Turkey, the EU, and civil society: An incomplete revolution

Turkish critics often accuse local human rights groups of taking “imperialist money” from enemies abroad. Given the lack of a strong local donor base, how else can Turkish groups function?

Since 2004, all of Turkish civil society, including those groups working on human rights, have benefited from substantial investments from the European Union. In 1997, the EU declared Turkey eligible for union membership, and in 2004 announced that Turkish civil society organizations (CSOs) could access EU money under the “Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance” (IPA) program. Since then, most EU funds have gone to Turkish civil society groups and universities, while much smaller sums have gone to small- and medium-sized businesses and corporations.  

Has the EU helped create a civil society “bourgeoisie” in Turkey, as it did in the Balkans? There is no doubt that some Turkish advocacy groups became formal, legally registered organizations to apply for EU money. It would be wrong, however, to accuse these groups of changing their agendas to suit the interests of EU funders. We know that by the beginning of 2000s, there was a significant increase in the number of NGOs focused on EU issues operating in Balkans. However, with the slow progress in EU harmonization process, the number of NGOs and think tanks working in European Affairs stayed limited in Turkey.

In 2004, a group of civil activists and opinion leaders created a NGO called the Civil Society Development Center in Turkey to help local groups develop their capacity and attract grant money. The association operates throughout Turkey, but some of the cities that have benefited the most are not large metropolises, such as Istanbul or Ankara, but smaller cities, such as Gaziantep, located in the country’s southern region.

The effects of European money

EU funds have revolutionized Turkish CSOs’ administrative and financial structures, as so many groups were inducted into the “culture” of EU sponsorship.

Initially, many groups viewed EU money as the solution to all their financial problems. Over time, however, some have come to realize that these funds bring their own challenges. Before 2004, for example, Turkish CSOs typically depended on volunteers, but once the EU money started to arrive, groups began to professionalize. Applications needed to be in English, and CSOs needed to demonstrate experience in handling large sums of money, along with the capacity to manage and match new funds. All this required CSOs to recruit paid professionals rather than unpaid volunteers.

Over time, many Turkish CSOs have grown weary of the EU’s burdensome bureaucracy, management requirements, and reporting procedures. They are also put off by the mounting competition within Turkey for European funding, as more local groups get involved in the search for outside aid.

CSOs that had bilingual networkers working with them used these connections to acquire different foreign funds as well as EU funds. A good example is KAPKAD, a women’s support association based in Nevşehir, a small Anatolian city. They accomplished projects with Global Fund for Women, National Endowment For Democracy, Canadian Embassy and Chrest Foundation support.

New funding models

Today, Turkish CSOs are in desperate need of new funding models to emulate.

Given the barriers to EU funding and the very limited local funding, CSOs have begun to create new business models. The most interesting local example of this is Bolu Community Foundation, which raises money from local philanthropists and foreign donors to fund the efforts of local groups addressing local problems in the city of Bolu. Turkey’s Third Sector Foundation, which attempts to provide a better legal and financial environment for Turkish CSOs, helped establish this model. 

Development v. social benefit

Recently, Turkey’s Regional Development Agencies, a subdivision of the Ministry of Development, created a new funding opportunity for CSOs. Agency for Regional Development, a model inspired by the EU, started offering CSO grants of up to €500,000 Euros. However the agency promotes economic rather than social development, meaning that human rights and other social justice advocacy groups’ projects are usually not funded.

On the other hand, nongovernmental local funds are very limited. There are some foundations such as Sabancı Foundation, established by esteemed corporations, but these have very limited funding programs. It is important to note that other reliable foundations operating in social issues do not offer grants for NGOs but run their own projects. There are limited corporations creating projects touching social issues in collaboration with NGOs.  

Social enterprises

It is no wonder, then, that CSOs working in human rights issues are forced to look for foreign funds. 

Given the lack of independent local funds and the challenges of foreign funds, Turkish CSOs must reevaluate their funding models. They must move beyond the world of grant applications, engage in stakeholder analysis, and find new ways of attracting funding.

The real drivers of social change will be profitable social enterprises. The models of “profit-making philanthropy” deserve to attract attention when the needs and the appropriate financing model come together in a sustainable and professional way.