The tiger and the virus

The tiger and the virus

Ten years ago, everyone in Turkey was talking about tigers – Anatolian tigers. These up and coming cities in the dry climate of inner Anatolia were the homes of dynamic young firms striking out to make their fortunes. Nowadays, we are only talking about the virus. That, and a series of currency crises seem to have made us forget about the Anatolian tigers. I think Turkey needs to re-focus on what matters most and launch urban governance reform. This means tending to the tigers while controlling the virus. Let me elaborate.

When it comes to Turkey, it is better to take the long view. I know that it may not seem like it, but things usually do change in the long run. In the 1950s, 25 percent of Turkey’s population was living in urban areas. Today, that figure has flipped, with 75 percent being city-dwellers. Over the same period, the fertility rate has dropped from 6.41 to 1.88. While the country’s politics may appear more rumbunctious when looking from the West, Turkey is converging with Europe when it comes to lifestyle and consumption habits. Turkey is changing with and through internal migration.

Through all this urbanization and ongoing social transformation, I see one constant. Turkey is still a very centralized unitary state. In Sweden, another unitary state, 85 percent of public officials are employed by local authorities, whereas in Turkey, only 15 percent of public officials are locally appointed, and 85 percent are centrally appointed. Even in France, which has historically been a model to Turkey’s administrative structure, only 45 percent of public officials work in the central government. Given this picture, Turkey’s 85 percent exceeds the norm. It is the highest among OECD countries.

What does this entail? Even at the local level, it is the central government that calls all the shots in Turkey. This may have worked for a largely rural, dirigiste economy in the 1950s, but it is not how an urban, 21st century OECD economy should be structured. Turkey has changed its government system from a parliamentary to a presidential one recently, yet there was nothing in the reform to address this issue. The system has got more, not less, centralized. Not only are we neglecting the problem, we don’t even seem to think that it is one.

Urban governance is how the government and stakeholders decide how to plan, finance and manage urban areas. This is why Turkey needs an urban governance reform in dealing with both the tigers and the virus more effectively, if you ask me. How?

If you look at the economic capabilities of Turkish cities now, the Anatolian tigers – Gaziantep, Kayseri, Konya, Denizli, and others – have the capacity to make a jump, if appropriate policies are put in place. Yet the issue is how to prepare those appropriate policies. The diversity of these cities in terms of their economic capability sets require city-specific policy decisions. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to tending to tigers. Each one has its own needs, and those can only be discerned by being there for a long time, and having an interest in the fortunes of the city. No centralized planner can ever think and act in that way.

Both tigers and the virus are urban issues, mind you. Why is the virus once again rampant in Turkish cities? Again, the issue is very much related to urban governance. The diversity of cities requires custom-made plans for testing-tracking and isolating. Lockdowns and messages about mask-distancing and hygiene are easier to handle centrally. Yet testing-tracking and isolating requires more local planning, and for all agencies to do their jobs properly and work in tandem. Controlling the virus after reopening needs more local participation to the decision-making process. We now know what happens when this coordination, cooperation and trust is not in place.

Both tigers and the viruses need urban governance reform. We are at a stage where getting rich and staying healthy can only occur through decentralization. The citizens of Turkey need to learn how to cooperate without the state watching over their shoulders.