Monday, August 19, 2013

The politics of poverty relief targets poor Kurds in Turkey



Guest contributor, Gokce Baykal, a doctoral candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Political Science,  New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, and an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Department of Politics, is currently writing her dissertation, “Giving Money to the Poor: The Political Payoffs of Allocating Conditional Cash Transfers in Turkey: Making Clients or Citizens?” She has conducted in-depth interviews with Roma and Kurdish people in Tekirdag and Diyarbakir who benefit from poverty alleviation programs.

We have been waiting in a line since 6 a.m. to get our cocuk parasi (child money). I have no idea about the amount of money I will get or the amount of time I will have to wait. Tell Erdogan (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) to fix this situation. You ask what  poverty is.  I’ll tell you. Poverty is waiting, waiting all your life,” said Ruken, 25, who has 4 children, forcing a smile on her face.

Ruken is one of the hundreds of poor Kurdish women who waited in front of Surici Post Office in  Diyarbakir, one of the eastern province of Turkey, to benefit from Sartli Nakit Transferi (Conditional Cash Transfers or CCTs).  In exchange for meeting certain requirements, such as sending their children to school, paying monthly visits to health centers, the government makes regular payments to needy families. Between 2002-2006, the CCT program was under World Bank’s Social Risk Mitigation Project funded through World Bank loans. Then, after March 2006, upon receiving a lot of support, positive evaluations, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-Justice and Development Party) government decided to continue with the program. Since the World Bank loan period ended, the government has begun to fund the program through Social Solidarity Fund (SYDTF)budget. Whereas the number of population targeted around 1 million in the original document, after the government has initiated payments through state funds, as of March 2009, approximately 3 million people benefit from the Program.[i]

This enormous increase coincided with the sharp differences in the geographical distribution of these payments. The CCTs are distributed disproportionately in the eastern provinces, especially Turkey’s southeastern and eastern Anatolian regions, where the majority of population is Kurdish.  Figure 1 shows the allocation of CCTs according to regions between 2003-2009.
Fig. 1: The Allocation of Conditional Cash Transfers According to Regions (2003-2009 March)
Source: www.sosyalyardimlar.gov.tr  (Graph created by the author)


This disproportionate nature of the allocation of CCTs can be explained by the deteriorating economic conditions in Turkey’s Kurdish regions which are characterized by rising poverty and high unemployment rates. Indeed, according to a World Bank report, 39% percent of Turkey’s citizens who live on an income of a little over $2.00 per day are located in southeastern Anatolia.[2]

However, other regions suffer from poverty rates just as high as those with a majority Kurdish population.   According to Turkey’s State Planning Institution,  the poverty rate for the west Black Sea region (47.4%) is close to that of northeast Anatolia (%50.2), which is populated primarily by Kurds.   

Along with CCTs, the amount of social assistance allocated to Kurdish regions has significantly increased under AKP rule.  During the last local elections in 2009, one Kurdish city, Tunceli, made news headline.  Many newspapers published pictures of officials from the Tunceli Governor’s Office distributing new refrigerators, washing machines, desktop computers and furniture in poor neighborhoods. This phenomenon is not something new. Indeed ruling AKP government has been long accused by opposition parties and the media of using state funds to win votes.


The country’s Supreme Election Board (Yuksek Secim Kurulu-YSK) filed a criminal complaint against the AKP and foundations that give handouts to electorates to attract their votes. Following the election day, many Kurdish women who benefited from these programs remember receiving an SMS message from Prime Minister Erdogan thanking them for supporting AKP. 


The caricature roughly translates as follows:
LEFT: You will vote in this cabin. Hope it reminds you something.
RIGHT: ?!

Indeed, the AKP’s popularity among poor Kurdish women, especially that of its leader, Prime Minister Erdogan, is much higher compared to Kurdish men. One local volunteer working in the Gunisigi Store, a local government association, which donates second hand clothing to the needy, shared the observations she had during the elections. “If a woman wants to vote for AKP party, they want to cast their vote alone, I mean without their husband’s knowledge.  Many of them do so.” 

Various poverty alleviation programs targeting the poor, such as microcredits and diverse “development” projects conducted by public-private cooperation, have grown at a rapid pace in the Kurdish majority regions. However, according to local NGOs and research “think tanks” working in the region, this “development” rhetoric and its practices transform the region, specifically the city of Diyarbakir into proje mezarligi (project cemetery). Cities like Diyarbakir, and other Kurdish towns, have been turned into a laboratory, where poor Kurdish people become the objects of social experiments embedded in the state’s mushrooming poverty relief programs in the region.  Actually, none of these social assistance programs addresses the root causes of poverty.  Rather they reduce poverty to simple economic terms, purposely ignoring the historical and political origins of the problem.   

The “poverty as an economic problem” discourse has contributed to the formulation of temporary solutions and that poverty can only be solved through economic means such as economic growth, job creation and through various “development” projects.  Attempting to treat endemic poverty through temporary solutions has a great potential to open the door to all sorts of political manipulation because it fails to meaningfully empower the people who these policies are supposed to help.

Because of the rise in the number of poverty relief programs, the AKP has enjoyed a gradual increase of support among the Kurds. According to survey conducted by KONDA, 47% of those who voted for Kurdish Party DEHAP in 2002 elections changed their voting preference to the AKP in the next general elections in 2007.[3]  Beyond the AKP’s uneven distribution of social assistance programs and mushrooming Islamic charity foundations, political reforms towards Kurds, which have been designated as the Kurdish Opening (Kürt Açılımı), and backed by negotiations for European Union membership, may also explain the party’s shift.  

