Development as in-justice: An Evaluation of Justice and Development Party’s development strategies

Development as in-justice: An Evaluation of Justice and Development Party’s development strategies

The construction business, which proved to be one of the principal sectors of AKP period development strategy, has not only hit the rural areas but also historical and central neighborhoods of metropolitan cities. One of the gentrification attempts which paved the way for rant for the construction business, displaced people and demolished the social fabric through social engineering, is the “Tarlabaşı 360” project, which was accomplished by the Beyoğlu Municipality despite all opposition. — Image Credits

The 10th development plan (2014-2018), devised and approved by the former Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) government in June 2013, states the goal of development as the creation of a social environment that enables individuals to lead a free, healthy, and safe life, and ensures the happiness, prosperity and dignity of citizens (State Planning Organization, 2013). It also posits that participation, inclusion, transparency and accountability should be the founding principles of the development process.

Yet, judging by the one-large-construction-site look of the country’s landscape after its 13-year rule, it seems that the AKP’s vision of development was hardly anything other than erecting cement structures; skyscrapers, shopping malls, cannals, bridges, etc. While this may not be too inaccurate a description, as construction was indeed dubbed the engine of development, it is worth looking more closely at the understanding of development that the AKP has embraced and the policies through which this understanding was articulated.

Development comes with its discontents, from communities whose living spaces are destroyed by energy projects to those bearing the detrimental health impacts of industrial pollution, from residents of entire villages submerged under water with dam constructions to miners killed by the hundreds. Discursively, development has always served as a powerful notion that has shaped the social and political sphere in Turkey. Catching up with the “West” and attaining the level of Western civilizations has not only been the long-lasting objective of policy-making, but also dominated the social imaginary like no other (Akbulut and Adaman, 2013). Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that the AKP’s logic of development was in many ways a continuation of the idea of catching-up that marks the history of the Turkish state. On the other hand, the AKP’s development policy was also a continuation of the neoliberal wave that became dominant after early 1980s, albeit with its particularities.

Despite the lip service paid in the national development plans, the idea of development realized during the AKP era can hardly be called a people-centered process that has prioritized human dignity, health, happiness, and democracy. The question of development was posed primarily about ensuring economic growth, which was assumed to be a rising tide that lifts all boats, i.e., the benefits accruing from growth were implicitly assumed to lead to higher living standards across the society. In this way, development was rendered an automatic ex-post of economic growth, its natural sidekick, and the distributive conflicts as well as the socio-ecological costs of growth policies were swept under the rug.

Development as dislocation, dispossession, and disruption

This approach translated into an immediate and full-fledged liberalization move within the context of rural development. As will be recalled, the wake of the AKP rule in 2002 coincided with the rolling-out of the World Bank-backed Agricultural Reform Implementation Project (ARIP) and adaptation with the Common Agricultural Programme (CAP) as a part of the EU-accession process.  While the seeds of both ARIP and CAP were planted before AKP’s came to power, the privileging of market mechanisms in organizing the socio-economic sphere and the logic of market-based developmentalism that underlie them can be said to have defined AKP’s subsequent general approach to rural development.  Accordingly, the main impediment to rural development was identified as the overall inefficiency of agriculture caused by state subsidies and the existence of a (largely unproductive) surplus population in agriculture. The rural development objective was thus set as rendering the agricultural sector competitive on a global scale by correcting past market distortions (i.e. over-production) and the reduction of the share of labor force in agriculture to levels on par with the sector’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (State Planning Organization, 2006). The implied logic was that the agricultural sector would eventually gain competitiveness in international trade through efficiency-enhancing measures and the resulting benefits would be broadly shared. The surplus population that would be released from agriculture, on the other hand, was expected to be absorbed into employment in the urban centers.

Among the many drastic changes that this vision of rural development implied, the most notable has perhaps been a radical restructuring of the state’s involvement in the agricultural sector.  During the AKP era, former instruments of state support in agriculture, most significantly direct output purchases and input subsidies, were largely eliminated and replaced by a direct-income support scheme. Direct-income supports were favored as they are de-coupled from production decisions and thus have no impact on quantities produced by farmers, unlike input and output subsidies which distort market prices, give “wrong” signals to producers and thus lead to inefficiencies stemming from over-supply of subsidized crops. This strategy to eliminate overproduction inefficiencies went hand-in-hand with interventions to scale up agricultural production to realize productivity gains; that is to say, large-scale production facilities were actively supported on grounds that small-scale farming is inefficient as it fails to reap benefits of scale economies in inputs.

