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Analysis | Erdogan has undermined Turkey’s earthquake response


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

Also known is the sense of awe at the heroic response to disasters by local non-governmental organizations and other social groups. Their role is central to rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts following natural disasters. Just as important as providing immediate relief to the victims – building makeshift shelters, distributing food, water and medical aid – NGOs have a responsibility to monitor government efforts, ensure a fair distribution of aid, to guard against corruption in the allocation of resources for reconstruction and proper accountability for failures.

Gujarat, which was home to an abundance of NGOs with deep local roots and long experience, recovered relatively quickly from the earthquake. Haiti’s recovery has been hampered 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 completely close the gap.

The tragedy now facing Syria and Turkey comes at a time when civil society organizations, and NGOs in particular, have been greatly weakened by war and vengeful government policies. (In Lebanon, less affected by the earthquake, civil society has been hampered by years of political and economic chaos.)

According to at least one measure, civil society participation in the three countries has been deteriorating dramatically over the past decade, especially in Turkey:

Civicus Monitor, a global alliance of civil society organizations that monitors citizens’ freedoms around the world, rates Turkey as “oppressed”, similar to Russia, and Syria as “closed”, similar to China. And Freedom House, the Washington-based think tank, gives Syria a score of 0/4 for association and organization rights; Turkey gets 1/4.

The civil war in Syria, now entering its 12th year, has strained the resources of the few NGOs that can operate in the country against great odds. Most residents of the earthquake zone are against the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad, so they can expect little help from Damascus. In fact, we may never know exactly how many people were killed, injured, and left 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 about 15% of the country’s population. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a state of emergency in the earthquake-hit area, but his government is already overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of delivering aid to 13.5 million people.

In other words, Erdogan needs all the help he can get from NGOs, both local and foreign — the organizations his government has weakened over the years by enacting laws that expand government control over civil society. restrict funding to NGOs and force many to shut down.

Erdogan is not alone in this: populists everywhere view 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 hindered NGOs, earning the country the same Civicus Monitor rating as Turkey.

The Turks will hope that state-recognized religious groups can perform some of the functions usually reserved for NGOs. But while mosques and churches are excellent channels for relief efforts, they are not particularly good at keeping governments honest.

Erdogan’s suppression of Turkish civil society cannot but hinder the government’s response to the earthquake. And the resulting fallout will expose him to criticism ahead of the general election scheduled for May 14. Tellingly, in his speech announcing emergency measures, Erdogan aimed a pre-emptive side strike at critics: “This is not the day of debate with them, [but] when the day comes, we open the notebook we keep.

The threat is anything but subtle. “He warns journalists and civil society that we will prosecute you if you criticize us,” said Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House senior director of research on countering authoritarianism. “He tries to short-circuit any discussion of responsibility.”

This all seems a bit academic at the moment for the Turkish NGOs rushing to respond to the disaster. In the days to come, they will no doubt display the extraordinary energy and stamina I witnessed in Gujarat and Haiti. But as they pause to catch their breath, they may wonder how much more help they could have provided — and how many more lives they could have saved — if presidential paranoia hadn’t weakened their hands.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• This is how Finland, Sweden and NATO should deal with Erdogan: Andreas Kluth

• The most important elections in the world 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 views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on foreign affairs. Before that, he was editor-in-chief at Hindustan Times, editor-in-chief at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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