Turkey: Planing a Leading Role in the Fight Against Hunger

John M. Powell (*)

Turkey’s growing international profile – with its candidacy for both the European Union and the UN Security Council and decision to send troops to Lebanon – has generated considerable debate at home and abroad. Little has so far been said about another pillar of Turkey’s external relations: humanitarian aid.

Its strong tradition of helping those in need has translated into a strong political commitment to assist the victims of natural disasters, conflict and poverty. Turkey has provided considerable humanitarian assistance – food, medical care, shelter and clothing – to countries near and far, without regard to race, religion, language or gender.

Last year, Turkey emerged as a significant donor to the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian agency. Since 2004, Turkey has given US $4.4 million for operations to assist hungry people in Africa and elsewhere.

Table 1: Turkish donations to WFP January 2004-August 2006

Country Amount in USD
Burkina Faso $200,000
Djibouti $100,000
Ethiopia $200,000
Guinea Bissau $100,000
Haiti $100,000
Kenya $200,000
Mali $300,000
Maruritania $300,000
Niger $600,000
Somalia $300,000
Southern Africa (Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe) $500,000
Tajikistan $150,000
Tanzania $200,000
West Africa (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone)  $400,000
TOTAL $4,400,000

This level of generosity puts Turkey as one of the most generous donors to WFP among the new and prospective members of the European Union. Importantly, Turkey’s most recent donations have been made in cash, without conditions, enabling the World Food Programme to buy food close to where it was needed, reducing time and transport costs.

This was particularly important in Niger, when WFP’s alerts to the international community of looming disaster went largely unheeded. Chronic poverty and malnutrition, compounded by a massive plague of locusts brought some areas of the country to extreme hunger, with therapeutic feeding centres overcrowded with painfully thin children and their mothers. Turkey was one of the first – and most flexible – donors to respond to WFP’s appeals.

From recipient to donor

Turkey’s donations to the World Food Programme are especially valuable given that a little over a decade ago the country was receiving assistance from WFP.

From its inception in 1963 through 1994, WFP implemented projects in Turkey valued at more than US $100 million. These operations provided school meals to children in kindergartens, primary and secondary school. They assisted steel, coal and iron miners. They rehabilitated and even built villages. When earthquakes, drought or flood struck, WFP ensured that the survivors had enough to eat. And refugees from Bulgaria, Iraq and Bosnia received emergency food rations. 

Perhaps it is this recent history of assistance which gives Turkey such a strong commitment to providing humanitarian assistance to others.

Crucial humanitarian hub

WFP resumed its presence in Turkey in response to the Iraq crisis of 2003, when the country became one of the major corridors for ensuring that 26 million Iraqis did not go hungry during the conflict. During 2003, WFP purchased US $82 million worth of food, goods, services and transport in Turkey – most of which was destined to its Iraq operation – the largest humanitarian operation in history. At the height of the operation 1,000 tons of food was trucked into Iraq every hour of every day – many of them departing from Turkish warehouses and ports.

WFP’s office in Ankara swung into action again in August 2006, chartering ships laden with food for the people of Lebanon.

Since 2003, WFP has purchased more than US $168 million worth of humanitarian cargo and transport for the poor and hungry of the world. The great bulk of this was in purchases of wheat flour, pulses, high energy biscuits and bulgur wheat. There were only five other nations where WFP purchased more food in 2005.



Origin of WFP food purchases in 2005


Turkey’s unique role in humanitarian aid

Turkey sits in a unique position as a recent recipient of humanitarian assistance, major donor and key source of purchases and shipping to humanitarian operations. The World Food Programme looks to it as a leading partner in the fight against hunger.

Having made tremendous strides in improving child health, education and nutrition over the past decade, there is clearly much Turkey can offer the rest of the world. The number of children who die before their fifth birthday almost halved between 1990 and 2002, from 78 to 41 children for every 1,000 born (1) . Literacy rates have increased from 93 to 97 percent (2). And the percentage of children under five who were undernourished dropped from 10 to 8 percent of the population between 1990 and 2000 (3).

That is very encouraging progress in a world where the number of hungry people is growing at a rate of 4 to 5 million people every year. Despite the pledge made in 2000 by every head of state to halve the proportion of the world’s population that suffers from undernutrition – the first Millennium Development Goal – the world is going backwards on this score. And that is a tremendous shame, because as Turkey knows well, the benefits of a well-nourished, healthy and well-educated population far outweigh the cost of achieving it.

Hunger costs countries in numerous ways. Malnourished mothers are more likely to have malnourished babies, which are more likely to succumb to basic infections such as measles, diarrhoea and malaria in the first weeks and months of life. If they do survive, they are more vulnerable to chronic illness as adults. Deficiencies in micronutrients such as iodine can cause mental retardation and new research indicates that their IQ may be up to 15 points lower than children who received all of the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy growth (4). 

Naturally, the cost to already stretched health care budgets is tremendous. The opportunity cost to economic growth is even higher. Some estimates put the cost of poor nutrition in developing countries at 3 percent of GDP per annum (5).

By contrast, projects to improve nutrition are among the most cost-effective interventions available. The Copenhagen Consensus – a gathering of some of the world’s most brilliant economists -- recently ranked improving child nutrition, reducing micronutrient deficiencies and investing in agricultural technology in developing countries among the 10 most effective ways of investing US$50 billion. Most of the others related to fighting disease and promoting education, which also impact on hunger.

With 400 million children and mothers currently suffering from hunger more needs to be done to apply these cost-effective mechanisms. There is no excuse for inaction.

Turkey has been remarkably active in assisting other countries to overcome the problems of hunger and malnutrition, especially in humanitarian crises. The World Food Programme is sincerely grateful for its help, and looks to Turkey to play an even greater role given its recent experience and unique position on the cusp between east and west.

(*) Deputy Executive Director,World Food Programme

(1)- FAO, State of Food Insecurity 2004, Rome p.47
(2)- Idem
(3)- Idem
(4)- World Food Programme, World Hunger series 2006: Hunger and learning, Rome, pp.39-42
(5)- Horton,S. "the Economics of Nutritional Interventions" in Semba&Bloem (eds), Nutrition and Heaşth in developing Countries, Totowa NJ, Humana Press, 1999.