This policy outlook translated most visibly into the infamous laws that eradicated subsidies for crops like tobacco, sugar beet and hazelnut. The removal of subsidies were coupled with state support to encourage the cultivation of alternative crops for which the sector supposedly held comparative advantage in international trade. Given that shifting across crops is often costly (in terms of inputs and time) and that marketing networks for the new crops were largely absent, the alternatives to which the farmers were directed have generally failed to compensate for the losses from the removal of state subsidies. The resulting decline in the viability of rural livelihoods has triggered a massive process of rural dispossession (exacerbated by rural enclosures described below) and the interlinked displacement of large sections of rural population from farming, in addition to alarming levels of rural indebtedness. Thus, the resulting rapid rural-urban migration forced the surplus rural population into urban centers as cheap available labor, often to be employed in informal jobs with precarious conditions, such as construction and mining.

As their population gets more crowded, the housing problem in metropolitan centers becomes even worse. The Dikmen Valley in Ankara both whets the appetite of TOKI and its constituents and witnesses the resistance of those who grew up here. The monthly rent for the no-water, no-road houses of the valley, which serves as the final refuge for migrants from within Turkey and abroad, can be as high as 250 TL. — Image Credits
On the other hand, labor forms in agricultural production have also transformed, as demonstrated with the rise of contract-farming as the new model of agricultural production and the emerging prevalence of industry-type large scale production facilities (Ulukan, 2013). For many producers who were forced to shift away from the crops they traditionally cultivated and failed to substitute or otherwise hit by market dynamics that now govern the sector (including indebtedness), contract-farming provided a somewhat desirable option as it lowered the risks involved in production. It also meant, however, the loss of all decision-making power in the production process for the producers (leading some to call contract- farmers “rural proletariat on their own fields”) and often facing lower prices at the end than agreed upon, let alone the problematic implications of contract farming for environmental sustainability.1

To recap, rural development in the AKP era translated into increasing commercialization, the extension of markets and the erosion of small-farmers’ base of reproducing their existence. Unable to compete with large producers and often lacking access to independent marketing networks (thus losing most of the added value they gave to middlemen), many small farmers were and continue to be pushed into further dispossession and indebtedness. In addition, the interlinked processes of dispossession, rural indebtedness and proletarianization, coupled with the unpredictability of markets, forced many farmers to give up subsistence farming and thus they had to rely on markets to meet livelihood needs. Given the price fluctuations and asymmetric power dynamics that they face, reliance on the markets implies increased vulnerability and loss of any buffer for small farmers.

On the side of industrial development, the AKP strategy rested on a combination of availability of cheap credit and of cheap labor (not least due to the rural-urban migration triggered with the restructuring of agricultural sector), on the one hand, and a furthering the internationalization of domestic capital, on the other. In many respects, this was a continuation and deepening of the export-oriented development path that the country was set upon since the early 1980’s. Within this context, small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) became the centerpiece of industrial development, with AKP’s declared commitment to promote their interests (Hoşgör, 2011). Grounded in a vision of development as achieving global competitiveness primarily through their flexible production abilities, SME’s were supported by the provision of credit subsidies, tax incentives and the reorganization of the labor market to allow flexible forms of employment, in addition to explicit efforts to strengthen their access to international markets. An accompanying twist was the regional emphasis introduced with the Regional Development Agencies, envisaged as governance institutions to mobilize local dynamics to increase local competitiveness, and to attract and organize investment (Gündoğdu, 2009). The regional approach to development management was advocated to be the institutional response to what the dynamicism of SME’s and the particular needs and strengths found in different regions required (Ataay, 2005).

In practice, however, SME’s have largely failed to realize the great hopes pinned upon them. Far from fulfilling the role of technological innovators and drivers of efficiency, they generally remain confined to labor-intensive low-technology production, gaining competitiveness primarily through low labor-costs. The regional developmental approach, on the other hand, becomes a tool of suppressing and de-legitimizing labor demands; while the discourse of regional development as attracting capital pits sub-national regions against each other, labor is repressed with the threat of capital flight to other regions.

It was perhaps the ascent of energy and construction as the country’s developmental engines that became the hallmark of AKP era. Both sectors are marked with the explicit and visible role that the state assumed in their restructuring as venues of capital accumulation. That is to say, a series of critical changes in the legal infrastructure was completed in this period to facilitate investment in these sectors and enabled their boom. In the case of energy, the restructuring and liberalization of energy markets to open fields of energy investments previously beyond reach to the private sector—most notably coal and hydropower—were consolidated by AKP. This was buttressed by the consistent relaxation of environmental legislation that could potentially halt the development of the sector and the provision of a variety of incentives, including forms of market assurance and credit subsidies.  In the case of construction, numerous legal revisions were made to allow state expropriation of land for purposes of redevelopment and marketing and to unlatch lands previously under protection into construction investments. Within this context, the Housing Development Administration emerged as the critical instrument which mediated the state-led development of the sector and private capital investments. The institution was endowed with powers to develop profit-oriented housing projects in collaboration with municipalities and private companies, and establish enterprises directly or jointly with the private sector.  In addition to the housing boom, infrastructure investments took place on massive scales—such as the Northern Anatolia Highway and the Izmit Bay Bridge, as well as the planned third bridge to span the Bosphorus and a third airport in the Northeast of Istanbul. 

