Erdogan Has Undermined Turkey’s Quake Response – The Washington Post : Business


The pictures and videos emerging from Syria and Turkey since Monday’s twin earthquakes trigger my worst memories of human tragedy — and my best experiences of human tenacity. In a previous life as a foreign correspondent, I covered the aftermath of two of the 21st century’s most catastrophic quakes: In the Indian state of Gujarat in 2001, and in Haiti almost exactly nine years later. The hideous sights, sounds and smells of suffering are painfully familiar.

Familiar, too, is the sense of awe at the heroic response to calamity by local nongovernmental organizations and other civil society groups. Their role is central to the rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts that follow any natural disasters. As important as providing immediate succor to the victims — building makeshift shelters, distributing food, water and medical help — NGOs have the responsibility of monitoring governmental efforts, ensuring the fair distribution of aid, guarding against corruption in the allocation of resources for reconstruction and proper accountability for failures.

Gujarat, where there was an abundance of NGOs with deep local roots and long experience, recovered relatively quickly from the quake. Haiti’s recovery was handicapped by the systematic undermining of its civil society ecosystem during its long periods of repressive dictatorship; the enthusiasm and resources of international NGOs could not fully make up the gap.    

The tragedy that Syria and Turkey now face comes at a time when civil society institutions, and especially NGOs, have been greatly weakened by war and vindictive government policies. (In Lebanon, affected to a lesser degree by the quake, civil society is hampered by years of political and economic chaos.)

By at least one yardstick, civil society participation in the three countries shows a dramatic deterioration in the past decade, especially in Turkey:

Civicus Monitor, a global civil-society alliance that tracks civic space freedoms across the world, rates Turkey as “Repressed,” on a par with Russia, and Syria as “Closed,” akin to China. And Freedom House, the Washington-based think tank, gives Syria a score of 0/4 for associational and organization rights; Turkey gets 1/4.

Syria’s civil war, now in its 12th year, has strained the resources of the few NGOs that are able, against enormous odds, to operate in the country. Most who live in the quake zone are opposed to the government of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, which means they can expect little help from Damascus. In fact, we may never know exactly how many people were killed, injured and rendered homeless by the twin temblors.

On the other side of the border, many of the victims in Turkey are refugees from the Syrian civil war. But they will be far outnumbered by Turkish citizens: The area accounts for roughly 15% of the country’s population. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency in the quake-affected zone, but his government is already overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of providing aid to 13.5 million people.

In other words, Erdogan needs all the help he can get from NGOs, both local and foreign — the very organizations his government has debilitated over the years, by enacting laws that expand government control of civil society, restricting financing of NGOs and forcing many to shut down.

Erdogan isn’t alone in this: Populists everywhere regard civil society groups as a threat to their absolute control of the state. In recent years, the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — ironically, a native of Gujarat — has eroded civic space and hobbled NGOs, earning the country the same Civicus Monitor rating as Turkey.

The Turkish will hope that state-approved religious groups can perform some of the functions that are usually the preserve of NGOs. But while mosques and churches are excellent conduits for relief efforts, they are not especially good at keeping governments honest.

Erdogan’s enervation of Turkish civil society can’t help but hamper the government’s response to the quake. And the resulting fallout will expose him to criticism in the lead-up to the general election scheduled for May 14. Tellingly, in his speech announcing emergency measures, Erdogan aimed a preemptive sideswipe at critics: “This is not the day of debate with them, [but] when the day comes, we’ll open the notebook that we’re keeping.”

The threat is anything but subtle. “He’s warning journalists and civil society that we will prosecute you if you criticize us,” says Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House’s senior director of research on countering authoritarianism. “He’s trying to short-circuit any discussion about accountability.”

This may all seem somewhat academic right now to the Turkish NGOs that are scrambling to respond to the disaster. In the days ahead, they will undoubtedly demonstrate the extraordinary energy and endurance I saw in Gujarat and Haiti. But when they pause to take a breath, they might wonder how much more assistance they might have been able to provide — and how many more lives they might have saved — if presidential paranoia hadn’t weakened their hands.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Here’s How Finland, Sweden and NATO Should Deal with Erdogan: Andreas Kluth

• The World’s Most Important Election in 2023 Will Be in Turkey: Bobby Ghosh

• NATO Must Bring Finland, Sweden and Turkey Together: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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