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28 April – 27 May 2005

“Turkey, more than a bridge between continents”1

Tomasa Bañez, Social Worker, Lecturer of Social Work Department, University of Zaragoza, Spain

I could say that I have always had my most interesting personal and some of my most challenging professional experiences travelling. So, I did not hesitate when Emilia and Gloria, two colleagues and friends from Barcelona, encouraged me to apply for a cultural and professional exchange programme in Turkey, run by the Council of International Fellowship. Knowing that this organisation had programmes in other countries all over the world I decided to choose Turkey because just the mention of this country evoked exotic images, friendly people and a rich cultural and religious background.

My participation in the 2005 Turkish Programme of this organisation gave me a great opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests: travelling and meeting people from different cultural backgrounds and the exchange of ideas and experiences related to social work. The programme aims to promote a personal and professional exchange for social service workers - mainly social workers - from different countries and includes both social and working activities. This means living with Turkish host families, social meetings and events and visits to social service agencies. There were five of us, all social workers, taking part in the 2005 Turkish Programme: Helga from Austria, Mary from New Zealand, Ann Christine from Sweden, Tracey form Scotland and myself from Spain.

Talking about the programme itself; all of us agreed that while the visits to social service agencies had been very interesting, it would have been more useful to visit fewer institutions, which would allow us to observe closely how social workers carry out their professional activities. Host families were really kind and friendly with us, and a good example of Turkish hospitality.

The professional part of the programme gave me an insight into Turkish social policy, social services for different target groups of clients, social work and social work training. Meeting the Social Policy Forum members in the Bosphorus University in Istanbul gave us further knowledge of social policy in Turkey. By visiting social service agencies, social work educational establishments and the Association of Social Workers, we had the opportunity to discover how social services are run and how social workers carry out their professional activities. Although the aim of this paper is not to analyse in depth the Turkish social policy and social service situation, I would like to share with the readers some of my impressions.

As far as I could observe there is not a real social policy or a social service system in Turkey, but not because the country cannot financially support it, but because the majority of politicians – as in other many countries - think that social policy or social services are not necessary in their country. According to their 'neo-liberal' approach, economic development will create job opportunities for everybody. For those who cannot work (elderly and disabled people or children) the traditional support network, mainly the extended family, but also the social provision dictated by Islam (the soup kitchens during Ramazan, the distribution of food to the poor during Kurban Bayram, etc.) will provide them with the proper care. But unemployment is increasing because of the difficulties of the Turkish economy and the massive arrival of immigrants from the south-east. So only 45% of the workers are able to make provision for pensions and health insurance, and the capacity for support from the extended family is decreasing. To face this situation The Social Policy Forum has requested that the Turkish government implement a real social policy to meet social needs of people and to contribute to the social and political stability of the country.

We were told that the Social Service Directory and the Child Protection Agency depends on the national government and runs social aid and social services. In addition, local authorities deliver social aid too. Social aid aims to cover basic needs of people and to fight effectively against poverty. This aid is delivered to elderly and disabled people who have not paid National Insurance contributions and poor families with children. The amount of money given is very low (about 90 Euros per month), because this social aid was created as a means to support the care from the extended families and politicians think that financial support could discourage people from looking for work. Very often people use this help to cover their health assistance needs or their children's school expenses because health and educational systems do not meet the needs of everyone. According to the expert opinion of the members of the Social Policy Forum a real social aid system in addition to current social assistance measures should include a minimum income for people who are not able to find a job or cannot work.

To try and improve this situation the Turkish Social Work Association recommended that authorities create community centres in low-income areas. Social workers are doing their best to empower women and children (by organising courses on human rights and vocational training), but they spend most of their time delivering social aid (mainly financial support) to elderly and disabled people who have been unable to pay social security, and to poor families with children. This situation is caused not only by the increasing number of needy applicants but also because of bureaucracy and lack of co-ordination between local and national authorities. We were also told that the criteria to deliver this social aid should be improved in order to make them more professional and objective (for example, muhtars play a very important role delivering social aid in terms of locating families who are in need and certifying the poverty of the applicants for this aid). This improvement would require further training of the social workers involved in the social aid system and for them to take more professional responsibilities in running of this system. According to the opinion of the Turkish Social Work Association social work is a relatively new and undervalued profession in the country. After the earthquake of 1999 social workers were more recognised because of their important role in the delivery of humanitarian help to the victims.

Generally speaking, I could say that there are several contradictions in the social service system. We visited institutions whose professionals carry out interesting and productive projects in family planning, women's rights, rehabilitation of abused children, young drug addicts and torture victims and social integration of disabled people. But also we visited oversized residential care facilities unsuited to the needs of their clients. Most of the children cared for in these facilities came from poor families who could not afford to bring them up. With reference to disabled people, these facilities did not have specialised services and due to the lack of trained staff volunteers were used for meeting only basic needs. But maybe one of my greatest surprises was the small number of Non Governmental Organisations. I have visited countries (Nicaragua for example) in a more difficult situation than Turkey, but where people have organised themselves into associations, which deal with poverty and lack of public services. So this kind of organisations could force the government to implement a real social policy and improve the social service system. As well as a means of creating and running some services or projects. We were told that people are afraid of taking a more visible role in public life because after the last coup d'etat in 1980 they have lost several political rights.

Talking about my personal discoveries, I exchanged my experiences and ideas with the other participants, Council of the International Fellowship members and the host families. In addition, I improved my previous knowledge of Turkey and Turkish people. From my experience as a social worker I know how difficult and slow social changes are. Together with many Turkish people, I hope the process of negotiation for European Union Membership will help Turkey to improve the situation of excluded people and not only improve their laws in a formal way. Now I am aware of the cultural and social diversity of the country and also of the contrasts and contradictions. I hope, as Gloria Rubiol (2004) does, they will be able to deal with these contradictions and Turkey will became not only a geographical bridge between continents, as it is currently, but also a cultural and religious bridge between Western and Eastern societies. Finally, I hope my positive professional and personal experience will encourage social workers to take part in this international exchange programme.


Bugra, Ayse and Keyder, Caglar, 2003, New poverty and the changing welfare regime in Turkey, Ankara, United Nations Development Programme, available on Internet:

Rubiol, Gloria, 2004, Turquía, entre Occidente y el Islam. Una historia contemporánea. Barcelona, Ediciones Viena.


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