Q: How have the earthquakes impacted the region?
The earthquakes hit 10 cities at the same time in the southeastern part of Turkey. Nearly 15 million people were affected. Twelve thousand buildings collapsed and more than 35,000 people died. It’s one of the worst disasters in Turkish history.
There is massive pain. Out of this pain has come incredible solidarity. Aid is going to the affected cities. There has been so much growth in individual giving, it’s just unbelievable. We all feel the responsibility to do something.
The psychological pain is hard to overcome for all of us. I live on the other side of the country in Istanbul, but it’s really hard to continue our work. Yet, we have to.
Q: Where does the response stand now?
We’re still in the emergency relief phase. Rescue activities have come to an end, but bodies are still being pulled out of the rubble. So many lost their homes; there’s tremendous need for shelter. Clean water, food, toilets—basic human needs are not met yet.
There is a governmental organization coordinating relief and rescue efforts. They invited rescue teams from 75 countries, but still it wasn’t enough because so many buildings were destroyed across 10 cities.
Many NGOs are in the field. Thousands of volunteers are assisting. Civil society is working with the government but it’s such a huge crisis that it’s really difficult to address everything.
Civil society is very vibrant and competent; NGOs mobilized very quickly to address the needs of their target groups. Private sector and philanthropy mobilized their resources to meet the urgent needs. They are making plans for longer-term recovery, as it will take years, maybe decades, to fully recover.
Q: What needs to happen in coming days and weeks?
Once everyone has a shelter and all the hygiene conditions have been met—which may take several months—and once all the collapsed buildings are cleared, the need is going to be just incredible. Housing, schools, and hospitals all collapsed. The region will need to be rebuilt. The investments for recovery will be very large, and the government will not be able to cover all of them.
Right now, there is a lot of aid. But later on, it’s natural that the urgency will fade away. Volunteers will go back to their homes and to their jobs. At that point, the local grassroots NGOs that were part of the region’s civil society before the disaster will be incredibly important.
I’m the secretary general of Third Sector Foundation of Turkey, which is an organization to strengthen civil society in Turkey. We are in close contact with the groups working on the ground. We are monitoring what they need and helping as we can, but our role is mostly to be thinking about the medium and longer term, when there will be a need for rehabilitation and restoration.
Q: Does the nonprofit sector have the capacity it needs to take care of that longer term?
Growth of the sector is needed. Turkish civil society is very lively, very active, but grant making is not a common practice. Philanthropists support causes that they care about but not by donating to grassroots organizations. Also, there is no systematic government funding mechanism going to civil society. So we are convening with philanthropists, foundations, and grant makers in Turkey and abroad, particularly Europe, to discuss a coordinated response to the needs.
Right now, there is a lot of aid coming from everywhere, not only from Turkey, but also from abroad. But later on, it’s natural that the urgency will fade away. Volunteers will go back to their homes and to their jobs. After the acute phase, the work to restore the region will remain. At that point the local grassroots NGOs that were part of the region’s civil society before the disaster will be incredibly important.
I’m hopeful that funders will understand the need to allocate funds for grassroots development, but these are preliminary conversations. We don’t have clarity at the moment. Everything is so much in chaos still. Once the dust settles a little bit, we will have more visibility about the longer-term needs, but because so many neighborhoods were completely destroyed, we know it will take time and money and effort to rebuild.
Q: Many buildings that collapsed weren’t built to code. And the government allowed that. What is your understanding of that issue?
It’s a huge problem, unfortunately. Turkey’s building standards are high. The problem is that they are not applied consistently. You can see the neighborhoods where a municipality didn’t allow any deviation from earthquake standards; the buildings are in good shape. There are few of those neighborhoods.
In 1999, we had a big earthquake in Istanbul. Twenty thousand people died. We could have learned the importance of following building standards then. I hope we demand strict compliance now because the region is on multiple fault lines. An earthquake with a magnitude above 7 is a near certainty for Istanbul in the years to come. So I sincerely hope that from now on municipalities ensure that buildings are built according to the rules.
It’s the 100-year anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. After COVID, this could be such a joyful celebration, but right now it’s just very complex for all of us. The economy was already suffering badly. Last year, inflation reached triple-digit numbers. Elections are coming up in May. I don’t know whether this disaster will have any impact on that. It has already become a unique year that will be remembered for many generations.
Q: Are there stories you have heard from people working on the ground that convey the impact of the disaster?
It’s better that I don’t tell those stories. I mean, they’re very sad. I would say instead that I believe the solidarity that is coming out of this pain is very valuable, and we need to nurture the people who live there, who want to make positive change. That will create another story, hopefully a more positive story.
Q: How can people reading this help?
They can donate money that will be critical for the relief and the rehabilitation efforts. One of the easiest ways is to donate through Charities Aid Foundation America (CAF America) or the Turkish Philanthropy Funds. For both organizations donations are tax deductible in the U.S. and they work with pre-validated, trusted NGOs in Turkey. In the UK there is an organization called Turkey Mozaik. However it’s done, we need to combine forces, all of us—individuals, philanthropists, foundations, governments, everybody—to really support the region as it recovers.