How Turkey’s Zakat Could Help Improve Global Humanitarian Aid

How Turkey’s Zakat Could Help Improve Global Humanitarian Aid

Eric Van Orman

According to the United Nation, the problems of people across the world are getting quantifiably worse.  While leading nations are giving more than ever, costly problems persist and accumulate enough that the funding gap in humanitarian aid has been steadily widening.  In the past few years, however, a new major player has emerged: the Muslim world’s zakat, or compulsory alms.  Though zakat is not without its logistical and ideological problems, its emergence coincides with the need and interest of comparable reform in the UN, in order to meet the complex transformations of crisis.  The potential for these two entities to work together could help set a less partisan, more sustainable standard.  And since zakat is theologically motivated at least in part, religion has a distinct opportunity to raise the moral bar.

Since 2014, humanitarian aid has been the greatest expense for the UN and an extremely important subject.  They may have set a 0.7% GNI target all the way back in 1970, but only a handful of countries have ever met this. And considering that the gap has not even been directly proportional to inflation, the lack of compliance is distressing.  While the UK can now take pride in having joined these ranks, its fellow key member the US is lodged at the bottom of the barrel–at an embarrassing 0.17% in 2017. And though President Trump’s massive “America First” cuts to aid were largely spurned, the budget did still decrease by several billion dollars.  Sadly, compliance of the world’s leading economies would not only bridge the gap, but also surpass it.

By volume, America still leads in donations according to OCHA’s 2017 report.  However, an alternative tally, the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, shows Turkey at #1 by $2 billion—0.75% of their GNI.  What accounts for this discrepancy?  The main reason is that the GHA counts money going to the Syrian refugees in Turkey, while the UN prohibits this practice after 12 months. Still, they are giving a great portion overseas, maybe even more than the total accounted for: a lot of zakat donation lacks transparency and does not run through OCHA’s traditional channels.

Though the 2.5% levy of assets is mandatory in six countries, it is only highly encouraged in Turkey.  Still, an impressive 71% of the eligible population self-reports to abide.  The zakat has of course been in place for ages, but Turkey has only recently emerged economically.  And it’s no stranger to being in dire need of international donations itself, having not been stable enough to manage its natural disasters only 20 years ago.  Now that they’re more wealthy, money from their once internal relief programs is being channeled outward.  The AFAD, a program under the Prime Ministry begun in response to the 2009 earthquake, now campaigns for organizations overseas.

Some even argue that zakat is often less earmarked.  State collections claim that it is given unilaterally, but without good data, there’s no way of knowing for sure.  With proper reform though, Turkey’s unilateral giving could give the country clout in the UN, under the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.  While the UN isn’t exactly attempting to reduce earmarking, they do want to make sure that aid, as much as possible, is used to empower people to build their own infrastructures for education, health care, and jobs. The SDG has received much criticism from American economists and journalists for being unattainably expensive, which does not bode well for compliance to the UN standard or the principle of unilateral giving.

Currently, at least, OCHA does receive substantial amounts from NGOs as well as more altruistic nations, with no strings attached.  The world’s two biggest givers last year, however, are poorer examples.  Nearly all of US aid is stipulated, with a quarter going to Afghanistan and Israel in 2017—countries that return through arms contracts much of what is given.  It doesn’t help that the US recently withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council, threatening to cut funding based on a perceived bias against Israel.  Zakat has issues of self-interest too, as it mostly supports within the religion only–the top countries in need the last several years being majority Muslim.  Still, the hope here is that the OCHA/zakat partnership could help negotiate an ideology shift that is already being lobbied for by many academics, religious scholars, and economists alike in the Muslim world: nondiscriminatory giving.  In the UK, where Muslims donated around £100 during Ramadan alone last year, the Muslim Charities Forum has recently called for a focus of at least some attention on the local needy of all religions and creeds.  While most money still goes to Muslim organizations in the UK, much of it will in turn be used to help without distinction.  While some global aid, such as through Islamic Relief Worldwide, may similarly be passed to some non-Muslims, for the most part, there’s a long way to go.

At any rate, though zakat is not itself unmarred by self-interest, it is at least characterized by a public spirit of altruism based on a pillar of Islam, and the high donation is not compulsory.  With transparency, the alleged direct handoffs to local NGOs could be legitimized and support this ideology. The ultimate test of the sustainability of Turkey’s donations will be whether they keep giving as much once the Syrian crisis ends.  There may be a fairly narrow window of opportunity for the UN to harness zakat’s power.  At least, it is significant that Turkey, though they first refused in 2012, are now full-fledged members of the UN’s Development Assistance Committee, meaning they have relinquished the privilege to receive aid.  Furthermore, they were invited to host the first World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

Zakat transparency, UN collaboration, and more unified data could help gauge the efficacy of the donations and yield data for future decisions as well.  In principle, this could support a greater level of needs-based objectivity.  Possibly, it could also help educate Americans about how little their government actually gives, as according to several polls, they grossly overestimate the budget.  No one should devalue the impact private donors in the US and other nations have made helping those in need, responding to news about natural disasters or people otherwise in distress.  Truly, this is part of Turkey’s potential: if people can’t change the government, they can increase humanitarian aid individually, choosing where their money goes.  Though the final step in this is still a long stretch, less partisan standards, or as objective control of allocation as possible, could make sure that the UN’s need figures are met so that some nations are no longer left high and dry.  In Burundi, political unrest has caused the displacement of 100,00 people.  Granted, this figure is much smaller than that of other refugee groups, but the low percent funded to this country belies a disregard for the UN’s allocation figures.  It’s not possible to say with any certainty, but one could imagine this is due to a lack of multilateral interest.

Religion isn’t a prerequisite for humanitarian ethics, and it certainly has historically been used to justify and obfuscate the opposite.  However, it could be that an economic policy informed or supported by religion bears both a responsibility and potential to benchmark standards and practices.  One report estimates that faith-based giving accounts for 15% of NGOs worldwide. And at least sometimes, religion has sided politically with human rights.  For instance, though the Quakers were early slave owners, they outlawed it entirely 100 years before abolition legislation was passed in any state.  Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to his clergy, the Rerum Novarum in ­­­the late 19th century.  He addressed Christian values in direct terms of current politics, even specifically supporting labor unions and collective bargaining, years before legislation passed.

Finally, Westerners have for some times seen Islam to be incompatible with a strong economy, and Turkey has a golden opportunity to challenge that.  And while corruption always has a few shadows to hide in, accurate data in the Information Age can help religious givers add a vertebra to the moral backbone of the world.


Eric van Orman is a writer living in Chicago.  He has a B.A. in English and Cultural Theory from the College of William and Mary.  He teaches creative writing to grade-schoolers at 826CHI, and is currently working on his first novel.

Image Credit: Jeremy Kapp