Turkey has a strongly growing economy, a democratic government, secular institutions and an established civil society sector but people aren’t engaging in regular charitable giving.
On February 9th I travelled to Ankara by invitation of the Republic of Turkey Prime Ministry’s Directorate of Foundations to speak at an event which had been convened for the specific purpose of discussing Turkey’s low ranking in CAFs 2014 World Giving Index.
Low performance in any global index can be controversial and reactions ranging from criticism of the methodology to dismissal of its findings as culturally biased or politically motivated are not uncommon. Given that fact, regardless of your views on the Turkish government’s policies towards civil society, I think we can all applaud the Prime Ministry’s willingness to at least engage in open discourse about the World Giving Index.
It would not be appropriate to talk about Turkish civil society without acknowledging the recent international concern about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government’s alleged erosion of civil liberties in Turkey. Ever since the protests in Gezi Park in 2013 and the subsequent response by the authorities, the government’s approach to criticism in civil society has been
subject to international scrutiny. Even this week there have been warnings in the global media of “Turkey’s coming police state” in light of a domestic security bill that, according to Human Rights Watch threatens to “directly undercut safeguards against the arbitrary abuse of power” by increasing police powers and arms against protesters and circumventing the role of the judiciary.
Despite these concerns, and the negative picture that World Giving Index data paints, I do also think that it is important to also recognize Turkey’s strong democratic, civic and secular tradition. A diverse and complex nation, I would not want to reduce the contemporary story of Turkey’s formidable, if embattled civil society to playing the role of meek victim to the states aggression. Another story emanating from Turkey this week about a campaign in which Turkish men have been wearing mini skirts in response to the sexual assault and murder of a young woman and more broadly against violence against women. The sense of balance I am calling for is bolstered by recognizing the great work of the many thousands of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) across Turkey.
That being said, as I explained to the World Giving Index Panel in Ankara, CSOs are clearly suffering from a lack of financial support and engagement (in terms of volunteering) from the public. Only 12% of Turkish people reported giving money to charity in the past month according to the 2014 World Giving Index, compared to a global average of 28%. Only 5% reported having volunteered and 38% said they had helped a stranger in the last month compared to global averages of 21% and 48% respectively. Overall that gives Turkey a World Giving Index Score of just 18% leaving it languishing in 128th place out of 135 countries covered in the index this year.
None of the above should lead us to believe that the Turkish people are somehow innately ungenerous. Delegates rightly pointed to the fact that Turkish people, through their elected government support the states generous spending on overseas aid. Turkey ranks 11th overall for Official Development Aid, above Italy Switzerland and Denmark in monetary terms and above Germany and France as a proportion of Gross National profit – and almost 3 times that of the USA on this latter measure. Turkey has also undertaken heroic efforts to meet the needs of in excess of a million Syrian refugees since 2011. The UNHCR has described Turkey as having “maintained an emergency response of a consistently high standard” Meanwhile, less than 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the whole of the European Union, while member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000 Syrians. The vast majority of these resettlement spots – 28,500 or 85% – are pledged by Germany.
But whilst the above might form part of an all inclusive picture of national generosity, creating a methodology to fold in all aspects of giving in a way that could be comparative from one country to another would be very difficult, if not impossible. We believe that the simplicity of the World Giving Index is its strength. We are looking at participation rates in the past month on three different and easily understood metrics. Even in terms of charitable giving, it may well be that most Turkish people give generously to charitable causes. An academic study from back in 2004 shows that 80% of Turkish people reported having given to charitable causes in the past year. However, our index looks at monthly activity, and on this measure, Turkey performs poorly. Given that CSOs need regular income in order to be able to plan strategically, this is a significant weakness.
One reason for this might be that Turkish people prefer to give informally. According to the report mentioned above, 87% of Turkish people in 2004 said that they prefer to give directly to beneficiaries. If this is due to a lack of profile for CSOs then this can be addressed through more professionalism in communications by organizations. If it is due to a lack of trust in organizations this can be addressed through independent, public facing and transparent regulation. Actually, I have written an entire report on this.
Another reason for the lack of regular giving to CSO might be the way that tax incentives are structured. A cap at 5% of annual taxable income that applies to donations to foundations that are granted tax exemption by the Cabinet of Minister and the associations that work for public interest. Even here the list of purposes that enable tax exempt donations are overly narrow. Though laudable in motive, the fact that the government offers 100% deducibility on donations to specific causes – such as the Turkish red Crescent and expenses made for the construction of schools, medical facilities, orphanages, retirement homes and food banks – could be fueling the feeling that tax exemption is only available for delivering the governments agenda.
In my time in Turkey I found that the people I spoke to felt that the predominantly Muslim Turkish public take their religious duty to give through zakat and sadaqah very seriously indeed. That is, of course, something to cherish and protect. At the same time, this doesn’t or at least shouldn’t preclude regular and varied giving to a range of CSO. Malaysia, also a predominantly Muslim country ranks 9th in this years World Giving Index whilst Indonesia ranks 13th and Qatar, though not included in this years index, had an averaged world ranking of 9th in preceding year. Even though most people I spoke to in Turkey agreed that Turkish people take their Islamic duty to pay zakat seriously, concerns were raised as to whether enough people were meeting the 2.5% threshold required by their faith. Some suggested that more funds would be collected if, like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Pakistan, Turkey handed responsibility for the mandatory collection of zakat to the state. I believe that this would be a regressive step for developing civil society as a gift made of free will to a persons chosen cause has infinitely more power than an involuntary transfer of assets through the apparatus of the state.
This brings me to my final point. I hope that the Turkish government can be persuaded to see criticism from within civil society, and particularly from CSOs as a constructive channel for dissent that releases social pressure rather than erroneously interpreting it as the cause of unrest. A useful step in this direction would be to remove the prohibition against “political activities” – a term that is not defined in the law. President Erdogan remains popular amongst his large core following. He can afford to face criticism.