The world of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has to be seen as being an integral part of any full-fledged civil society. Turkey, an emerging economic powerhouse ready to joining the European Union, has in the last two decades developed a strong civil society tradition as well, at present accommodating around 80,000 NGOs.
Just off the plane
A short while ago I had the pleasure to meet with one of Turkey’s leading civil society architects, Serdar Dinler, chairman of the board of the Corporate Social Responsibility Association of Turkey (CSR Turkey) at İstanbul’s Kadir Has University. The very same morning my interview partner had flown in from New York, where he had participated in a high-level gathering of stakeholders at the seat of the UN on the occasion of the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit, with himself attending as the only NGO representative from Turkey.
26 NGOs and still going strong
Serdar Dinler, chairman of the board of the Corporate Social Responsibility Association of Turkey, helped found 26 Turkish NGOs. He explains that Turkey has around 80,000 NGOs and that their major problems include a lack of funding, not enough staff, insufficient technology and other infrastructure issues
If there was ever a list of those individuals who have done the most for nongovernmental organizations in the world, Serdar Bey would probably top it, as he not only helped to found 26 Turkish NGOs, but to this day stays in close touch with most of them and continues to actively support some of them as well.
The latest addition to his impressive portfolio is an association he set up for Turkish children, the (Turkish) Suzuki Music Association, based on educating children by means of music. The Suzuki Method was developed by Shinichi Suzuki, a leading personality who lived to the remarkable age of 99.
Serdar Bey was born in Ankara and studied there as well. One of the many impressive entries on his CV of 23 years of experience is working with the British Council.
NGOs must become more goal oriented
We then approached our first key issue, professionalism, or the lack thereof, in the world of Turkey’s NGOs, and Serdar Bey told me that according to the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO), the average lifespan of a company in Turkey when measured from 1923 until today is only four-and-a-half years, an alarming figure indeed. As analytical foresight and strategic planning are often missing in the business community, it does not come as a surprise that NGOs encounter similar long-term problems. After all, both entrepreneurs and NGO chairpersons went to the same schools and universities.
When I asked about today’s legal framework regarding setting up an association or NGO he told me how happy he was with recent trends both towards e-government and how fast the entire application procedure has become as well. Seven people is all it takes to get going, all the forms which need to be filled out are available online and in a very short period of time your association is ready to begin work.
How Serdar Bey encountered civil society
Our conversation moved on to civil society and NGO development in Turkey; Serdar Bey distinguishes five phases.
Referring to the 1960s, he remembers yellow envelopes being handed out at school with requests for donations for, in today’s currency, either TL 5, TL 10 or TL 20. Children like himself then gave the envelopes to their parents and brought them back to school. The recipients of the donations were large organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay). Monies were given to organizations mostly run by former government officials and young people like Serdar Bey could never become involved in them despite the money being contributed by the children’s parents. In other words, “money from civil society, but not for civil society.”
The 1970s, according to Serdar Bey, was the decade of the politicized NGO; the age of the “mahalle,” or local borough, NGO; not in the sense of how we would interpret it today, but with reference to the fact that each and every neighborhood was divided along political party lines -- the left and the right so to speak. Serdar Bey’s own Ankara mahallesi was a “left” leaning borough. Some “NGOs” went so far as to ask their male members not to have girlfriends as that could interfere with the purity of their teachings.
Looking back on the 1980s, Serdar Bey indicated to me that he himself had intended to set up his own NGO in 1979, but was told that he had to be over 18 years of age before being allowed to do so. He tried again a few years later whilst studying at university only to realize that as he was now a student he could not set up an NGO either. During those years most former NGOs were closed down, and the few that were allowed to continue to operate often had the wives of generals, elderly folk or retired people as their chairpersons, but for sure no popular or youth involvement was welcome.
When things began to move in a more democratic direction in the 1990s and because of a more serious, but still distant, approach to the EU membership process, many new NGOs appeared on the civic horizon, and the previously attached label that read “NGOs are for anarchists only” began to gradually erode. He elaborated on how the 1999 İstanbul earthquake in so many ways was a new beginning, in particular for Turkish NGOs; they were finally seen not as being politically motivated or anti-establishment, but there to help civil society in good, and in 1999, as well as bad times.
The fifth and last period he details is the one we are still living in: the “2000’s + phase.” Serdar Bey described this open-ended phase as the decade of the “modernizing Turkish NGO.” Besides, branches of foreign NGOs are being allowed to open for the first time. Local NGOs have sprung up away from the three metropolises of Ankara, İzmir and İstanbul.
Three of his current affiliations
Serdar Bey wanted to talk about three of his current affiliations in more detail. Firstly, we spoke about Genç Birikim Derneği, or the Youth Accumulation Association, which is based in Muş and helps cancer patients, and even bring in international experts to assist. More information on the association can be found at Genç Birikim Dernegi - Anasayfa.
Second, he is involved with CSR Turkey. Serdar Bey told me that initially the Turkish business community was rather skeptical, but the economic miracle after 2002 helped to change perceptions. With Turkey now having a stable economy, CSR Turkey is seen as being necessary to establishing a more society-friendly way of doing business, whilst still maintaining a competitive edge. CSR Turkey itself became an NGO in 2005 after 10 years of successful activities. Today, various groups in society want to know more about CSR, including business, civil society, academia, the media and other stakeholders. More information on the group can be found at www.csrturkey.org.
And last, but not least, he is involved in the Has Academy of Corporate Social Responsibility, which was created in cooperation with Kadir Has University and CSR Turkey. Many fourth year students are engaged in CSR projects. Neighboring countries have begun to notice to his efforts, too, and think that CSR activities in Turkey “are closer to home,” as opposed to projects run by CSR Japan or by CSR USA.
Past and present projects include Ukrainian economic development, ventures in Iran and seminars in Baku and Armenia. In his words, today’s big business is going regional, and Turkey is indeed a regionally admired economic hub and the CSR helps businesses to stay focused while adding a vital new dimension.
NGOs need more staff
At the moment Turkey has around 80,000 NGOs. Major problems include a lack of funding, not enough staff, technology and other infrastructure issues. The numbers, according to Serdar Bey, speak for themselves: Whereas there are 2,000 full and part-time staff working for Turkish NGOs, there 6.5 million in the US and 2 million in the United Kingdom. This has to change Serdar Bey said -- paraphrased in my own words, it seems the days of seven students pondering about life in a smoke-filled cafe are over -- what Turkish NGOs need is professionalism and more staff.
Portrait of a perfect, nevertheless gentlemanly, lobbyist
Serdar Bey easily doubles as a role model for how to be a lobbyist, saying that communication skills are key to success, and so are keywords. “An elevator ride with your boss takes 45 seconds -- that’s all you’ve got to make your point.”
He clearly is a person who enjoys a structured and orderly approach towards management, including in the public sector as well as in civic associations, and it is no wonder that one of Serdar Bey’s key concerns is how to better organize the day-to-day running of an NGO, always paired with strategy. Twenty-six NGOs and no end in sight? Why not? Turkey, and any civil society for that matter, needs relentless activists like him, a rare type of and much appreciated personality indeed.