Turks grapple with poverty as inflation bites

Burcin GERCEK
·4-min read

Gulay Avsar is a regular at a market in Ankara's old town, where prices are more reasonable than most other places around the Turkish capital.

But even here she struggles to fill her basket with staples such as cheese and olive oil, which seem to grow more expensive by the day.

"This is the third time I come to buy cheese and walk away empty-handed because of the prices," the 65-year-old lamented.

"Everything costs so much."

In trouble even before the coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish economy is now on the edge of a precipice.

While the economy officially expanded by nearly six percent in the last three months of 2020, growth came at the expense of a government credit push that sent consumer prices soaring.

The annual inflation rate had shot up to 15.6 percent by February, while the Turkish lira has lost more than half its value against the dollar since the start of 2018.

For people like Avsar, this means her meagre pension is able to buy less and less.

"Olive oil is now worth its weight in gold. This is what a man should offer his beloved to impress her," quipped another shopper, Ahmet.

Behind the stoic sarcasm lies the stark reality of Turks slipping into poverty, which is officially defined as an income of less than $4.30 (3.60 euros) a day.

- Feeding babies soup -

The World Bank estimated that 13.9 percent of the population -- or just under 12 million people -- were already living in poverty at the time of its last report in April 2020.

Now, Hacer Foggo, founder of the Deep Poverty Network NGO who has worked with Turkey's poor for 20 years, says she has never seen the situation more dire.

"Access to food has never been as big a problem as it is today," Foggo said.

"Before, if you didn't have food, you would ask your neighbours. But today, the neighbours don't have anything either."

Some of Turkey's poorest neighbourhoods often include a mix of construction workers, people who pick over rubbish for recycling, and women and children who work as street vendors.

"I have seen mums who feed their babies soup from a packet because they can't afford baby formula," Foggo said.

Formula "is so expensive that supermarkets put it under lock and key, as if it were a luxury product."

- Hurting the poorest -

Foggo said Turks who had never thought twice about poverty were now turning to her NGO for help.

Pensioner Avsar knows all about it, tearfully admitting that she can no longer afford to pay the gas bill, leaving her with no heat in the middle of the winter freeze.

"The government doesn't care. To them, these worries don't exist," she complained.

These problems came to a head in October, when a video of a trader telling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he "could no longer bring home bread" caused an uproar.

"It seems like an exaggeration to me," Erdogan replied.

In power for 18 years, Erdogan peppers his daily speeches with imagery of the country "rebounding" and growing into "one of the largest economies in the world".

But Erinc Yeldan, an economist at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said Turkey's president was paying for the mistake of emphasising growth at any cost.

The result has been soaring inflation, the central bank burning through most of its reserves trying to prop up the lira, and the erosion of foreign investor confidence in Turkey.

Erdogan overhauled his economic team late last year, but Yeldan said the damage had already been done, hurting the poorest the most.

- 'Governance problem' -

Yeldan pointed out that the official inflation rate is only an average.

"It is much higher, around 22 percent, for food products that people of modest means spend most of their money on," he said.

The cumulative price increase for food since 2018 has been around 55 percent, said Yeldan -- about the level of the lira's depreciation against the dollar in the same period.

Erdogan has fired back at his critics by accusing trader and merchant "lobbies" of trying to make unfair profits.

"They are creating imaginary enemies to keep the discontent from turning against the government," Yeldan said.

Erdogan has promised to unveil a new economic reform package on Friday, in what appears to be an acknowledgement of the level of public discontent.

But Yeldan held out little hope, saying Turkey needed a comprehensive course correction.

"There is a real governance problem," the economist said.

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