After my last article, I thought it would be informative if I were to interview a representative from the United Nations working on environmental issues here in Turkey. I was able to get in and interview Atila Uras, the United Nations’ program manager for its Millennium Developmental Goal Plan for Enhancing Turkey’s Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change. (I know, it’s a mouthful.)
This is the project of a joint task force bringing together many different organizations, committees, and councils of the UN including the Developmental Program, the Environmental Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The task force’s main goals span the fields of water, air, nature, and biodiversity management, while working with international commitments to handle Turkey’s special circumstances as a middle-income country. This is, of course, no easy assignment.
Uras’s team consists of a select group of individuals from very different background in academia and work experience. He, for one, is a civil engineer, and the rest of his team comes from backgrounds in international relations, communications, environmental engineering, and years of experience working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Uras has been fighting in the environmental arena for at least two decades and he has been around to witness numerous changes in his home country of Turkey and the rest of the region. When he graduated from Middle Eastern Technical University here in Ankara, he then pursued a graduate degree in coastal zone management in an effort to stem the increasing degradation of the Mediterranean. In the early 1990s, because of the lack of awareness and action on a national scale here, Uras went to Italy, where he began working with a variety of NGOs, most notably the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).
The WWF has had projects in the Mediterranean for the past few decades, mainly working out of Italy and Greece, not Turkey, at least not until recently. As Uras explained to me, and as I had gleaned from my own initial observation and impressions, environmental NGOs have been working tirelessly to make strides here in Turkey, and the program that he manages is one of the greatest overall accomplishments. His experience working for and with NGOs has given him the connections and know-how to progress toward the kinds of developments the UN program is aiming for.
Because of Turkey’s status as a middle-income country, the restrictions involving development and environment have had to be dealt with in a manner that pleases the Turkish government and people as well as the international community. Middle-income countries, or MICs in UN parlance, are those that stand somewhere between countries in Western Europe and those in sub-Saharan Africa. In MICs, the processes of development are intensifying, lifestyles are dynamically changing, and the impact on the local environment is growing at alarming rates.
Turkey’s situation highlights the conflicting issues within the idea of sustainable development. This country has faced pressures from NGOs over the past couple decades, mainly from the WWF and Greenpeace Mediterranean. But this pressure tends to go somewhat unanswered because the NGOs hold no real political power within the country. When these NGOs work with larger organizations, such as the UN, which actually do influence policy here, the NGOs can transform their ideas into reality, and have done so in several instances.
What is difficult here—as Uras explained to me, and as I have also noticed—is that most of the environmental activism is coming from the top down. Although there are community-based rural development projects, even these small battles are only possible because of the funding that comes from above—most immediately the municipal governments, but above them the national government, and above them the UNDP (which in this case is largely funded by grants given to the UNDP in 1998 by the Spanish government and other NGOs). The policies are dictated from the top and anything happening on the ground is likely to be under the close watch of state and international eyes. Meaning, as Uras put it, there is really no feeling of ownership locally.
This top-down approach is making some strides. The UN and other NGOs are largely involved in making sure that Turkey’s government is meeting standards brought forth by international agreements and commitments. But this mix of watchdogs is still trying to bring the individual citizenry participatory rates up, and until they bring about a sense of ownership among the laity it will be difficult to make the leaps this country needs to develop in a way that is environmentally healthy and sound.