Istanbul, Turkey - Turkey's emerging generation of leaders finds itself tasked with a complicated and challenging set of both domestic and foreign policy issues to address in the coming years. Facing this imminent responsibility, many young people remain cynical about the events unfolding around them. The Court Case against the ruling Justice and Development Party and the recent police reactions to the 1 May Labour Day protests have further undermined the environment for various interest groups to find common ground.
Turkish society finds itself at a crossroads with the vision of a homogenous nation challenged by various social elements, particularly among minority communities that are calling for greater cultural freedom and economic development.
An atmosphere of distrust and despair remains among the poor who feel isolated from the protection of the nation-state. Rural regions in Turkey are highly underdeveloped compared with urban areas, with poverty rates twice as high. The slow pace of sustainable development reinforces the social and economic exclusion of a significant portion of Turkish citizens namely ethnic Kurds who live in the southeast.
Over the last few decades, Turkey has experienced a significant internal migration from rural to urban areas, which has offset Turkey's progress, posed challenges for integration and put pressure on the four largest metropolitan areas Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa.
At present, Turkey possesses a limited number of avenues that allow a broad spectrum of young people to participate in foreign and domestic policy discussions. Institutes of higher learning and civil society organisations can help fill this gap by supporting already established initiatives such as the Ari Movement, Youth for Habitat, and the Youth Services Center. In the United States, there is a long-standing tradition to invest in programmes and centres to inform, train and further educate students beyond the classroom.
As a starting point, institutions of higher education should establish a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the sense of citizenry, governance, leadership, and social responsibility among youth by offering:
1) training on conflict resolution and social responsibility;
2) leadership, cooperative advocacy and cross-cultural communication workshops; and
3) simulations focusing on group decision making and problem-solving skills.
To broaden understanding of the principles and institutions of a participatory democracy, civil society organisations and educational institutions should:
1) arrange meetings with representatives from various branches and levels of government;
2) promote the role of young people in a democratic society with representatives from political parties and youth-oriented NGOs;
3) promote interactions with civic and community organisations; and
4) join in an exchange of views on the role of faith, identity and culture in society.
In order to foster better communication and understanding among Turkish youth, as well as between Turkish and foreign counterparts, it is essential to:
1) put forth significant funds to support youth designed programs;
2) design and conduct team-building exercises to increase intra-group trust and mutual understanding;
3) recruit and train emerging leaders in dialogue; and
4) support already-established networks.
Policy debates remain polarised and unproductive, leaving the emerging generation of leaders little room to witness the constructive process of debate and compromise. Although the 2006 Progress Report of the European Commission highlighted positive developments growing out of the recent reform environment, saying that "civil society organisations have become relatively more vocal and better organised, especially since the adoption of the new "Law on Associations", more still needs to be done to promote a strong sense of citizenry, governance, leadership, and social responsibility in Turkey.
As Ian Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States noted, "a reinvigorated strategic relationship is possible, but it is likely to have quite different contours, with new forms of engagement and more realistic expectations." People-to-people interactions particularly among civil society can reinvigorate Turkey-US relations, which were largely damaged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In order to build a healthier relationship between Turkey and the United States, strides need to be made to equip emerging Turkish leaders with the skills and knowledge required to engage in constructive dialogue with diverse domestic and international stakeholders.
* Christina Bache Fidan is the programme coordinator for the Turkey-US Public Policy Initiative and the Germany Meets Turkey Program at the Istanbul Policy Center. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 20 May 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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