ANKARA, Turkey — Over the past 12 years, Turkey has experienced a massive revolution in terms of aid spending. Once the recipient of development aid, Turkey is now the world’s fourth largest donor. In 2013, Turkey spent $3.3 billion in aid, up from $73 million in 2002.
The change arose when the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came into power. Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party, inherited a thriving economy and adopted the foreign policy strategy of giving more global aid in order to expand Turkey’s power.
As China, India and Brazil turned their attention to Africa in the early 2000s, so did Turkey. But Africa has not been the only benefiter. Turkey’s aid organization AFDAD was created in 2009 to provide a coordinating body for aid efforts.
AFDAD evacuated 26,000 people during the 2011 crisis in Libya, sent a search-and-rescue team into Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, provided some of the first aid to Somalia in its 2011 famine and is currently hosting about 500,000 Syrian refugees. Conditions in the refugee camps have been called “perfect” by the New York Times.
“Turkish workers, hunting for litter to sweep from the meticulously laid, brand-new brick pats, were merely doing maintenance between rounds of street-washing trucks,” describes Mac McClelland, New York Times reporter, regarding his visit to Kilis refugee camp in Turkey.
McClelland continues, “What is startling about Kilis is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination…Residents can scan a card with their fingertips for entry…Inside it’s stark 2,053 identical containers spread out in neat rows. No tents. None of the smells…”
Turkey was able to so quickly respond to the demand for refugee camps because of its own experience with disaster. In 1999 a magnitude 7.4 earthquake rattled Turkey’s northwest region, and the country was not prepared to deal with the after effects. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official explains that the experience forced Turkey to realize “how important international humanitarian assistance was.”
Another high magnitude earthquake shook Turkey’s eastern city of Van, but this time Turkey was ready to respond. Container camps were set up for displaced people, along with aid screening processes. All of this allowed Turkey to be ready to accept millions of refugees when crisis broke out in Syria.
Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has spent over $2 billion in creating and maintaining refugee camps.
“Our vision is to be one of the leading agencies in the world, responding to world challenges in an effective way,” says Mehmet Yilmaz, head of external affairs and partnerships at the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.
Turkey’s overall aid spending has risen dramatically, by 3,000 percent in the last decade. Turkey is now the world’s fourth largest donor of humanitarian aid. The rise in spending has come at a convenient time politically.
“Turkey’s international image has taken a beating of late,” writes David Lepeska of Al-Jazeera. He cites its opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the military government in Egypt, corruption scandals, bans on social media and aggressive reactions to peaceful protestors.
“Turkey is looking to increase its visibility and eventually its political and economic influence,” says Sinan Ulgen, former Turkish diplomat and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.
The massive aid Turkey has given to Africa has begun to pay off with trading partnerships. In fact, trade between the two has increased from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $23 billion in 2012.
Turkey was also recently voted into a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council with the support of all but two African countries.
“It is time for Erdogan to wield the moral authority of his country’s generosity to its advantage,” writes Lepeska.
An article written by Erdogan in Foreign Policy demonstrates the President trying to do just that during the 2011 famine in Somalia: “The crisis tests the notion of civilization and our modern values. [Yet it] can mark the beginning of a new process, by focusing international humanitarian efforts and global attention on the plight of the region.”
– Julianne O’Connor