“There’s not a kid in this neighborhood who hasn’t shined shoes or sold tissues,” says Mehmet, 19, laughing deeply. His is the black humor born of misfortune: Like so many Kurdish youths in Diyarbakır, seat of Turkey’s troubled southeast, Mehmet slowly made his way to the city with his family after watching his village burn during the war between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas and the Turkish army in the 1990s. Temporary, off-the-books jobs are all that stave off hunger for countless families of Kurds settled in and around Diyarbakır since their forcible displacement from the subsistence economies of the countryside. Stark socioeconomic inequalities are nothing new for this region, of course. But the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of rural Kurds has created a massive new class of urban poor, searching for a way to rebuild their lives in cities unable to provide for their basic needs, let alone offer employment.

There is no systematic study of the 1990s displacement and hence no agreement upon the precise number of displaced. A 1998 Turkish parliamentary investigation, relying on census totals from southeastern villages before their depopulation, estimated the number at 378,355. The human rights organization Göç-Der, on the other hand, suggests the number may be as high as three million, when the definition of the displaced is broadened to encompass those forced to leave their homes by armed clashes, the destruction of fields and pastures, army-imposed food embargoes and threats by state security forces, state-employed “village guards” and the PKK. In Diyarbakır, the highly symbolic city that many Kurds consider the capital of an imagined greater Kurdistan, the population has increased nearly threefold since the peak of displacement in the early 1990s. Estimates of joblessness range from 30 percent (the 2000 census) to 70 percent (a Diyarbakır Chamber of Commerce and Industry study from 2002). Add underemployment and temporary or seasonal employment, and the figure jumps to almost 74 percent, according to a door-to-door survey carried out in four of Diyarbakır’s main squatter settlements by the local NGO Sarmaşık. The same report found that 83 percent of the nearly 6,000 households surveyed live below the official “hunger line” of $490 per month. The sheer scale of deprivation has moved poverty and economic inequality to the center of the long-standing debates over what the Turkish media persist in calling “the Kurdish problem.”

The politics of that “problem,” as indicated by the discrepant displacement and unemployment figures, largely define what can and cannot be said in the poverty debates. For the Turkish state, in fact, poverty in the southeast is a condition prior to politics, strictly separated from questions of history, identity and culture. “The problem of citizens [here] is a humanitarian problem,” as Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, governor of Diyarbakır, told the mainstream newspaper Referans in January. Ankara appoints governors to oversee the southeastern provinces. “Cultural identity is not the basic problem. The agenda of the people is economic; the agenda is sustenance. Any other claims are political.” So long as the desires of the people of the southeast are rendered as a universal, biological need—sustenance—the state will recognize them. The governor dismisses questions about the historical and political origins of poverty as “the worst form of exploitation, human exploitation.”

It is a viewpoint that clashes somewhat with those of poor Kurdish youth, even those, like Mehmet, who have seen some benefit from the state’s solicitude since their own stint shining shoes and selling tissues. Mehmet’s elder brother received an interest-free loan from the governorate, one of a number of state-sponsored programs to encourage entrepreneurship, and set up a small kebab stand. He divides the profits between supporting his ailing parents and saving up for his imminent marriage. Mehmet works for free, but when he needs pocket money, his brother obliges.

Mehmet wakes up every morning at 5:30, buys fresh liver and meat for the stand, and heads to high school (having dropped out years before to work, he is now five years senior to his first-year classmates). After school, he runs the stand until midnight. Three days a week, he attends a training program, provided free of charge by the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, that will certify him to lay natural gas lines.

Mehmet’s understanding of Diyarbakır’s economy, nevertheless, is colored by a broader feeling of exclusion. “When we go west to find work, people hear our accent, or the police take one look at our ID cards [where one’s place of birth is listed] and they say, ‘He’s from the east, he’s a terrorist.’ When we stay here, there are no factories, no jobs, and we can’t get a decent education or score well on the national university exams because the state only sends the worst teachers here, and any talented teachers here escape to the west if they find the chance.”