This proposed reformist approach for reducing tension between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population includes allowing Kurdish language classes to be taught in schools, Kurdish language to be used in the broadcast media, and a partial amnesty for many members of the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan/Kurdistan Workers Party) who have surrendered and pledged to no longer take up arms against the state.  Some of these compromises by the AKP led government have even led to the opening of the first state-run Kurdish language TV channel, TRT 6.

However, this reform process came to a halt with the recent renewal of conflict between the Turkish military and PKK, which has resulted in a growing number of casualties on both sides, the arrest of Kurdish local mayors and journalists, trade unionists, human right defenders, and also of university students accused of being members of the KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan-Union of Communities in Kurdistan)[4]. At the beginning of October 2011 the number of those detained since April 2009 had reached 7,748 Kurds, of whom 3,895 suspects were placed in pre-trial detention.[5]

With political reforms now stagnating, and the Kurdish regions experiencing increased repression, public and/or charity funded social assistance programs targeting the poor have slowed or grown at an uneven pace.  Ethnic minorities and/or poor people are often treated as homogenous entities, with the state ignoring their internal social stratification and cultural differentiation which in turn leads to different political responses among these groups to these programs.

If we take local political and social processes and different identities such as religion into account, the politics of poverty can be more clearly understood.  Within the Kurdish community, each group experiences social welfare programs differently.   These programs have certainly had the most significant impact on the meaning of citizenship for the poor.

Interviews I conducted within two poor neighborhoods, Huzurevleri and Fatihpasa in Diyarbakir, both of which have large concentration of urban poor, confirm the uneven distribution of resources within the poorest sectors of  Kurdish society. The AKP receives most of its votes from the Huzurevleri district in Diyarbakir, where the party’s headquarters is located, and therefore this support seems to facilitate people’ access to material benefits distributed by the government.

In this district, it is common to hear comments like, “I love Erdogan like my father,” or “He is the father of the poor,” or, “By the way, he looks like my beloved uncle.” Remziye, like Ruken, who has seen some benefit from the state’s social assistance programs, confirms the government’s construction of welfare clientelism by saying, “I can’t deny the assistance AKP provides. Indeed I’m proud of being Kurdish but we can’t betray Erdogan.” She added without any hesitation “He is a devout Muslim and according to our religion, helping the poor is a good deed. God bless him!”

Remziye’s very sincere statements, and Ruken’s understanding of poverty, remind me of Auyero’s description of poor people’s experiences waiting in the welfare office as a site of “intense sociability amidst pervasive uncertainty”.  This vertical exchange between the poor and the state “persuades the destitute of the need to be patient, thus conveying the implicit state request to become compliant clients.”[6]

The “haunting specter of clientelism” argument is nothing new in Turkish politics. Especially during elections, news coverage has always been dominated by the accusations against political parties - especially governing party - allocating favors such as coal, food packages, clothing and appliances to poor people in exchange for support.

The AKP’s practices of providing social assistance targeting Turkey’s Kurdish minority reinforce and reproduce the caricature of the poor, which portrays them as naïve and easily pleased by those who provide material benefits.  It also underscores the ruling elites’ efforts to creating its own sociopolitical base and voting bloc among the Kurds which sets “good” Kurds vs. “bad” Kurds, where the former is pictured as poor devout Muslims, and more importantly decent and “loyal” citizens.

[1] Esenyel, Caner. 2010. The Cases on Implementation of Conditional Cash Transfers from Turkey and the World (Turkiye’de ve Dunyada Sartli Nakit Transferi Uygulamalari), Unpublished Social Assistance Expertise Thesis, submitted to General Directorate of Social Assistance and Solidarity, Ankara.
[2] World Bank. 2003. Turkey: Poverty and Coping After Crises. Report No. 24185. http://www.wds.worldbank.org/servlet/WDSContentServer/IW3P/IB/2003/08/20/000160016_20030820130639/Rendered/PDF/241850TR0SR.pdf  accessed on October 23, 2012.
[3] KONDA. 2007. Survey of Political Trends, Istanbul: Konda, reported in Yoruk, Erdem. 2012. “Welfare Provision as Political Containment: The Politics of Social Assistance and the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey,” Politics and Society, 40 (4):523.
[4] There are many rumors on what the KCK means. Cengiz Candar, who is a journalist working on Kurdish issue for at least three decades define the KCK as an “executive organ within which the parties and organizations, including the PKK and others that are associated with the PKK in other regions populated by Kurds (Iraq, Syria, Iran) are coordinated. It is found within  the democratic confederationalism principle of Abdullah Öcalan by re-organizing the PKK. The concept of democratic confederationalism developed by Öcalan is suggested both as an alternative to nation-state and as a model for the solution to problems in the Middle East.” http://bianet.org/bianet/siyaset/131077-iki-bucuk-yildir-gundemdeki-kck-nedir accessed on February 28, 2013.
[6] Auyero, Javier. 2011.“Patients of the State. An Ethnographic Account of Poor People's Waiting", Latin American Research Review, (46:1):5-29.

1 comment:

Bill Protection Insurance said...

Poverty can cause a lot of societal problems so addressing it should be a top priority.