December 4, 2015

Gov’t attack on philanthropists in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

The evil coalition formed among the corrupt political Islamist rulers and their xenophobic neo-nationalist partners has set its sights on rooting out the culture of individual philanthropic behavior in order to thwart the development of a more robust, vibrant and independent civil society in Turkey.

That is why the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its de facto leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been doing everything in their power to kill the spirit of volunteerism, philanthropy and charitable giving that is independent of the government. The raison d'être behind the witch hunt persecution launched against critics and opponents by the government lies in the fact that a flourishing civil society poses a major threat to the survival of the ideological zealotry of the current leadership of Turkey.

The persecution of Mr. Fethullah Gülen, a leading voice of advocacy for interfaith dialogue, education and outreach activities, embodies this latent message loud and clear. The fact that Gülen has inspired a new and very promising culture of philanthropy in Turkey that is less dependent on major corporate benefactors but rather depends on individual giving from across all income strata made this great Muslim intellectual a target of Turkish political Islamists in the witch hunt campaign.

In addition to cracking down on the volunteer network of the Gülen movement and other moderate groups in Turkey, political Islamists have also come up with an alternative plan to supplant this philanthropic culture with their own and to exercise greater control over major donors. The Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), controlled by Erdoğan's son Bilal, has become a focal point for attracting donations from corporate and government sources. Many businesspeople feel compelled to make contributions to this foundation in order to curry favor with the government and strengthen ties with the bureaucracy. The goal is not to make a difference in the lives of people but to sustain a patronage system that benefits only the select few.

According to main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, TÜRGEV is the center point of how the bribery works, under the disguise of donations and contributions. He said “[Companies] that win public tenders make payments to TÜRGEV before they win. This is called abuse of power. I know for sure that TÜRGEV is a center of bribery, just as I know that my name is Kemal,” Kılıçdaroğlu said during a speech at a CHP parliamentary group meeting last year while calling on the foundation to reveal its donor lists and their contributions to the public. That call was never answered. TÜRGEV was one of the organizations at the center of government corruption investigations that were made public in December 2013, leading to serious allegations of bribery that implicated donations from foreign nationals as well.

While impunity and a lack of accountability and transparency reign for favored foundations, businesses and donors, those that work independently of the Islamist rulers have increasingly come under pressure from the government in recent years. The foundations and organizations that are affiliated with the Gülen movement are singled out as a priority on the hit list because they do an incredibly large amount of work with a high level of enthusiasm and volunteerism. They really have an impact on the target audience and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable groups. Several other civic groups have also been added to the growing list of undesirables that is maintained by the ideological zealots in the current Islamist government that are out to kill that spirit of giving without a political agenda.

Unfortunately, this is the pattern in many countries now, as confirmed in 2014 by US President Barack Obama, who told participants at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative that oppressive governments are sharing “worst practices” to weaken civil society. “It is precisely because citizens and civil society can be so powerful -- their ability to harness technology and connect and mobilize at this moment is so unprecedented -- that more and more governments are doing everything in their power to silence them.” Then he cited as examples several notorious regimes from around the world that have been engaging in “relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive” and “overt intimidation that increasingly targets civil society.”

Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There or KYM), the largest volunteer, charity and aid organization based in Turkey, is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). It has been under an intense government crackdown for the last three years, with targeted auditing, the imposition of discriminatory bureaucratic hurdles, license suspensions and permit cancelations. The KYM operates outside of Turkey and has a global reach through 220,000 registered volunteers around the globe in more than 100 countries. At the annual CGI meeting in New York in September, the KYM was among the solution partners that made one of the 123 new Commitments to Action that are expected to impact more than 15 million people around the globe.

The commitment included training 150 small farmers in Niamey, Niger, in cultivation, harvesting and marketing techniques for high-value crops. According to the CGI statement, “this project will increase farmer income and nutrition for their families by dramatically increasing productivity and introducing more diverse crop varieties. Farmer beneficiaries are selected from areas with low agricultural productivity, where rain is limited and variable, and no irrigation infrastructure exists.” The project is only a pilot program and will be expanded throughout Africa by the KYM after a successful evaluation and monitoring conducted by the African Union (AU).

This project is only one of many the KYM has been pursuing in Africa in close partnership with the AU. In another project the KYM committed to the AU in March to undertake, the Turkish charity aims to build 1,000 schools in African countries by 2020 with its "Sahara Schools" project, paving the way for close cooperation between the two entities to further aid, education and development efforts in Africa. It has drilled more than 3,000 wells, mostly in Africa, to provide clean drinking water to millions, built hospitals and orphanages, and performed almost 60,000 cataract operations for those in need. No wonder the KYM is the only Turkish aid organization that holds UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) special consultative status.

The Turkish government wants to cut back on the philanthropic activity that supports and sustains the KYM and other development projects. It is determined to stop grassroots organization from empowering people and communities to help themselves and change their lives. Even if the civil society organizations and advocacy groups are not receiving foreign funds, but rather raise financial support from Turkish philanthropists, the Islamist rulers see them as a threat to their survival and crack down on organizations and arrest benefactors on trumped-up charges. In many provinces, dozens of highly respectable businesspeople were jailed by the Turkish government because of their philanthropic activity that supports schools, hospitals and charity work inspired by Gülen movement.

In doing so, the Turkish government is actually failing to respect the common values espoused by the Council of Europe (CoE), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and NATO, in all of which Turkey maintains full membership status, as well as the values of the European Union, an organization that it aspires to join. Nongovernmental organizations that are critical of government policies, corruption and bad governance and which attempt to influence policy for greater improvement and advocate on behalf of vulnerable groups are equated with treachery. The benefactors and donors are treated like criminals and persecuted. A vitriolic defamation campaign is launched by the government propaganda machine to discredit them by stirring up fears and false threats among people.

The ultimate goal is to alienate philanthropists, strip the NGOs of independence, inflict damage on the vibrancy of civil society, muzzle dissent and stifle challenging views. Instead of fostering better dialogue with participatory and inclusive politics, the Turkish Islamists decline to respond to public concerns, they help build more social tension in the country and they risk social upheaval in Turkey.

Published on Today's Zaman, 4 December 2015, Friday