Turkish aid to Somalia: A new pulse in Africa

Turkey’s active support to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Somalia part of the country’s new foreign policy.

Somalia - Famine
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan visit a camp for displaced people in Mogadishu where he has promised to build schools, roads and hospitals [Reuters]

As drought hits Somalia, resulting in the famine of the century, the international system has yet to come up with a comprehensive solution to the ongoing human tragedy in the Horn of Africa.

In the midst of all the dust and poor security measures, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the only leader to visit Somalia together with his crowded delegation of Turkish politicians, celebrities, journalists and representatives of aid organisations.

Is Turkey running a flamboyant public relations campaign to secure its rise as an emerging world leader or is it really into raising a voice of conscience in line with its new policy of supporting the Least Developed Countries (LDCs)? Whatever the reason, Erdogan’s latest visit to Somalia reminds us of the 192 other UN leaders who stayed home.  

The Least Developed Countries (LDCs), consisting of 48 states including Somalia, remain in a power vacuum within the international system. The common approach of leading international actors towards the LDCs has so far been based on risk and burden management. The LDCs today are pushed to the margins of the international system by those powers that once colonised them. Today, they do not only struggle with poverty as a result of protracted colonisation, but also have to cope with the environmental impacts of the Western development myth. They are both the least contributing countries to climate change and yet most vulnerable to it. The famine Somalia faces today is only a small consequence of climate change caused by the so-called developed world.

Turkey’s new foreign policy

In the last decade, in line with its new multilateral foreign policy, Turkey has been active in geographies it had remained distant from throughout the history of the Republic such as Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. Turkey’s political, economic, and civil initiatives in Africa today were beyond the imagination of many Turks only a decade ago who had mainly regarded this continent as a land better to be refrained from.

Turkey is a major donor in Africa. It has several active schools operating all around the continent. It conducts on field aid operations through organisations such as Turkish Red Crescent, Doctors Worldwide, Kimse Yok Mu, and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation. Furthermore, it is the first non-Western country to host the the fourth UN Conference on the LDCs for the following decade.

What is noteworthy in terms of Turkey’s African opening is the sincere and strong public support in favour of Turkey’s aid initiative for Africa. For instance, so far around $250m in donations have been sent to Somalia, collected mainly through public donations. The holy month of Ramadan played a significant part in arousing public sentiments for Somalia, but it is still interesting to see how public aid in Turkey has been diversified in recent years.

While in the past Turkish people preferred to give aid to near-by in needs, today their hands reach out to people in distant parts of the world regardless of their nationality or religion. A few other examples of this have been Haiti, Pakistan, Japan, and Gaza. One simple reason of this could be Turkey’s fast adaptation to the process of globalisation which finds embodiment inter alia in the boosting of social media networks followed by a free flow of information about the world agenda.

Celebrity power

Another unspoken reason may be the “total-performance” understanding of the new Turkish foreign policy that includes and mobilises non-state actors such as NGOs, business circles, think-tanks, and public intellectual figures in the process of foreign policy making.

Turkey has even created its own celebrity ambassadors by including famous figures such as Nihat Dogan, the star of TV reality show Survivor or Ajda Pekkan, the Diva of Turkish Pop, reminding us of Hollywood versions of celebrity ambassadors such as Angelina Jolie. Through this total-performance policy, there is a mutual interaction between the public and the policy makers in which either sides may be effective in shaping a policy as well as legitimising it.

Turkey has conspicuously taken a major initiative to fill the gap of leadership in Africa whether politically or on civil grounds. It remains unclear how Turkey will succeed in bringing its idealism into practice in such volatile climate. It may either follow conventional ways, through the UN and current international system, or it may choose to create an alternative methodology by highlighting its non-Western identity, non-colonial past and historical roots, and cultural links as it has done in other elements of its new foreign policy practice. A third option would be harmonising both ways in order to transform the system from within by taking legitimate short cuts in dealing with problems.

It is apparent that Turkey will take more concrete steps in engaging Africa in the days to come. Erdogan has already made pledges that Turkey will open an embassy, build roads, and open more schools and hospitals in Somalia. Whatever methodology Turkey may choose, it should refrain from exhibiting a patronising attitude and should consider the significance of justice and equity as well as the sustainability of the aid. We are yet to see whether Turkey’s initiatives will give a new pulse to the perception towards Africa within the current international system. 

Pinar Akpinar is Vice Director at Center for International Conflict Resolution at Yalova University, Turkey. She is also a PhD candidate at Keele University, UK.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.