Turkey's embattled civil society fears worst as foreign funding dries up

By Dorian Jones - RFI
DEC 2, 2023 LISTEN

Civil society groups in Turkey say their future hangs in the balance as more and more international donors pull out or cut back their support. Overseas funding is drying up as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan steps up his crackdown against critical voices.

Buoyed by his re-election in May, Erdogan is continuing to make life difficult for elements of Turkey's civil society that he accuses of threatening democracy.

Now organisations like Spod, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in Istanbul, are also facing a financial battle for survival. Since the elections, fewer of the group's applications for international funding are being accepted, claims Spod's general coordinator Ogulcan Yediveren.

"It is the data, it's not an evaluation," he says. "It is almost impossible to continue do all these activities based on volunteering. So this funding is important for organisations to survive."

Yediveren warns the shortfall in funding will inevitably impact the group's activities, which include providing telephone helplines and legal and psychological support for LGBTQ+ people.  

International funding is Spod's only source of income, he explains. "We don't have any other financial resource. So as long as we receive these international funds, we can continue our activities."

Shifting priorities

The crackdown is adding to international donors' concerns over how effective Turkish civil society organisations really are. 

"I heard and I was told that donors do not see the output, the impact of such things – the outcome, effectively, for the money that they invest in Turkey," says Sinan Gokcen, head of the Turkish branch of the Sweden-based Civil Rights Defenders group.

"They are thinking: 'Well, we've been supporting civil society organisations for several years but we don't see any change.'"

Gokcen believes there has been a decline in international funding as a result.

"This has been intensified, especially after the election period," he says. "And finally, for some big donors, the war in Ukraine took their money – they prioritised supporting civil society organisations within Ukraine."

The earthquakes in southern Turkey in February also saw donors switch support away from civil society organisations and towards humanitarian relief.


The list of major donors withdrawing their support continues to grow. 

Open Society Foundations, founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, was once a significant supporter of Turkey's civil society – until it pulled out in 2018, blaming government pressure.

"Open Society is no longer funding in Turkey – I think it was around 2 million dollars for civil society and an extra 2 million funding for refugee organisations," says Ekrem Murat Celikkan, co-director of Hafiza Merkezi, an association working to support human rights and justice. 

"The Chrest Foundation from the US also stopped funding because it was targeted by the pro-government press severely," he adds, recounting that both the family that runs the foundation and the groups they supported were subjected to hostile coverage.

The Chrest Foundation confirmed in an email it was ending its financial support of civil society in Turkey, citing unspecified reasons. But the foundation said some groups may be eligible for support in the future. 

Philanthropist jailed

Domestic financial support is also drying up after Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala was given a life sentence for seeking to overthrow the government.

Kavala was imprisoned for supposedly backing the 2013 Gezi Park protests against Erdogan's rule – a decision condemned by both Washington and the European Court of Human Rights.

But Erdogan robustly defends the verdict.
"There is a person who financed the terrorists in the Gezi events. Now he is behind bars," Erdogan bellowed in a 2018 speech, referring to Kavala without naming him.

"And who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros. This person sends people across the world to divide and tear up nations and uses the large amount of money he possesses to this effect."

Soros's Open Society Foundations denied any link to the protests, and pulled out of Turkey days after Erdogan's speech.

No more space to shrink

Erdogan routinely accuses civil society groups of conspiring against him with international donors. 

The president is continuing to introduce new controls, while prominent members of civil society have found themselves arrested and prosecuted.

“We shrank and shrank and there's no space to shrink anymore. So this is the end of the story," warns Gokcen of Civil Rights Defenders. "We are squeezed in a very narrow field in terms of civil society activism and organisations."

For Yediveren, who continues to send applications for international funding for Spod amid renewed attacks on Turkey's LBGTQ+ communities, the future is bleak. 

"If these civil society organisations collapse, there will be no independent support mechanism to empower ourselves," he warns.

"Probably we will find new ways to come together, and somehow we will create a safe space for ourselves, but probably we will not be as visible as now. And visibility is very important, because this polarisation also feeds homophobia."