‘I work as an NGO at a public institution’

‘I work as an NGO at a public institution’

I don’t know, but if I were to conduct an interview with Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Kadir Topbaş and asked him, “In those zones of urban transformation, do you, yourself, as the municipality, found nongovernmental organizations?” I wonder if he would respond to me like the title of this piece. I don’t think so.

Recently, I took a look at the municipality’s magazine, the Istanbul Bulletin (İstanbul Bülteni). Topbaş visited the mayor of Mecca, Osama al-Baar, to discuss “urban transformation practices in Istanbul.”

“First, we have them form a nongovernmental organization in the transformation zones. They get organized internally. We follow up with them,” he said.

We get them to form an NGO? This sounds as weird as the sentence “I work as an NGO for the government.” We are not talking about the municipality encouraging NGOs or funding them, we are actually talking about the production of a “pseudo-NGO.” I am not so sure about the Turkish translation but these kinds of veiled structures are called “gongo” in the West, standing for government organized nongovernmental organization (GONGO). I’m sorry, in democratic countries gongos are not heard of.

For example in Tarlabaşı and in Sulukule, there had already been instances of these kinds of NGOs that were “founded by them.” I want to tell you a story about Erdoğan Bayraktar, the environment and urban planning minister, which demonstrates the perception of NGOs. It may or may not be “founded by them,” but the Demolition Contractors Association (YMDER) is an organization that does not oppose urban transformation. Despite that, Minister Bayraktar was able to declare that he found the name of the association “too negative” and asked them to change it. Very democratic.

Where is the Van aid?

A couple of days later, I got hold of the 2012 Civil Society Report of the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TÜSEV). Within the framework of freedom of association, legislation and the relationship between the government and NGOs, the report documented problems and analyzed cases. Let me convey these extracts from the report that caught my attention together with my views on them. (For the report, see: www.tusev.org.tr)

The essential problems in practice seem to be the lack of adequate definitions and transparency, as well as vagueness that makes arbitrariness possible. The criteria on which the NGOs benefit from public funding are not clear, as is the question of how they are invited by government institutions to express their views. This vagueness brings to mind the politically closeness-remoteness motivation. Likewise, by including the anti-terror law, the misdemeanor law and the law of police powers in the matter, it is particularly possible to deactivate rights-based NGOs. We know how the Sarmaşık Association (to fight poverty) and the Van Women’s Association (VAKAD) have been made to become “terror organizations.”

There is also the auditing phase. TÜSEV was not able to find answers, even though they asked, about which NGOs were audited in 2012, as well as which fines were levied on them and how often. We can imagine the difference between those NGOs that have never been audited for years and those which face an auditing five times a year. On the other hand, we can never actually gain a grasp of the fiscal structures of certain NGOs even though their figures are publicized. In certain organizations based on “aid,” because of political closeness, government and nongovernment have become intertwined.

However, some of the volunteers of some associations all of a sudden receive fines for allegedly being “unregistered laborers.” There are even cases where faults are found for “not filing printouts of emails.” That’s also the case for certain LGBT associations who have to ensure the secrecy of their members.

After the Van earthquake, several NGOs conducted activities in the city. However, the category of aid is highly puzzling. The question of “Where is the aid?” asked by 14 women’s organizations was answered by a department of the governor’s office with, “In an account belonging to the Prime Ministry.” There is more mystery in the figures of the Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD): Those NGOs in Turkey, the ones you know the dimensions of, have, somehow, helped Van twice as much as the private sector. On AFAD’s website, it says that the 224 million Turkish Liras collected in humanitarian campaigns were used “to serve Van.” The 2.5 trillion liras transferred to the Housing Development Administration (TOKİ) and to the campaign “Help those building their own house” is indeed quite a different issue.
Pınar Öğünç is a columnist for daily Radikal in which this piece appeared on April 22. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.