For years, Turkey has pursued an approach that stresses international aid and development after what the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) articulated in 2013 as “humanitarian diplomacy”, or more recently as an “enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy”.
While shows of global solidarity and pledges of support often accompany massive natural disasters, the reputation cultivated by Ankara in recent years has, at least in part, been reflected in the international response to the devastating earthquakes that have rocked the country and neighbouring Syria since February 6.
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The disaster has left more than 42,000 people dead in Turkey and killed at least 5,900 in Syria, while crumbling vast swaths of the cityscape and displacing millions.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington would continue to provide aid to Turkey “just as Turkey has so often contributed its own humanitarian rescue experts to so many other countries in the past”.
The United Nations resident coordinator in Turkey, Alvaro Rodriguez, pointed to the country’s years-long hosting of about 3.7 million Syrian refugees – which has given the country the world’s largest refugee population amid Syria’s continuing war – as well as aid “Turkey has provided other countries in their time of need”.
“So, people should remember that and be generous because [Turkey] has been generous to others,” he told Anadolu.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif specifically cited Turkey’s past support as he pledged solidarity, telling Anadolu Agency that Ankara “went the extra mile to help their brothers and sisters, whether it was an earthquake in 2005, floods in 2010, or floods last year in Pakistan”.
As of February 18, Turkey said 102 countries had offered assistance, with at least 74 international rescue teams deployed.
Top aid has included $1.78bn from the World Bank, $185m from the United States, and $100m from the United Arab Emirates.
‘Enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy’
Analysts say Turkey’s reputation as a global leader in humanitarian aid – a wide category that typically encompasses developmental and emergency assistance – has been part of a swift and deliberate strategy.
The strategy has been defined by an emphasis on bilateral humanitarian intervention as opposed to funding to multilateral organisations.
That enables greater control over where deliveries go while fostering direct engagement with local and national authorities and boosting visibility on the ground, said Volkan Şeyşane, an assistant professor of international relations at Turkey’s Anadolu University.
“Turkey is one of the most telling examples of state-led humanitarian diplomacy,” Şeyşane told Al Jazeera, adding the “self-conscious” strategy has been borne out of “a desire to become an active international actor in a changing international environment”.
“So they use humanitarian diplomacy in order to portray Turkey both as a compassionate and powerful country.”
The approach began to develop following the AK Party’s ascension to power in 2002. It flourished amid humanitarian crises in the wake of the Arab Spring, which began in 2011 and solidified with major aid overtures to Somalia beginning from 2011 and in becoming the first country outside of the UN to directly provide aid to Rohingya people living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2012.
From 2005 to 2019, according to official government data, Turkey’s official emergency and humanitarian aid increased from $178m annually to $7.5bn.
In 2017, Turkey topped the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report of international aid provided by individual countries. However, the ranking noted that Ankara’s contribution of at least $8bn was not directly comparable with other countries, since the voluntarily reported data it provided included large expenditures on Syrian refugees living inside Turkey.
In 2021, Turkey was in the top spot in terms of the proportion of its gross national income allocated to international aid, at 0.86 percent.
And despite Turkey’s overall humanitarian aid decreasing by more than 23 percent from the previous year to about $5.6bn in 2022, it still ranked second only to the US in international humanitarian funding, according to the most recent Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2022, which contained the same caveat as the earlier report.
Crisis-hit countries respond
Julia Steets, director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), questioned how burnished Turkey’s humanitarian reputation remains on the global stage and the degree to which it has and will affect the humanitarian response, which “is meant to be guided by the needs of the affected people, not by politics”.
She noted Ankara likely experienced a “high point” in 2016 when it hosted the World Humanitarian Summit, a first of its kind UN-organised event meant to overhaul global aid structures. At the time, Turkey was showing it “walked the talk by maintaining an open-door policy for Syrian refugees” and by pioneering “innovative approaches in very difficult contexts like Somalia”, Steets said.
She added that political friction related to Syrian refugee resettlement, a continuing campaign against Kurdish groups along the border with Syria, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “increasing authoritarianism”, which critics say has included the consolidation of power through a constitutional overhaul, crackdowns on dissent and increasing military interventionism abroad, have largely eroded the lustre.
“I would argue that whatever external humanitarian engagement of the Turkish government remained did not have a significant effect on the government’s reputation,” Steets told Al Jazeera.
Nevertheless, the response to the earthquake from several countries dealing with their own crises appears to underline Turkey’s influence.
In drought-ravaged Somalia, where Turkey has spearheaded a wide-scale, at times controversial, development initiative, the government has launched a fundraising push, with legislators voting to provide part of their salaries to Turkish recovery efforts and the country’s business community reportedly pledging $3m in aid.
Appeals for medicine and food from Turkey’s ambassador to Bangladesh – where Turkey has been a key player in providing aid to Rohingya refugees – were quickly met with pledges of support.
The Taliban government in Afghanistan, where Turkey has emerged as a major development player since the group took over in 2021, has pledged $165,000, despite the country’s own dire economic straits.
Federico Donelli, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Trieste in Italy, noted that media coverage of the earthquake across Africa “has no precedent for Turkish natural or political events”.
“One episode that struck me was that major regional players such as South Africa, Ethiopia, and even countries with many domestic problems, such as Sudan, Burundi and Somalia, promptly sent relief teams to Turkey,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Regardless of resource availability and the kind of relationship with Ankara, all African countries have tried to make their closeness to Turkey felt. This reaction is undoubtedly the outcome of a foreign policy that has used various tools, including humanitarian diplomacy, to increase Turkish presence and exposure on the international chessboard.”
Need still massive
Whatever goodwill Turkey has developed on the global stage also has the potential to dovetail into so-called “disaster diplomacy”, a term describing the more neutral setting in which opposing countries can engage in the wake of natural disasters, according to Grady Wilson, associate director of the Atlantic Council, a US-based think tank, in Turkey.
“The classic example is the 1999 Turkey-Greece earthquake diplomacy,” he told Al Jazeera. “The mutual assistance and shared loss helped galvanise a normalisation that led to the biggest calm in bilateral relations probably in modern history.
“More broadly, I think countries around the region and globally recognise an opportunity, removed from political complexities, to demonstrate solidarity and generate goodwill. In diplomacy, an opening can be anything.”
GPPi’s Steets noted that with Turkey only recently winding down its rescue operations, the need for support in the coming months will remain huge: the UN has appealed for $1bn for Turkey and nearly $400m for Syria.
“It is still much too early to tell how much assistance will flow to Turkey. Governments certainly seemed to dispatch as many search and rescue teams as they could,” she said.
“However, the magnitude of needs is huge and traditional donor countries are already very stretched with the war in Ukraine and other crises around the world. It is therefore highly likely that the Turkish government and public will perceive aid efforts as insufficient, almost no matter how hard humanitarian donors and organisations try.”