is 5,5 million Euros. The figures show that only IHH engagement in African countries doubled in 5 years.

The role of Turkish civil society in southern Africa can be categorized into three main titles:
First; developmental roles which provide additional opportunities for both sides regarding full independence. Turkish NGOs carry out different kinds of development projects such as school construction, capacity building training programs, distributing the livestock to locals, even establishing radio stations for educational purposes. The second role that Turkish NGOs play is the humanitarian role which contains all kind of assistance programs such as, kafalatül Aytam, building orphanages, disaster assistance, and medical assistance etc. The third role is the so-called social or community role that helps to build kind of trust between the African people and the Turkish society. In this regard, food assistance, cataract operations are instrumental. True, these kind of projects are humanitarian one in its essence, but as an NGO you can use all these humanitarian activities to build a future. 

But unfortunately, quite irrelevant developments in different parts of the world have been poisoning the Turkish-African NGO relations. So to speak; the Arab Spring and the war in Syria, in particular, have generated a refugee crisis for Turkey. The country currently accommodates about 3 million Syrian refugees. This makes Turkey the top host of refugees in the world. The Turkish government mobilized all public agencies and Turkish NGOs to channel their resources to alleviate the suffering people of Syria. Thus, since 2012, over 55% of Turkish developmental aid has gone to the Syrian crisis with the figures for Sub-Saharan Africa continuing to fall. The Turkish government’s scholarships to Sub-Saharan countries have also declined with the Syrian crisis gets worse. Preference and focus of attention are now on Syria and Palestine, with thousands of students coming every year to study in Turkey. Additionally, and generally, another problematic area is the fact that in the previous years the funds from different Islamic countries came at a price. As was mentioned in the first summit, “the price is that the unity of African societies have seen kind of religious divide widened between organizations supported by Iran, Libya or Saudi Arabia in Southern Africa.” Turkish NGOs might play a unifying role with a multilateral sense rather than organizational unilateralism. But to play such a role, Turkish NGOs need to increase the interactions with the African NGOs in cooperative, complementary and supplementary activities.

The picture seems quite complicated especially, after the so-called the Arab Spring era. The conflicts in the Middle East have shown that a war in Islamic World between different sectarian and racial groups will shatter all attempts of building a unified Islamic civilization. Who knows, the interaction between the Turkish NGOs in African countries and the local ones might enable to create a rapprochement on one hand, and a civilizational understanding of each other on the other.