by Fatma Kocaturk
UNICEF says that its work revolves around child protection, survival and inclusion, education, social policy, research and analysis studies in 190 countries and territories. What I’ve seen is different.
I have lived all my life in Ankara: the capital of Turkey, the country which was established after the Independence War by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Turkish citizens in 1923. When I was a child, UNICEF to me meant only colorful postcards. Handsome boys and beautiful girls sold UNICEF cards at about 5-10 times their cost on streets of the wealthiest neighborhoods. Then these girls and boys disappeared suddenly. UNICEF’s shop opened instead, and we saw stories about UNICEF in the press, with the most popular Turkish singers, footballers, and businessmen, asking for donations. And then there was a family planning project with the goal of controlling Turkish population growth.
In 2003 I started working in the Ministry of National Education (MoNE). I was involved in the elementary school girls’ project which was run in cooperation with UNICEF. On some levels, this went smoothly. But UNICEF wanted to do things its way, and this pressure often led to problems.
For example, UNICEF would select an unknown organization and insist on using volunteers from that organization; or UNICEF presented a list of academicians which it had decided were going to provide training; or UNICEF printed and distributed training materials without asking or showing the drafts. This was a problem because sometimes UNICEF did things that were unacceptable: Using a UNICEF logo that was bigger than the MoNE logo, or using statistics which were not verified by the MoNE.
If UNICEF wanted something, it was hard to ask questions or negotiate for something else. If one does that, UNICEF immediately finds a different partner. That is a problem, because in our country, collaboration with UNICEF brings great prestige and privilege, and it advances your career. You have opportunities to go on field visits with paid accommodations, which offer experiences and chances to meet people out of the province. UNICEF provides office supplies and state-of-the-art machines while the project is running. It draws media attention, so your work is recognized all over the country. So there is pressure to never disagree and risk losing all that.
UNICEF has responsibility for field visits, publishing books and brochures, and organizing many meetings, trainings and public relations. If there is a training, UNICEF sets the location, lists the trainees, contacts experts, provides transportation, decides on the content, indicates the duration, prepares the welcome, distributes the materials, pays for the accommodation, issues the certificates, and reports to the head UNICEF office. The MoNE has responsibility for official notifications to the prime minister, government offices, and personnel, official government meetings, and sharing all results and statistics with UNICEF.
The MoNE staff and UNICEF staff regularly traveled to a region together. One such trip was the first time that I’d been in the Southeastern Anatolia Region. Many conversations on that trip took place in English, although among the provincial authorities and MoNE staff present, I was the only one who knew English. At first, I tried to participate in these conversations and sometimes corrected mistakes, then a UNICEF representative mentioned that “Fatma understands everything” and began to speak in French till the end of the visit. What made them want to change the language so I couldn’t understand?
Slowly, I realized that UNICEF’s aim was not about the girls, or the enrollment rates. The goals, the statistics, the results, the reports, and the press were all manipulated by UNICEF. Why? It feels like the same mentality as colonialists of the past. They are trying to replace Turkish goals with their own goals. UNICEF wishes to control us, sometimes even using donations given to them by Turkish people.
By influencing local authorities, the public, and NGOs, I felt that UNICEF was acting against our state and territorial integrity. UNICEF instilled the idea of autonomy and local independence as if pretending to stand by the local public human rights. But it was really trying to have more control in the Southeastern Anatolia Region, as part of a project called “The Greater Middle East.” I felt that UNICEF was trying to encourage divisiveness in the region, to justify a greater role for for U.N. and E.U. organizations.
Local language translators were chose by UNICEF. They might be on UNICEF’s staff, or hired by UNICEF for the trip. In either case, they worked for UNICEF, in a way that allowed UNICEF to manipulate what was heard. Often they didn’t translate the whole of the conversation, they skipped the important parts. The local language translator did not only translate; he or she was the one who seemed to try to understand the problems of the local people, but also influenced local people with UNICEF’s goals as well. Sometimes, the reality and the conversation were in conflict. In one instance, it was obvious that a particular farmer in one village was rich. However, the local language translator reported that he didn’t have enough money to let his daughter go to school. Blaming the government of Turkey, the translator added things, such as saying that the state didn’t support the region and the local public. This was noted to go into a report as a cause, which meant that a new project would be created so that UNICEF could stay on the field.
Educational, social policy, health… UNICEF is influencing our private life and disrupting our nests. They are always on our ground, communicating with the public, presenting the image that “we offer a hand to help”. In fact, I found that UNICEF staff seemed disgusted by the local people. On one provincial field visit, because the other car was full, I rode in the middle back of the UN car. Turkish people are known for their hospitality. Turkish women offered some drinks for us. All UNICEF staff refused to drink. After some talk, we shook hands before leaving. As soon as we were in the car, the UNICEF staff cleaned their hands repeatedly with wet wipes.
What is changed after a UNICEF project is completed? In my experience, nothing. Turkey has the ability to raise enrollment rates on its own. UNICEF staff didn’t help our citizens or girls. Except for taking photos and talking with selected parents, I couldn’t observe any significance. Nobody cared about our girls.
I told my colleagues and my manager that there had been a big difference between working in Ankara and visiting in the field with UNICEF. UNICEF despised our state, tried to control territory of our country, exaggerated its statistics, acted like an agent, influenced NGOs and the public in the field and used our ethnic differences to forecast chaos. The same UNICEF Representative introduced herself as a Canadian in the west, but as French in the east. France is one of the prominent countries supporting the Greater Middle East Project.
Some time after I voiced these views, I was removed from my official relationship with UNICEF. My manager told me that, in order for me to work comfortably, I would be put in a new project with another organization. UNICEF chose the actors of the play and if you didn’t agree, you were off the stage. After UNICEF’s girls schooling project ended in elementary schools, I never heard of improvements there. However, the project continued with pre-schools and secondary schools.
My branch manager and deputy general manager wanted me to work with ILO (International Labor Office) instead of UNICEF. Eventually I was moved into the legal department. In 2020 I was asked to obey UNICEF’s thoughts in order to work effectively on projects. I totally and repeatedly refused.
Top illustration: Trojan horse by Jorge Lascar (Creative Commons license CC-BY-2.0) The legendary city of Troy lies in Anatolia, where Fatma lives and works. During the Trojan War, Greece wanted to conquer Troy, but the city was too well guarded. According to legend, the Greeks built a giant wooden horse, which they presented to Troy as a gift, and it was wheeled into the city. The Greek army pretended to return home. But Greek soldiers had hidden in the horse. During the night they crawled out and opened the city gates. The Greek army was able to enter and win control of the city.