If the visibility of the state’s role is the first common thread to the rise of construction and energy, the appropriation of space inherent to them is the second. The most evident implication of this developmental strategy had been the enclosure and/or destruction of rural-urban commons and living spaces, displacement of communities as well as the erosion of their means of livelihood, modes of living and the networks that sustain them. While this was manifested as an accelerated process of rural-urban migration already set off by the agricultural policies in the rural context (as well as spurring wide-spread social resistance), it meant the restructuring of urban space so that working class populations are relegated to outskirts while city centers are turned into commercialized spaces marketed in different ways to tourists, consumers and real-estate investors.

Put in a broader context, the developmental strategy of the AKP rested on mobilizing labor, resources (e.g. minerals) and energy by a regime of enclosure and dislocation from the rural areas to urban centers. The restructuring of the agricultural sector, coupled with energy and infrastructure investments that radically changed the rural landscape, dislocated large sections of the population to urban centers, where they were mostly incorporated into the pool of cheap labor (Adaman et al, 2014). On the other hand, large-scale infrastructural investments to sustain this mobilization together with massive urban transformation and gentrification projects kept the construction sector alive.

Justifying it through Turkey’s supposed energy need and aspiring even the smallest watercourse, AKP has given more than 2000 licenses to hydroelectric power plant projects. One of the main victims of the private sector’s greed which manifests itself in the ‘massacre on nature’ has been the coastal city Artvin where hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut down already. — Image Credits
Development—Which way now?

All in all, the AKP has operationalized a market-based, neoliberal developmentalist agenda that has envisioned economic growth to be brought by structural change with active state involvement (much like old-school developmental models), but through the use of market dynamics: constructing, shaping and participating in markets to achieve economic growth by a particular division of labor and space within the country. This model has managed to reproduce consent to a certain extent through the populist, albeit limited, distribution of growth benefits, primarily through social policies. Perhaps more importantly, the strength of the notion of economic development as a societal goal, whose appeal is almost never questioned, served to justify the AKP’s developmental model in the face of its drastic social and ecological costs. The close association of construction with modernization in the social imagination and the discourse on the country’s energy deficit as the main obstacle to development are telling in this respect.

More generally, the AKP has subscribed to and presented an understanding of development as a spillover of economic growth, with the illusion that growth implies a broad-based improvement of living standards. It has been well-documented, however, that not only the benefits of economic growth have been highly unequally shared across the society in this era (Güney, 2015), but also its costs. The detrimental socio-ecological impacts associated with the disruption, dislocation and dispossession inherent to the AKP’s developmental strategy have been shouldered by the already-disadvantaged sections of the society and thus perpetuated the existing socio-economic inequalities.

The results of these policies poinst to the broader need to question the desirability of economic growth as an objective of relentless pursuit and to radically rethink and democratize the notion of development. Within this context, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)’s vision of “new life” and of the democratization of the economy is especially noteworthy. This vision defines the re-constitution of the economic sphere along egalitarian, solidaristic, gender-equal and ecological lines as an integral component of a healthy and secure living.  In doing so, it prioritizes the re-embedding of the economy within the society and its democratization (Madra, 2015), rather than fetishizing economic growth or positing a pre-conceived notion of development. It remains to be seen how far the HDP will get in realizing this vision, but even the new imagination and understanding of the prosperity that it animates merits appreciation.


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  • Hoşgör, Evren. 2011. “Islamic Capital/Anatolian Tigers: Past and Present”, Middle Eastern Studies, 47 (2).
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  • State Planning Organization, 2006. 9th Development Plan.
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  • Ulukan, Umut. 2013. “Devlet, Tarım ve Sermaye. Tarımda Kapitalist Dönüşümü Yeniden Tartışmak”, Eğitim Bilim Toplum Dergisi, 11 (43).


1    Contract farming lowers the risk since the producers know what, when and how much to produce in return for a guaranteed sale at established prices. It also means, however, that the contractor dictates the terms, including the prices, and the producer has little bargaining power as s/he often has no outside option of marketing the produce once committed to the contract.

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