The Current State of Membership and Volunteering in Civil Society Organizations in Turkey

There are two legal forms of voluntary entities in Turkey, foundations and membership organizations. Foundations (vakifs) are asset-based entities with an endowment whose main purpose is to advance the common or public good (health, education, environment, etc.). Most foundations in Turkey either use the earnings from their endowments or raise funds to realize their goals (operating) rather than providing funds to other organizations (grantmaking) (Bikmen, 2006). Organizations are member-based entities with various purposes such as benefiting the public good, supporting specific groups, or advancing certain interests (Bikmen, 2006). The last decade witnessed an increase in both the number of foundations and organizations in Turkey. From 2006 to 2014, the number of foundations increased from 4399 to 4968 (Directorate General of Foundations, 2015) while the number of active organizations increased from 73,166 in 2006 to 104,414 in 2014 (Department of Associations, 2015a). Both increased rapidly, but the proportional increase in the number of organizations (42.7 %) is much higher than the proportional increase in the number of foundations (13 %). This is probably because foundations require an initial investment in an endowment, whereas organizations only require a group of like-minded people willing to work together to found one.

Membership in organizations increased along with the number of organizations, from 8,084,286 people in 2006 to 10,207,788 in 2014 (Department of Associations, 2015b), accounting for 13 % of Turkey’s population of 78 million during that time. While the State Department of Associations does not publish official number of volunteers in civil society organizations, Directorate General of Foundations annually publishes the number of volunteers working for the foundations (TUSEV, 2014). In 2013, there were 1,107,827 volunteers in 606 foundations that work with volunteers (Directorate General of Foundations, 2015), making up roughly 1.5 % of Turkey’s population of approximately 77 million during that time.

While foundation volunteers account for only a fraction of the total number of volunteers in Turkey, other sources of data estimate that the proportion of the population who is a member or a volunteer of an organization is low. According to the World Value Survey (WVS) in 1999 and 2007, only 4.5 and 5.3 % of the population was members of social and political civil society organizations, respectively. Volunteering with social organizations was 2.5 % while this number for political organizations was 4.2 % (i§duygu et al., 2011). According to the Civil Society Index (CSI), less than 10 % of the population undertake volunteer work on a regular basis (at least once a year), and on average, volunteers devote 5.1-8 h to volunteer work per month (Bikmen, 2006). Similarly, according to the 2014 World Giving Index prepared by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), only 5 % of the population of Turkey volunteers, 12 % makes donations to a civil society organization, and 38 % helps a stranger in need. These numbers place Turkey 128 th among the 153 countries in the study. Turkey’s level of volunteering is only slightly lower than that of its neighbors such as Greece (10 %), Armenia (7 %), and Bulgaria (7 %), but much lower than neighboring Georgia (18 %), Iran (24 %), Cyprus (25 %), and Iraq (18 %) (Charities Aid Foundation, 2014).

While few citizens volunteer, those who do so volunteer intensely and frequently. For instance, 30 % of social volunteers and 21.6 % of political volunteers are active in at least two civil society organizations (I?duygu et al., 2011). Another survey conducted in 2008 by Educations Volunteers Foundation of Turkey (TEGV hereafter)-Infakto found that “about 50 % of volunteers commit 1-4 h, 21 % commit 5-8 h while 23 % commit more than 9 h a week to their volunteer work” (i§duygu et al., 2011, pp. 72-73).

As all these numbers reveal, civil society organizations are not powerful and effective enough given the low numbers of members and volunteers. While Sivil Toplum Endeksi Projesi [the Civil Society Index Project] (STEP) pointed out in 2005 that Turkey’s civil society organizations are more developed and efficient than they were 20 years ago, the second round of STEP in 2010 stated that they could not maintain the accelerated pace of their previous development (i?duygu et al., 2011). Although Turkey has more volunteers and civil society organizations than ever before, its history of government oppression causes it to lag behind much of the rest of Europe and the Middle East in its level of volunteers. Civil society organizations themselves also indicated low levels and a weak culture of volunteering, both at local and national levels, as their second most important problem, following the inadequacy of financial resources as the most important problem (TACSO, 2011). It is therefore very hard for civil society organizations to have a significant impact on social and political life.

There are various reasons why people do not participate in and volunteer for civil society organizations. As Kalaycioglu (2002) pointed out, high level of interpersonal distrust is one of the reasons why people do not work for civil society organizations. Research conducted in 1996 found that 90 % of voting age Turks do not trust people, and the World Values Survey also revealed that the Turks’ interpersonal trust rates rank at the bottom of a list of 43 countries (Kalaycioglu, 2002). Another reason, as suggested by Kalaycioglu (2002), might be that large and effective civil society organizations cooperate with the state rather than with other organizations in order to apply pressure to the state. These organizations “do not consider the state as an adversary but as an ally to be mobilized against their competitors” (Kalaycioglu,

2002, p. 258). Furthermore, civil society in Turkey has sometimes been used as a tool to pursue various ideological agendas (Keyman & Oni§, 2007). As Karaman and Aras (2000) argue, some civil society organizations have historically acted as state tools designed to shape public opinion around the official state ideology. This close and “friendly” relationship with the state has made the organizations’ survival dependent on state support, and eventually caused their further underdevelopment.

As the historical development of the relationship between the state and civil society organizations reveals, another reason why Turkish society could not create a developed civil society is that the Turkish state has had a nonsympathetic and sometimes repressive attitude toward nongovernmental political actors. Turkish political culture does not value people’s participation and contribution in political life and does not consider the people’s making known their interests and demands to the state to be important for developing a healthy democracy. The roots of this understanding might be traced back to the establishment of the republic, whose founders sought to increase state power to erect a completely new political and cultural structure. This is reflected by the various confrontations between the state and civil society, which usually engenders the closure, suspension, or trials of civil society organizations due to their actions.

The types of organizations that have problems with the state have changed over the years with changes in the political context. For example, in the republic’s early years, any organizations challenging the nation-building process were suppressed. After the 1997 military intervention, Islamic organizations had many problems with the state. In 2009, some of the members and administrators of the ADD (Association of Kemalist Thinking) and CYDD (Association for the Support for Contemporary Life) were arrested or interrogated because of their supposedly close association with an underground organization that was preparing a coup against the current civilian government in alliance with some members of military. A former ADD president, a retired general, was imprisoned in 2008 because of his involvement in this underground organization.

Thus, the historical development of civil society organizations, especially their relationship with the state, has had an important effect on Turkish people’s reluctance to become a member or a volunteer of an organization. Depending on the political context of the country, the Turkish state either banned or supported some civil society organizations. This approach to civil society organizations became tradition that discourages people from joining and volunteering for civil society organizations.

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