State–INGOs Relationship in Turkey

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in June 2015 and joined an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization) in November 2015. Since then, I have been working in several different organizations. Over the past five years, I have observed inefficient relationships between INGOs operating in Turkey and the Turkish state, leading to negative consequences for the vulnerable people who have been receiving aid. In response to the Syrian civil war which began in 2011, INGOs and local NGOs opened up in Turkey, mainly in southern provinces such as Kilis, Gaziantep, Hatay, and Şanlıurfa. They aimed to address the needs of those who fled from the civil war, many of whom moved to Turkey.

Fruitful collaboration between Turkey and I/NGOs was the precondition for an effective humanitarian campaign. However, this relationship has often proved to be unproductive. The lack of recripocal understanding between humanitarian organizations and the Turkish state, as well as interest-based politics, have negatively impacted the capacity to reach the most vulnerable.

Traditionally, Turkey is not an aid receiving country. For this reason, INGOs that have extensively worked in countries and regions where weak or failed states depend on international aid have not always been able to adapt to the institutional and bureaucratic context of the Turkish state. INGOs have structures, procedures, and rules that have been developed to substitute some of the functions of the state. These functions vary from human resources to finance or security. However, the mindset of INGOs relevant to weaker states often clashed with Turkey’s strong and pervasive state apparatus. For instance, some INGOs were fined for not complying with labor law or failing to register the organization properly.

Essentialism, defined as “the assumption that groups, categories or classes of objects have one or several defining features exclusive to all members of that category”,[1] can explain the approach of some Western INGOs in Turkey. In other words, in the INGOs’ approach, Turkey was yet another failed state in the broad humanitarian space.

Parallel to essentialism, a certain dose of idealism has been followed by INGOs in Turkey, whereby universal humanitarian principles were seen as non-negotiable – i.e. they coud not be compromised for the sake of the relationship with the Turkish state.

Finally, there have been practical difficulties in navigating this complex terrain. For example, delivering aid to SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and PYD (Democratic Union Party)-held territories proved particularly challenging. Turkey considers SDF and PYD as PKK’s (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) sister organizations, therefore a no-go area in terms of aid. Some organizations were therefore fined by the Turkish state for delivering aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled territories: Mercy Corps, for instance, was forced to shut down its office in Turkey.[2] Opting for a result-oriented approach, other organizations decided to deliver aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled areas through Northern Iraq.

Sadık and Zorba argue that humanitarian diplomacy’s primary goal is saving innocent people.[3] This implies that both international organizations and local NGOs have to negotiate and find a compromise with the hosting state (or other non-state actors) to implement their projects. Moreover, humanitarian organizations have a duty of care for their own staff members, and the security of staff might be challenged in a country such as Turkey where aid delivery is highly politicized.

In Turkey, humanitarian diplomacy is articulated through the complex infrastructure of the Turkish state. Since the state administration is highly centralized and any decision on activities to be carried out in the provinces needs to be approved by the relative ministries in Ankara, a national-level perspective is crucial. Thus, while INGO representatives at the field level should retain their grounded relations, top-level communication should be followed in the capital. Indeed, essentialism and idealism have, at least partly, characterized the work of INGOs in Turkey. This approach clashed with Turkey’s politics of aid both at the higher institutional level and at the field level, making it more difficult to effectivey implement projects and reach the most vulnerable. To reduce institutional tensions and facilitate the realization of projects, context analysis should always be conducted before starting to operate in one particular country. As often argued, “The purpose of context analysis is to allow humanitarians to better understand the socio-cultural, political, economic and geographic factors.”[4]

In my experience of I/NGOs conducting context analysis, there are two common mistakes. Firstly, context analysis should be conducted by a country expert. Most context analyses I have seen were not done by Turkish experts, but rather by staff members working from the organizations’ headquarters. Secondly, the context analysis should not stay on the shelf waiting for the dust. On the contrary, context analysis should be one of the reference documents during each project’s (finance-hr-logistics-program) decision-making process. Although this is not a solution for smoothly navigating difficult institutional environments such as the Turkish state infrastructure, it might set a better starting point.

[1] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griddiths, and Helen Tiffin, Post Colonial Studies: Key Concepts, 96.

[2] “Mercy Corps Closes Operations in Turkey,” Relief Web, [Accessed March 3, 2021].

[3] Giray Sadık and Hilal Zorba, “Humanitarian Diplomacy for Syrian Refugees and Turkey-EU Relations,” The Journal of Migration Studies, 3(2017): 17.

[4] “Context Analysis,” PHAP, [Accessed November 2, 2020].

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