Turkey has become the world’s most generous nation, going from development assistance recipient to top donor in just over a decade.
Turkey’s giving is impressive: In 2016, according to the latest Global Humanitarian Assistance report by UK-based think thank Development Initiatives, Turkey spent US$6 billion on humanitarian aid, more than any other country except the US ($6.3 billion). Percentage-wise, Turkey’s largesse—0.75% of its gross national income (GNI)—dwarfs every member of the G20 and is well ahead of No. 2, United Arab Emirates, at 0.18% of GNI. The OECD has slightly different numbers, but also shows Turkey’s official development assistance (ODA), which includes humanitarian aid, as having risen sharply in the last five years. (see chart)
How Turkey went from major aid recipient to most generous donor nation in a little more than a decade has inspired widespread awe among international observers.
Although the country’s official aid spending has been picking up ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it wasn’t until 2011-2012, when then-prime minister Erdoğan commited to help Somalia recover from years of war and famine, that it started growing exponentially. Turkey’s effort in Somalia and in other predominantly muslim countries in Africa and other regions, however, pales next to the massive assistance provided to Syrian refugees on its own territory. Today, Turkey is home to over 3 million Syrians (as well as to 300,000 people mostly from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia)—the largest refugee population in the world, according to the UN.
While praising the country’s humanitarian engagement, some are concerned about its long-term sustainability. Already in 2014, an in-depth study published by The Graduate Institute of Geneva pointed out a discrepancy between Turkey’s mounting aid expenditures and its long-term capacity. “As with most other emerging economies, Turkey’s economic growth is not yet sustained and is vulnerable to global economic developments,” the report comments. “Given the current level of development within Turkey, it is safe to assume that an economic decline would immediately affect the scope of Turkish humanitarian donorship.”
There are also those who question the motives behind the Erdoğan regime’s generosity and capacity for clean execution. “The greatest challenge here is that, increasingly, Turkish humanitarian and developmental assistance is not transparent and suffers from little accountability,” says Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Turkish Industry and Business Association and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at The Brookings Institution.
This type of aid is open to general criticism. “Some [humanitarian aid] is quite effective at preventing starvation,” notes Jason Brennan, who teaches economics, ethics and public policy at Georgetown University, “but a great deal of it often goes to reinforce corrupt regimes and bad institutions in developing countries.” Economists, he adds, are also skeptical that such aid can help spur sustained development. “Perhaps politicians don’t know this,” he speculates. “Or perhaps they do, but their goal is something else: They are intentionally buying allegiance and loyalty from leaders in other countries, rather than trying to help.”
Turkey’s global outreach has certainly paid off. In 2009, Turkey won a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council largely on support from 51 of the 53 African countries. In recent years, Turkey has also opened more than 20 new African embassies, and Erdoğan recently announced intentions to open one in each capital. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines has increased the destinations it serves on that continent to 51, more than any other carrier, making Istanbul a central transit point for travelers to and from Africa.
It would be naïve to think that humanitarian aid—whether from Erdoğan’s administation or Trump’s or any other nation’s—comes without hope of mutual gain. Still, Turkey’s increased standing as a stabilizing force in Africa and the Middle East is likely to benefit not only Turkey, but also the neighboring Balkans and Europe, and even the world as a whole.