Turkey’s Earthquake Aftermath Underscores the Value of Civil Society

The civic sector has filled some of the void left by a corrupt authoritarian state.

Members of the UK's International Search & Rescue Team continue working in coordination with other search and rescue teams looking for survivors

Members of the UK's International Search & Rescue Team search for earthquake survivors in Hatay, Turkey, on February 9, 2023. Photo: UK ISAR Team


More than 50,000 people lost their lives as a result of the two earthquakes that struck southern Turkey on February 6. While the state failed in both disaster preparedness and its response to the devastation, Turkish civil society has stepped in, providing large-scale humanitarian aid and banding together to defend the human rights of survivors in the ongoing aftermath of the catastrophe.

This robust civic response is all the more impressive given the authoritarian government’s escalating restrictions on independent activism in recent years.

A tragedy made worse by state neglect

The Izmit earthquake of 1999, which killed an estimated 18,000 people, prompted strong public demand for better preparedness and stricter building regulations in Turkey. But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, did not properly enforce the rules that were put in place following that disaster.

Immediately after the February quakes, a lack of coordination among state institutions and delayed search-and-rescue operations by official agencies aggravated human suffering. These failures revealed the extent to which nepotism and corruption had eroded the relevant state bodies, leaving them sorely mismanaged. Rather than acknowledging its mistakes and cooperating with NGOs as they worked to aid victims, however, the government chose to silence critics by throttling social media platforms, and even confiscated aid that was collected by citizens, opposition parties, and municipalities.

The state-affiliated Turkish Red Crescent went so far as to sell tents and nutrition to a charity instead of dispatching them directly to earthquake survivors. Such scandals stoked the public’s distrust in state institutions, causing many people in Turkey and abroad to direct their donations to independent civil society organizations.

Civic solidarity in action

As with the civil society response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the region’s other authoritarian countries, many civic organizations in Turkey showed extraordinary resilience in their attempts to make up for the state’s failures. Citizens themselves noticed and joined in. Specialized NGOs such as AHBAP, Needsmap, and Disaster Platform—reinforced by women’s rights organizations as well as volunteers from across Turkey—immediately started to provide life-saving humanitarian aid to people in the affected provinces. They participated in search-and-rescue operations and delivered food, clothing, shelter, and health services to those in need.

In addition to the crucial humanitarian work of hundreds of civil society organizations, many NGOs, journalists, and activists focused on documenting the human rights violations associated with the disaster, reporting accurate information from the area, and holding authorities accountable for their efforts to silence dissent in the aftermath.

For instance, the Media and Law Studies Association, a Freedom House partner, filed a strategic lawsuit against mobile network companies and the executives of the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) for blocking social media and disrupting mobile communication services, which undermined search-and-rescue activity, among other harmful effects. The BTK was evidently more concerned about suppressing criticism of the state response than facilitating essential communications and information sharing.

Women’s rights organizations established systems in the earthquake zone to provide women with sanitary products, underwear, and psychosocial support, overcoming persistent social norms that prevent women from advocating for their own needs. Human rights NGOs founded solidarity networks in their direct localities to coordinate on issues such as women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, mental health, and the right to education and shelter. To ensure the voting rights of earthquake survivors, NGOs organized a joint campaign that raised funding for displaced individuals to travel to their home districts to cast ballots.

Self-defeating policies of repression

All these parts of Turkish civil society managed to mount a dynamic response to the disaster despite the significant restrictions imposed on them by Turkey’s government in recent years. In 2021, the government adopted a new NGO law that increased its control over civil society organizations. It has also normalized the intimidation of activists through politicized court decisions, and introduced many other restrictive measures—including a 2022 disinformation law and a 2021 law on social media.

Although civil society demonstrated incredible resilience following this disaster, swiftly coming to the aid of survivors and defending their fundamental rights, its response was not flawless. Lack of coordination and communication among humanitarian and human rights groups stood out as one of the biggest problems, particularly in the context of constant intimidation by the state. Moreover, the crucial work done by independent NGOs on the ground would be far more consistent and effective if they had more direct access to the resources collected by international aid campaigns.

The Turkish government should recognize the valuable services provided by the civic sector during the earthquake aftermath, and allow these groups to operate unfettered. In addition to addressing genuine public needs, a free civil society could become a useful partner in identifying and correcting weaknesses in the state’s own institutions. This would dramatically improve outcomes for Turkey’s people when the next disaster strikes.