The Rise of Turkey’s Development Aid: A Guarded Optimism

In the light of budget cuts in the EU and US, the world is longing for alternative non-traditional donors to fill in the void and Turkey fits right in. In fact, when all the “heavy-weight” donors such as the US, EU and Japan are financially struggling and slashing their spending, Turkey is planning to increase foreign aid, which is currently at the rate of 0.13% of its GNI. As the “new guy on the block” in the global aid donor group, Turkey has stepped up its aid spending 27 fold in recent years, amounting to approximately $2.3 billion in 2011 alone.

The nominal value and percentage, however, is not the most significant aspect of Turkey’s development aid. Indeed, the traditional OECD/DAC donors are still responsible for a large chunk of the global aid giving, committed to over $125 billion, around 55 times larger than Turkey’s single contribution. It is, on the other hand, the potential to dissolve the monopoly of traditional donors that emerges as the pivotal attribute of the rise in Turkey’s assistance, as illustrated by a report published by the German Marshall Fund. Furthermore, GMF notices that Turkey’s involvement, alongside other emerging nations, might serve as a catalyst for a new vision that will reshape the traditional development agenda.

And the aid’s marching on…but not in full force 

In the initial stage of its official development assistance program, Turkey’s foreign aid was targeted towards countries with similar religious and cultural trajectories, as most of the destination countries were those with links to the Ottoman Empire in Europe. This strategy is arguably the manifestation of Turkey’s national interest of becoming a key regional player. The independence of countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the early 1990’s further appeased this regional interest and led to the creation of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).

First, with Turkey’s growing role of brokering peace in the Middle East, development assistance has been largely pouring into countries in the aforementioned region, with Afghanistan being the major destination, tapping around $400 million between 2005 and 2009. This staunch evidence corroborates Turkey’s interest as well as capacity of being a major and influential player among Islamic nations.

Second, the Turkish government has nurtured the intention to increase its involvement beyond neighboring countries to subsequently “address proactively other pressing global issues.” This view has been the impetus for Turkey to begin its extensive reach to Africa, in which 2005 was subtly framed by the government as the “Year of Africa.” Their support for Africa has in turn been reciprocal as Turkey was elected as the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2009 – 2010 largely due to votes from African countries. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by Pew, 78% of Egyptians believe that Turkey is promoting democracy in the Middle East, in comparison to 37% for the US. Concurrently, Turkey has also been the front-runner in non-OECD/DAC countries in pushing forwards issues pertaining to least developed countries, in which they hosted the Ministerial Meeting on “Making the Globalization Works for LCDs” in 2007 and 2011.

“When we had famine, nobody listened to us, nobody came to us in order to help. [Turkey’s] Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] came with his family and cabinet, brought us that help which uplifted us. It was such a change for the Somali people which we will never forget…We are very grateful.” – Somali Foreign Minister

Albeit being lauded for its increasing commitment in foreign aid provision and development assistance, Turkey has also been facing criticism. First, the British parliament’s International Development Committee reprehends the fact that Turkey is sending foreign aid while the country itself is still one of the major aid recipients, thus undermining the EU’s efforts to support more underdeveloped countries. Turkey indeed received net ODA of US$1.36 billion in 2009 alone, with the European Union, Japan, France, Germany and Spain being the largest donors.

Second and more important, Turkey’s development assistance has been criticized for lacking a comprehensive strategy says another GMF report. In more details, the holistic approach has not yet to maximize private-public partnership through a wider range strategy, in which “TIKA works with only a handful of Turkish NGOs in a limited aid coordination capacity.” This inability to engage civil society and local NGOs is also profound in Turkey’s development programs in recipient countries.

The road ahead

In moving ahead, Turkey should imminently and incrementally resolve the impediments that are hindering the effectiveness of its nascent development assistance program. First, GMF suggests that in addressing the aforementioned lack of public-private partnership, Turkey through TIKA should create spaces for private organizations, both profit and nonprofit, to discuss the development strategy and further engage local organizations in its targeted countries to help implement the strategy. In creating its own framework of a public-private partnership, TIKA might refer to existing models, such as the one developed by the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships, or cooperate with the European PPP Expertise Centre.

Second, Turkey might consider building partnerships with either OECD/DAC donors or other emerging nations in carrying out its development assistance. The bilateral or multilateral partnership will be a platform for  members to learn from the experience of other donors, particularly crucial for Turkey in augmenting their development strategy.

Third and more incremental, Turkey can opt to employ a program that builds an alliance between domestic NGOs and their counterparts in recipient countries. They might model the program from the scholarship provision for eligible students from least developing countries by inviting and funding local society leaders or NGO workers from recipient countries to learn from the experience of the NGOs in Turkey.

In general, Turkey’s development venture provides a viable alternative for both sources of aid and development vision. Their engagement with Africa, for instance, encapsulates a vision that the Turkish government claims differ from the perspective of traditional and more advanced global players, in which they promote mutual respect. With their established presence in the Muslim world and increasing influence in least developing countries, Turkey’s development aid, nonetheless, is ready to soar, but it has to be guarded with improvements in the holistic strategy to prevent it from freefalling.

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