There is a fine line between central government-sponsored social welfare undertakings, such as providing unemployment benefits, individual citizen’s or corporate philanthropy and -- last but not least -- enabling people to become truly involved in the fabric of society in more general terms.
Ideally, all go hand-in-hand and this is what the Şanlıurfa Municipality has most definitely accomplished over the course of the past eight years or so.
Şanlıurfa, located in one of Turkey’s up-and-coming southeastern regions -- perhaps a smaller in size yet nevertheless full-fledged metropolis when compared to, for example Ankara or İzmir (1.66 million inhabitants according to the 2010 national census) -- has an astonishingly high number of activities in the field of social activities as well as civil society projects. Today’s Zaman had the opportunity to visit seven of them on a recent fact-finding visit.
The first such activity -- in this case a welfare-oriented project -- I saw was one of four municipality-run soup kitchens that serve 3,000 visitors each day from five in the morning until 8:30 a.m. The location shown to us would during the afternoon transform itself into a learning center as part of a lifelong learning venture for municipality-sponsored courses, including teaching English to adults who had so far no chance to acquire foreign languages. Interior furniture is modern -- the antithesis of what many other European countries would “offer” to fellow citizen in temporary need.
A celebration of the organization’s success
Later that day we attended a celebration at the Women Support and Training Center in Hayati Harrani as well as one of its offspring, a youth center. Since 2009, over 12,000 local women have participated in training courses in basic education, and 2,600 more women received certified vocational and skills development training. What’s more, over 7,000 children have access to arts classes, music classes, computer classes and general leisure activities, too (basketball, football and other sports). While these participants may initially come from a somewhat underprivileged strand of society, Urfa tries to reverse that trend, in particular, by allowing women to become a second breadwinner in a family in a region where all too often men dominate almost all aspects of daily life, including not allowing women to play a full part in civil society; not in Urfa, though!
If not impressed already and when asking the mayor, Dr. Ahmet Eşref Fakıbaba, about his general take on all things social, he replied by saying that the Hayati Harrani center we had just visited was not the only one in the city: As a matter of fact, there is another almost similar in size!
We then spoke with the management team behind three further social ventures: first, the food bank; second, the medicine bank; and third, the clothes bank.
Here, individuals in need can obtain monthly rations either of basic foodstuffs, adult as well as children’s clothing or medicine, if required. There is a databank of 2,400 citizens registered with the food bank alone, underlining that the central government as good as its intentions are has not as of yet alleviated the need for local municipalities to provide welfare on a local level.
Yet these three aspects of giving to the needy is by now complimented by a new venture aimed at enabling women to become self-employed to ultimately make them economically self sufficient. Hence, welfare turns into business creation!
The Micro Credit Agency offers loans of up to TL 1,000 only to women in order to become successful micro entrepreneurs. We learned that not a single loan recipient has as of yet defaulted. A typical loan of TL 1,000 can be repaid by weekly installments of not more than TL 25. So far, 1,000 loans have been handed out and 320 women have established businesses along the way. As we spoke we learned that another TL 500,000 had been allocated for the continuation of the project well beyond the year 2012.
There are even more activities in the social domain in Şanlıurfa, but from what I heard from beneficiaries, they do not see themselves as stigmatized social welfare recipients but as finally being fully integrated into the fabric of Urfa society. A remarkable approach, to say the least!