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Mapping civil society

Last Update 05.07.2011

With Turkey's political scene locked in the throes of yet another crisis, many Turks are getting increasingly frustrated. Hopes, which were perhaps somewhat naïve in the circumstances, that some kind of consensus could be sought in the writing of the next constitution are rapidly fading.

It has become routine to stress the need for political parties to involve civil society in defining crucial policies and particularly in building a new constitutional framework. Indeed, well-known civil society organizations regularly contribute their views on key issues. But what is the overall state of Turkey's civil society? How diverse and influential is it? And how active are Turkish citizens in shaping the present and the future of their own country?

I have been poring over the Civil Society Index report published by the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV) to find answers to these questions. This document, the second such report prepared in the context of a global survey by CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizens' Participation, was first unveiled in March and it provides a detailed map of the civil landscape in Turkey.

There are of course many different ways for citizens to get involved in improving their environment. Turkey's civil society, which suffered a lethal blow with the 1980 coup, has gained new momentum in the past two decades. The 1999 earthquake made people realize that the state could no longer be the sole service provider, and it was seen as a turning point.

The good news is that, as we have all noticed, civil society actors are far more visible than in the past and their area of activity has expanded. Individual participation has increased, with membership of Turkey's civil society organization (CSO), increasing from 4.3 million to 6.8 million between 2005-2008.

But, as the report points out, CSO activities and their impacts vary greatly. The majority of associations, 65 percent, operate in the delivery of social aid, health and education, while fewer groups deal with policy issues. Eighteen percent of Turkey's associations are involved in building mosques and delivering religious services, while 14 percent are sports associations. Organizing social gatherings, dinners and meeting celebrities are among the top three CSO activities.

Although advocacy-oriented CSOs have become far more vocal on issues such as women's rights, human rights, consumer protection, and student and youth issues, inequalities in participation reflect discrepancies observed in other areas of public life: Women are as poorly represented in CSOs, both in terms of basic membership and at management levels, as they are in politics and labor; young people's involvement is also low. Overall, urban dwellers, men, those in the 26-34 age group and people above a certain socio-economic status have a higher level of participation, the report points out. As in so many other fields, huge regional discrepancies are also seen in the distribution of CSOs.

Turks may help individuals in trouble, but they are more reluctant to donate to CSOs, to volunteer or to help a stranger. On these fronts, Turkey ranks 134th out of 154 countries. Only 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent of the population are members of social and political CSOs. But, as the report points out, civic engagement, while narrow, is also very deep. Those who do get involved, tend to do so with great passion and dedication.

What emerges from the TUSEV report is that Turkish civil society had expanded significantly, but it still suffers from institutional weaknesses. Most CSOs complain of insufficient financial and human resources, with nearly half of them having an annual income of less than TL 10,000. Many organizations also have poor communications skills and lack the ability to cooperate with other groups.

The EU accession process led to important reforms designed to promote more civic involvement. But dialogue between civil society and the government has suffered setbacks and CSOs complain of persistent bureaucratic obstacles.

The activities of CSOs are ultimately framed, and often constrained, by the political and social environment in which they operate. Young people show high levels of social engagement -- ethnic groups more activism -- but the report found political involvement low across the board.

In spite of legal reforms, many organizations continue to fear official interference, which partly explains why many of them fail to publish texts outlining their aims and their values. In turn, mistrust and lack of tolerance limits civic engagement and dialogue with the authorities. More volunteering could eventually form part of the solution since studies shows higher self-esteem, trust and empathy levels among individuals who get involved. It could perhaps also be a good way of dealing with the frustration fueled by the politicians.

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