Turkey’s approach to development and peacebuilding: It’s not all about money!


Kristoffer Nilaus Tarp and Maria Stage, The Council for International Conflict Resolution (RIKO) in Denmark

To understand what has changed in Turkey’s peacebuilding strategy in recent years, it is important to remember a number of facts about contemporary Turkey as a donor country. First of all, Turkey dedicated over $7.9 billion of development assistance in 2016, nearly 85% of which was generated by the state. Second, Turkey overwhelmingly opted to provide its ODA via bilateral means (96%), and it should be noted that 94% of this was for official humanitarian aid ($5.87 billion). Finally, it is also important to note that Turkey counts its assistance to Syrian refugees in its own territory as part of this ODA, and that, in fact, this constitutes the lion’s share of $5.85 billion (TIKA, 2018). From this perspective, by simply looking at the amount of ODA provided by Turkey and to whom, the country may not seem to be potentially one of the most important peacebuilding actors globally. However, a number of other facts should also be borne in mind for a more advanced judgment.

Only a decade ago, Turkey’s ODA was less than $1billion; in fact, in 2002 it was only $85 million. In 2016, in comparison to OECD/DAC member countries, Turkey was the 6th most generous country after the United States, Germany, UK, Japan and France. In terms of net ODA/GNI rates, its 0.76% ratio meant it rose to 4th position after Norway, Luxembourg and Sweden (TIKA, 2018). In terms of solely humanitarian assistance contributions, Turkey was number two in the world after the US but number one in terms of percentage of GNI (Development Initiatives, 2018). These figures initially tell us a number of things. Firstly, that Turkey has been an increasingly generous donor of humanitarian assistance, but not necessarily the type of ODA that would be used for peacebuilding activities. Secondly, there is a question of whether Turkey would sustain such a high level of assistance once the Syrian refugee crisis is over. As for the latter, only time will tell whether this will be the case. For the former, it is important to pay more careful attention to the way that Turkey provides its ODA and what impact it seems to be having for peacebuilding and development.

Sucuoglu and Sazak (2016) describe Turkey’s peacebuilding approach as having four main characteristics - non-conditionality, bilateralism, direct delivery on the ground and a multi-stakeholder approach. All of these characteristics could be directly observed in Turkey’s engagement in Somalia (Ozerdem, 2016) which is probably one of Turkey’s most comprehensive humanitarian assistance and development programmes in recent times. Why do these characteristics matter? First of all, Turkey seems to be approaching its local partners from a ‘solidarity’ perspective and the principle of non-conditionality creates a strong basis of trust with recipient governments, as has been the case in Somalia. As our preceding review of Turkish ODA statistics shows, Turkey acts as a bilateral actor and primarily works with governments. The main advantage of such an approach is that although in comparison to OECD/DAC countries, Turkey’s development and peacebuilding assistance is very modest, it tends to get much more visibility. Such a bilateral approach also creates better opportunities to link its humanitarian assistance (which, as we have seen, is far higher) with development priorities.

In fact, it is these linkages, and the way that they are operationalized through the remaining two characteristics, that make Turkish assistance distinctive. Whether in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Somalia, one particular trait of the Turkish response has its direct, hands-on nature and focus on working with conflict affected communities on a day-to-day basis. Turkish aid actors, whether official or civil society, tend to be on the ground in the most challenging environments, winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of local people with such a visible presence of solidarity. Apart from its direct engagement methodology, Turkish assistance has also concentrated on prioritizing the tangible needs of local people, whether this has been by reconstructing infrastructure, collecting rubbish, opening orphanages and hospitals, running agriculture assistance programmes or providing scholarships to study at Turkish universities. In fact, nearly 90% of Turkish ODA assistance in 2016 was dedicated to socio-economic infrastructure and services such as education, health, water and sanitation, transport and communications (TIKA, 2018). Finally, in addition to its ODA Turkey seems adept at mobilizing its diplomatic means, private sector companies, aid agencies, religious charities and municipalities in such efforts. For example, in 2016 Turkish NGOs provided more than $655 million in assistance while the Turkish ODA for development was just around $820 million. Meanwhile, the Turkish private sector invested nearly $600 million in developing countries in the same year (TIKA, 2018). Even the country’s flagship carrier, Turkish Airlines, seems to get in on the act. Whenever Turkey starts to work in a particular developing or conflict affected country, Turkish Airlines is also likely to set up flight connections in tandem. Such a multi-track and multi-stakeholder approach is probably one of the most visible characteristics of the Turkish response, bringing with it greater opportunities for wider and more effective impact.

