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Turkish NGOs in Southern Africa

Turkish NGOs in Southern Africa

March 30, 2021
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Relations with Africa constitute one of the prime orientations of Turkish foreign policy. Although Turkey-Africa relations have gone as far as the Ottoman time, Turkey´s interest to develop relations with Africa is relatively new. Geographically, Turkey has always regarded North Africa as 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 current enhanced presence in sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, is something novel. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of some sub-Saharan African countries following their freedom from British and French rule in the 1950s and 1960s. But after this first warm welcoming, the relations did not develop as it should be due to unsuitable conditions of the Cold War.

The relations actually began in 1998 with the writing of the “Action Plan”- a document prepared by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the framework of political and economic engagements between Turkey and the continent. Turkey named 2005 as the “African Year”, enabling the creation of a new impetus for bilateral relations. The Turkey-Africa Summit in 2008 in Istanbul ushered in a new era and enhanced the relations. Turkey’s further boost to its Africa policy as of 2013 turned the relations into a mutually reinforced political-economic partnership.

Turkish diplomatic involvement, coupled with educational outreach, humanitarian activities, and private-sector investments, has successfully given it a deep footprint on the continent in general, and in Southern Africa in particular. Unlike other emerging economies like China and India, Turkey’s objectives on the continent are not limited to business alone - providing 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 Turkish cooperative engagement is its scholarship to African students. Until recently, undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students from all African states have been offered by 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.

Besides public institutions, Turkish NGOs also play positive roles in sub-Saharan African educational projects. For example, since 2007, IHH has introduced a foreign student program for African students. Turkish universities, NGOs, and public bodies have been working separately yet in harmony to provide educational opportunities for sub-Saharan African students. Public institutions as well as about 13 NGOs working in more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries. Activities are arranged in different areas of specific development programs such as agriculture, health, professional training, education, etc.

Turkey has also joined six other countries at the African Union as an observer, become a non-regional member of the African Development Bank, increased its trade and Foreign Direct Investment at more than $6 billion, and increased humanitarian development assistance through public and private organizations.

Developing and intensifying ties with African countries is likely to continue in Turkey’s future as it is widely supported by its NGOs. One-third of $4,3 billion Turkish foreign development assistance ($1,5 billion) went to African countries. About 50% of Turkey’s public development funding was also spent on projects in sub-Saharan Africa.  And out of Turkey’s NGOs’ $1 billion direct foreign assistance, 31% of it  ($300 million) has been distributed in Africa.

NGOs Role in the Relations

Turkish NGOs humanitarian relief activities in Africa play a critical role in enhancing Turkey’s soft power at the international level. Turkish NGOs budget for Africa is about $500 million, one-third of which goes to southern Africa. Half of the donation goes to humanitarian assistance, a quarter for development and the rest for logistical purposes, making Turkey one of the largest international development donors to the continent.

Previously there was a concern that collaboration between the government and NGOs from different identities would damage the Kemalist ideology, but the ruling party managed to brush away such fear. Since 2002, Turkey has strengthened its relations with different local NGOs regardless of their identities and values, all the while encouraging them to take more responsibilities in regions hit by poverty, diseases, war, conflict, and natural disasters.

Turkish NGOs humanitarian relief assistance regardless of religion, race, nation, and segments has strengthened their role in the African continent. The African people have provided their support to these NGOs due to their indiscriminative assistance. Furthermore, these NGOs have developed a complementary policy, which aims to make comprehensive projects to reduce humanitarian problems. The focus of Turkish NGOs in Africa ranges from managing education problems up to their healthcare, agriculture, and human rights and liberties. Developing a comprehensive humanitarian aid policy has given Turkish NGOs a stronger, transparent, humanitarian, and more effective role in global politics compared to Western aid agencies.

Before public agencies began their operations in sub-Saharan Africa, NGOs activities 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 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 local NGOs enabled them to gain the know-how, new networking opportunities and helped them accelerate and extend their activities.

Turkish NGOs have emerged to promote intercultural exchange and humanitarian projects. For example, in 2010 IHH carried about 60 different projects with a budget of about  €2,5 million. In five years, the number of projects increased to 130 and the budget to €5,5 million. The figures show that IHH’s engagement with African countries alone doubled in five years.

Turkish NGOs role in southern Africa can be categorized into development, humanitarian and social/community. The developmental role provides additional opportunities for the civil society and beneficiaries regarding full independence. Turkish NGOs carry out different kinds of development projects such as school construction, capacity building training programs, distribution of livestock, up to establishing radio stations for educational purposes.

The humanitarian role includes all kinds of assistance programs from emergency relief to long-term assistance such as building orphanages, disaster assistance, and medical assistance among others. Social or community role helps build trust between the African people and the Turkish society. In this regard aids such as food assistance and cataract operations are instrumental. It is true that these kinds of projects are humanitarian in their essence, but in the long run, these humanitarian activities help a country’s future as a whole.

The Arab Spring Consequences on Africa

Unfortunately, irrelevant developments in different parts of the world have disturbed Turkish-African NGO relations. The Arab Spring and the Syrian War in particular have generated a refugee crisis for Turkey. Turkey currently hosts about 3 million Syrian refugees, making it the top refugee host in the world. Consequently, the government has to mobilize all its public agencies and NGOs to channel their resources to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

Thus, since 2012, over 55% of Turkish developmental aid has gone to the Syrian crisis while the figures for Sub-Saharan Africa continue to fall. The Turkish government’s scholarships to Sub-Saharan countries have also declined parallel with the worsening of the Syrian crisis. Preference and focus of attention are now given to Syria and Palestine, with thousands of students coming every year to study in Turkey.

Another problem is the fact that in 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 in African societies have seen a 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 multilateralism sense rather than organizational unilateralism. But to play such a role, they need to increase their interactions with African NGOs in cooperative, complementary, and supplementary activities.

Clearly, the Arab Spring has complicated this role to be played. The conflicts in the Middle East have shown that a war in the Islamic World between different sectarian and racial groups will shatter all attempts of building a contemporary Islamic civilization. Who knows, perhaps the interaction between Turkish NGOs and the African people could create a rapprochement on one hand, and reciprocal civilizational understanding on the other.