Turkey’s international image has taken a beating of late.
Start with its opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Egypt’s new military government, add corruption scandals, Twitter and YouTube bans, and aggressive crackdowns on peaceful protesters and the media, and top it off with increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. You end up with a government that, for many international observers, has about as much appeal as the tear gas it so liberally uses to disperse street demonstrations.
“I hope Turkey will fix the damage to its international reputation,” U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone recently told the Turkish daily Hurriyet. Ankara’s long climb back to respectability might begin with a focus on the country’s lone foreign-policy bright spot: international aid.
Turkey's official aid spending has skyrocketed in the past decade, from $73 million in 2002 to nearly $3.3 billion in 2013. The increase coincides with the rule of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002. Overseeing a booming economy, it has embarked on a bid to gain broader influence, particularly in Africa and Muslim nations. The number of Turkish aid agency offices abroad has nearly tripled, from a dozen in 2002 to 34 last year.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Turkey has spent more than $3 billion to host about a third of its southern neighbor’s 2.5 million refugees, including more than 200,000 in camp conditions hailed as “perfect.” But Turkey’s mission to become an aid power began long before Syria’s war.
In the early 2000s, geopolitics and regional humanitarian concerns sparked a minor aid competition among Muslim countries. The 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, the Southeast Asian tsunami of late 2004, the Pakistani earthquake the following year and the 2008 war in Gaza all prodded Muslim nations to help their troubled brethren.
But even among Muslim nations, Turkey has stood apart. Following the lead of China, India and Brazil on a quest for trade and influence in the fastest-growing continent, Turkey proclaimed 2005 “the year of Africa.” The African Union in return granted Ankara observer status, and Turkey soon became the continent’s strategic partner. In 2007, Istanbul hosted a summit for the Least Developed Countries (33 of the 48 nations in the group were African), followed by the first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit in 2008.
Then came the Arab Spring, which sparked an outpouring of support from Turkey’s Muslim peers. In 2012, Saudi Arabia handed out $5 billion in official aid to help Arab states rebuild after revolution (Egypt and Yemen) or avoid their own (Morocco, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan). Last year, the United Arab Emirates matched its Gulf neighbor, doling out $5 billion, mostly to a post-Morsi Egypt.
Turkey lacks those countries’ natural resources, yet over the past decade no other Muslim-majority country has handed out more humanitarian aid ($1.9 billion, compared with Saudi Arabia’s $1.6 billion). It has built tens of thousands of new homes in Pakistan, where Turkish aid workers hope to create a copycat version of their country’s public housing agency. Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Lebanon, Bosnia and Montenegro have all received Turkish aid.
In 2012, Turkey spent $1.04 billion in humanitarian aid, ranking fourth globally behind only the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. With more than $1.5 billion spent on foreign aid allocations that year, its $800 billion economy outpaced larger emerging economies such as Brazil ($2.25 trillion economy; $1 billion in aid) and Russia ($2 trillion; less than $500 million). Turkey is hosting the world’s first international summit on humanitarian aid, sponsored by the United Nations, in 2016.
The Turkish are changing the face of Mogadishu.
Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud
One highlight in Turkey’s aid expansion is Somalia. Spending $400 million since 2011, Ankara has spearheaded the country’s reconstruction, building wells, roads and a hospital, restoring government buildings and boosting agriculture.
“The Turkish are giving the kind of support we have never seen before,” Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told the website Quartz last year. “They are changing the face of Mogadishu.”
However, not all Somalis are happy with the makeover. Last July, the country’s Al-Shabab militant group detonated a car bomb inside the Turkish Embassy compound in Mogadishu, killing a security officer and a Somali bystander. Rockets fired into the compound earlier this month injured three Turkish construction workers helping rebuild the embassy.
Turkey’s reconstruction efforts threaten the existence of the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group. Ankara has sent some 1,200 Somali students to study in Turkish universities on scholarship. According to an International Crisis Group report, members of Al-Shabab have been among those who applied.
Ankara’s aid is not entirely altruistic. Seeing itself in Ottoman-era terms, the country aims to expand its sphere of influence across a crescent stretching from Morocco to Mogadishu and beyond. “Turkey for years now has positioned itself as the protector of victimized people in this part of the world,” Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, said in an interview. “And by allocating its aid in a few crisis areas, as opposed to a more widespread portfolio, Turkey is also looking to increase its visibility and eventually its political and economic influence.”
Its efforts are paying off in Africa. In 2009, Turkey secured a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council largely due to support from 51 of the 53 African countries. Last year, the Somali government handed the next 20 years of operations and maintenance at Mogadishu airport to a Turkish company.
Turkey has opened more than 20 new African embassies in the past few years. Today only France has more embassies on the continent. Trade between Africa and Turkey, now the continent’s fourth largest donor, has quadrupled, from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $23 billion in 2012, according to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.
To be sure, Turkey still receives development assistance from the U.S., EU and other donors, and its aid numbers pale in comparison to those of traditional donors. The U.S. spent $31.5 billion on aid in 2013, nearly 10 times Turkey’s total. The U.K., France and Japan all spend more than $10 billion on aid each year.
Wielding moral authority
Ultimately, aid alone will not erase the damage done to Turkey’s image. But Ulgen believes Turkish authorities have begun to shift toward a less polarizing international profile. Ankara’s rhetoric on Egypt has softened in recent weeks. It has reportedly reached a compensation agreement with Tel Aviv for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish activists attempting to break an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip were killed during a skirmish with Israeli navy commandos. There has even been clear progress on Cyprus. And on Tuesday, Erdogan offered unprecedented condolences to the descendants of Armenians killed by the Ottoman Army in 1915.
Turkey is holding three, possibly four nationwide elections from March 2014 to June 2015. During this extended campaign season, the ruling party’s focus on domestic politics, along with its perceived abuses of democracy, risk damaging the country’s economic and security interests abroad.
But instead of calling out Twitter as a tax evader or criticizing the international community for failing to aggressively respond to last year’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus, as Turkish officials did earlier this month, they should make a broad call for international assistance in Syria’s humanitarian crisis that highlights their sizable largesse and their understanding of Western democratic values.
It’s time for Erdogan to wield the moral authority of his country’s generosity to its advantage. He’s done it before. Back in 2011, when Western analysts held up Turkey as a model Islamic democracy, the prime minister penned a smart, sincere call for urgent action on Somalia, much of which could apply to Syria today.
“This crisis tests the notion of civilization and our modern values,” Erdogan wrote in Foreign Policy. Yet it “can mark the beginning of a new process, by focusing international humanitarian efforts and global attention on the plight of the region.”