With these characteristics in mind, one of the main advantages of the Turkish response is the way enables assistance to be delivered in relatively more efficient ways, as it directly engages with beneficiaries. What is more, rather than creating parallel systems in the provision of services such as health and education, the Turkish approach is more likely to support existing institutional structures within the development realm. It is through such an approach that specific assistance for peacebuilding efforts could be better targeted, and in contexts as Afghanistan and Somalia, Turkey has channeled its efforts more towards security sector reform initiatives. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that Turkey’s peacebuilding efforts are more in the realm of statebuilding. The re-structuring of national armies, training of soldiers and police, and modernization of civil service capabilities are often key areas of engagement for Turkey in war-torn countries. Through its multi-stakeholder approach, Turkey’s peacebuilding strategy seems to be adopting more appropriate partnerships at the local context, as there tend to be stronger institutional matches whether they are between municipal, religious, security or private sector actors. Subsequently, such decentralization in the overall Turkish aid response and less emphasis on conditionality often mean more meaningful accountability pathways as they are likely to promote greater local ownership.

However, to make Turkey’s peacebuilding efforts more effective, there are four main areas that would require further attention:

Coordination: due to this multi-stakeholder approach, challenges of coordination can arise, as the engagement of various ministries or main state aid actors can sometimes take place in an uncoordinated manner (Ozerdem, 2016). The advantage of a decentralized approach, which provides opportunities of working with appropriate counterparts directly, also create challenges of coordination, and this is something that the Turkish peacebuilding strategy is yet to resolve.

Impact of bilateralism: with its significant ODA budget, Turkey is one of the most significant aid donor countries today. Especially, if it decides to maintain the current spending for ODA in the future even after the Syrian refugee crisis, then Turkey might want to revisit its bilateralism strategy. More integration into the global aid sector could provide different opportunities than achieving a high level of visibility with relatively modest levels of assistance for development and peacebuilding. Acting as a lone actor in the aid world should be considered with care, as its alternative could mean more respect and recognition from other global aid actors.

Lack of Monitoring & Evaluation: the peacebuilding efforts and ODA provision by Turkey in general seem to be providing a number of unique characteristics for effectiveness and efficiency. However, there is a lack of independent evaluation of Turkish aid efforts and they do not seem to be an integral part of the way Turkey provides its ODA assistance. This is likely to raise a number of question marks about the real added value of the Turkish ODA provision, and it would only be in the interest of Turkey to be able to transfer good practice from such engagements.

Training of aid staff: as a relatively new actor in the global aid sector, one of the main challenges for Turkish peacebuilding effectiveness will be around the availability of qualified personnel to work in such programmes. Through volunteerism in general, but specifically in terms of humanitarian aid programmes, Turkish aid actors have accumulated a comprehensive level of experience. However, wider engagement in peacebuilding contexts which are politically much more challenging will require aid personnel with different types of skills and academic training. There is a lack of humanitarian and peacebuilding postgraduate and training opportunities in Turkey, and this will be an important challenge for the country to resolve in order to sustain its efforts through well qualified and experienced personnel.

Nevertheless, there might also be some good practice lessons for Germany to learn from Turkey’s peacebuilding efforts. This should be done, of course, with the caveat that in 2016, Germany’s ODA spending was nearly three times more than Turkey’s. Although its ODA/GNI ratio was slightly lower than Turkey’s, and according to Donor Tracker (2018), this ratio has been decreasing in 2017 and 2018,  Germany’s cooperation and development assistance within the total ODA reached a significant level of 30% in 2016 and this will continue to increase. Considering such trends, it would be good for Germany to develop a more nuanced understanding of Turkey’s peacebuilding approach in terms of its four main characteristics, and their impact on the ground. Whether these could be integrated into German assistance strategies, and how this could be done would require further studies and investigation. But however this is done, being present on the ground, ensuring local ownership, enabling local institutions and being able to build a good level of trust with local actors should always be considered as the ‘ABC’ of good peacebuilding practice.


Development Initiatives, 2018. Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2017

Donor Tracker, 2018, Germany

Ozerdem, Alpaslan, 2016. Turkey as a Rising Power: An Emerging Global Humanitarian Actor in Zeynep Sezgin and Dennis Dijkzeul (eds.) The New Humanitarians in International Practice: Emerging Actors and Contested Principles. London: Routledge.

Sucuoglu, Gizem and Sazak, Onur, 2016. ‘The New Kid on the Block: Turkey’s Shifting Approaches to Peacebuilding’. Rising Powers Quarterly, Vol. 1, Issue. 2, pp: 69-91.

TIKA, 2018, Turkish Development Assistance 2016