That the present shape of poverty has a political history, and that the presence of poverty does not erase other claims—that one can be hungry and desire education in Kurdish, that one can hope for both a more equal distribution of wealth and a more equal distribution of dignity and life chances—captures, in condensed form, the kind of recognition advocated by the NGOs and municipal governments working in the southeast. These NGOs and municipalities are the new legal, public face of Kurdish politics, emerging from a series of political reforms in motion since the early 2000s. From their perspective, the separation of poverty from politics is equal to a denial of historical and social reality. “The problem,” stresses the mayor of Diyarbakır, Osman Baydemir, “is economic, social, cultural, political, legal and administrative. An integrative approach is essential to bringing improvement.” The politics of poverty extends even to word choice. The Turkish state favors the term yoksulluk (an abstract noun indicating an existing state or condition of “poor-ness”), while domestic NGOs and regional governments prefer yoksullaştırma (a verbal noun emphasizing action behind the state or condition described, and translatable as “causing to be poor,” or impoverishment).

For other local actors, recognizing more than basic human need in the southeast is not only essential to designing more effective poverty relief. Many NGOs and research groups working in the region hope that discussion of forced migration and its role in the production of the new urban poverty may also urge the state toward a deeper commitment to assisting in the rehabilitation of the regional economy. If the claims of the southeast can be associated with principles of the European Union and the UN—such as cultural rights and participatory local governance—they may acquire a stamp of legitimacy that pushes the state to reevaluate its reflexive equation of southeastern grievances with PKK demands.

For Ahmet, 21, the ongoing debate on poverty and economic improvement is filtered through firsthand experiences of forced displacement, urban underemployment, and deep familiarity and sympathy with the PKK. Ahmet’s story begins in the early 1990s, when state security forces first evacuated, and, upon the return of residents, burned his family’s village. The village was known to be providing nearby militant camps with bread. “The guerrillas weren’t strangers to us. They were our brothers and fathers, sisters and cousins, so we couldn’t turn them away.” At seven, he left the village empty-handed and came with his family of nine to Diyarbakır.

He began working soon after arrival, shining shoes, selling tissues and gum on the streets, running errands for neighborhood restaurants and teahouses. Halfway through middle school, he landed a job as an assistant in a bakery and left school to work nights. He receives $300–350 per month.

Ahmet also sees a great deal of politics in the local economy. “In the southeast, there are no opportunities for work. Or if there are, they’re very, very few. Look, there are people working for almost nothing on this street. Why? To try to contribute a little at home. And you won’t find less than seven to ten people in any home here. They say in the west, ‘Don’t give away jobs to Kurds’—they always exclude us. But if we didn’t do their work, Turks would die of hunger. Look at pistachios, hazelnuts, cotton—they’re all harvested by Kurds. Everyone benefits from our poverty, they [in the west], the world, even people here in the southeast…. Why are we always excluded?”

He is unimpressed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent announcement of a $12 billion investment package targeted at economic development in the southeast. “Well, the state always tries to distract us Kurds with enticing stories, to have us forget our struggle. They say, ‘We’re going to give you opportunities for work.’ They’re all lies, nothing but deception.” “Peace and rights are what we want,” Ahmet says, and believes that Kurds have a duty to respond to violence in kind in the struggle for equal rights against a state perceived to be intentionally retarding development in the region.

Mehmet reads the new talk of poverty relief and development through a somewhat different lens. Toiling at his brother’s kebab stand launched with help from the state, he dreams of a less exhausting, more just future. He speaks repeatedly of the need for young people to “know themselves,” and to see the economic future of the southeast as bound up with personal responsibility. “I used to spend all night just walking the streets. Now I think that to secure your future, you’ve got to work. If a few factories are established, if a few more workplaces are opened, then a regular citizen can go home at night with a bag of groceries and keep his kids in school.” Distrustful of police, angered by his memories of military violence and proud of his association, through the gas worker training program, with the pro-Kurdish municipal government, he also echoes a main thesis of the state: If everyone had a job, then political contestation in the southeast might just disappear. In this, Mehmet is like many people, taking in the range of available ideas about the rapidly changing present, and often joining seemingly contradictory positions in the same person.

The state’s poverty relief strategies have contradictions of their own. The encouragement of small entrepreneurs, for instance, has given businessmen and NGOs in the southeast a new role as brokers, capturing and redistributing development rent and cultivating new skills such as grant writing. One thing is clear: In the unresolved debate over poverty, a debate impinging upon everyday life for hundreds of thousands in urban squatter settlements across the southeast, the presence of so many actors (NGOs, development brokers, local, national and international government bodies, ex-peasants) makes old dichotomies pitting the Turkish state against Kurdish rebels no longer helpful. Addressing the problems of the new urban poor will require thinking outside them.

How to cite this article:

Will Day "The Politics of Poverty in Turkey’s Southeast," Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).

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