The power of the powerless – surviving extreme poverty in Istanbul’s Golden Horn

20 December 2013

A new paper from the Oxford Future of Cities programme exposes the stark contrast between extreme poverty and gentrification in the Golden Horn area of Istanbul.

Extreme poverty persists despite the €7 million EU funding to restore the Fener-Balat area and its historic houses. Gentrification has in many cases resulted in displacement of families, several of whom would previously share one home, and affordable accommodation has become increasingly limited.

Earlier this week an inquiry into allegations that protected areas in the Fatih district were developed illegally in return for bribes saw the arrest of mayor Mustafa Demir.

Dr Ebru Soytemel of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities argues in the latest issue of Women’s Studies International Forum that policies aimed at helping the area’s impoverished families are failing to make people more self-sufficient and often lead to them becoming stigmatised.

“The current government regards poverty as a temporary, individual problem that can be fixed, not a structural problem. They say your religion or your family should provide you with help, but distributing help through religious networks really stigmatises people,” she said.

“The tragic thing is that this area has been under renovation by the EU since 2002. The emphasis on cultural heritage was defined only with respect to houses and the architectural style of buildings, and aimed at creating tourist spaces. They poured money in but they haven’t tackled the social aspect. The gentrification and restoration is sugar-coating the area.”

Dr Soytemel says Turkish policymakers and NGOs are failing to build on the collective capabilities being shown by women in the Golden Horn area, who create small-group solidarities, helping each other find informal work and cheaper ways to buy necessities such as bread.

Instead, existing welfare assistance encourages patronage; neighbourhood headsmen are in the main responsible for determining who the needy poor are, and for arranging the distribution of food vouchers and coal. Cash transfer is not used as the poor are seen as not knowing how to spend money, and perceived unfairness in how help is given out can create new tensions in neighbourhoods.

Informal organisations have therefore become crucial for the survival of the poor, with neighbourhood-based solidarity networks and self-help initiatives meaning women can share information, organise and develop strategies for survival.

Documented in the paper are a number of ways in which women in the Golden Horn area collectively to make ends meet:

  • Sharing information such as how to buy necessities bread more cheaply (such as visiting a shop in the early morning to buy the previous day’s leftover bread);
  • Pooling what money they have in order to buy goods such as pasta in bulk;
  • Sharing advice on how to obtain help from local headsmen;
  • Supporting each other in avoiding bailiffs (for example, neighbours will give wrong directions to officials).

Another important aspect of these solidarity networks is their ability to overcome ethnic barriers. Unlike the tensions observed in the more affluent or more ethnically homogeneous streets, Kurdish women were able to form close relationships with neighbours who had similar income problems. Their primary concern was to provide help as and when it was needed to members of their community.

Key findings of the paper include:

  • Small group self-help solidarities are very important for poor women in Turkey.
  • Urban interventions negatively affect collective capabilities of the poor in Turkey.
  • Policymakers must recognise collective capabilities of the poor to improve policies.

Find out more about the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities.