Aziz Akgul: Addressing unrest with loans by Ayten Turan

When Aziz Akgul became Head Consultant to the Prime Minister of Turkey in 1996, he was asked to reduce terrorism in the east and southeast. The first thing he did was investigate motives.

“We saw that unemployment and poverty took first place in the reasons list,” says Akgul. “Yes, ideological reasons did exist, but poverty and unemployment were ahead of those reasons. We figured out that people who have nothing to lose could be a part of anything.”

Akgülworked with Muhammed Yunus* to draw up plans to begin a micro credit program, which were recommended to the National Assembly by the National Security Council, but the postmodern coup of Feb. 28, 1997, replaced President Süleyman Demirel with a a government backed by the military. After Akgul returned to teaching, Industry Minister Yalim Erez invited Akgul to help “try something new.”

Named president of the Republic of Turkey Small and Medium Enterprises Development Organization (KOSGEB), Akgul formed five working groups assigned to create job opportunities for disadvantaged groups: women, the elderly, the young, the disabled and the families of veterans and martyrs.

“Our original goal was to reduce poverty by giving people micro credits, not grants, so they could establish their own business and be productive,” says Akgul. “We were hoping to create firms that would do export.”

Akgul gives the example of Aynur Demirtekin, a woman who borrowed 500 Liras in 2004.

“Her father had a salt shop. She bought a sewing machine with the loan turned the shop into her workplace,” he says. “We kept giving her increasing loans and most recently she borrowed 10,000. She now pays taxes and has employees working for her. Her goal is to become an exporter.”

Akgul says they don’t loan money to men.

“Of course we do not totally deny them, but we make them bring their wives or mothers to take the loan,” he explains. “We like women borrowers better. They are in a different state of mind, and they are more responsible.”

Although they don’t have a scheduled consultancy service, they do advise their clients.

“We become their therapists in some ways,” says Akgul. “For example a customer comes and tells us she works with five people and we ask her how she will manage the money. We talk to her and discuss the situation, and then we give her the loan.”

By the year 2012, Akgul says they gave away 113 million Liras in loans  to 51,000 members via 75 branch offices in 56 cities under the Turkey Grameen Micro Loan Program (TGMP). He says TGMP aims to elevate 50 percent of the low income to middle income level.

Akgul says the borrower is required to start being productive in one week, after which, the paying-back period begins.

“If they take a long break before they start, it gets very difficult to keep track of the loan because there is no assurance or bail. We completely depend on trust,” he says, adding that the loan is paid back within a year with weekly payments. “Education level, language, religion or race does not matter for us. We are a loan company and we operate for women with low income. Discipline, hard work, unity and making a family succeed with their financial independence is our goal.”

Aiming to help people support their families and serve their country, Akgul started the Foundation of Waste Prevention as a family foundation, investing his own cash and apartment to develop ways of preventing waste.

“We began to perform workshops and seminars at schools and we conducted some projects,” he explains. “When micro credit projects got bigger, my financial sources began to fall short and we started receiving donations. We received 21 Million Liras of donations and gave away 137 Million Liras of credit.”

Today it is no longer a family foundation.

“We see this as a corporation,” says Akgul, who went to Saudi Arabia in March, as a guest of Prince Tallal bin Abdülaziz. “We discussed the possibility of founding a micro finance bank in Turkey. They agreed to invest the seed capital and we are planning on establishing a micro finance bank with a social entrepreneurship model.”

Akgul explains that social entrepreneurship is when investors invest in a corporation, they will receive  shares from the profit.

“After they take the amount they invested, they will not be receiving shares from the profit anymore,” he says.

Akgul has worked in business, military and government institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations. He says that in every field he worked he saw waste tried to prevent it.

“I asked the question 'Why?' in every place I worked,” Akgul says. “Why is the Court of Account building of so huge? Do we need a building that big? Who do you think pays for the electricity, water or design of this building? I do, you do, public in general does. I am sorry but no one gets to spend my money like that. Do you know why we lack that awareness of citizenship in Turkey? Because only people who are occupied with merchandise pay taxes and you become a citizen when you pay taxes.”

Like the good professor he is, Akgul encourages questions.

“Our education system contains no questioning,” he says. “We do not teach our kids to ask why. We need a generation to ask why an

d reply. This is what is called a productive generation.”

Born in Diyarbakir , Aziz Akgül’s father is Kurdish and his mother is Arabic, but he calls himself Turkish.

“Everybody that lives in the Republic of Turkey is called Turkish,” says Akgul. “Of course there are minorities under that name like Turkish with Kurdish origins, Turkish with Arabic origins, Turkish with Armenian origins or Turkish with Christian origins.

“I personally believe in multicultural societies and I think everyone should be one hundred percent free to live and practice their religion however they want. Whatever fits the nature of the human should be embraced. Every cultural right should be given to the people. Humans are mortal, they will be passing away soon anyways. I cannot consent to someone being tortured during the time they have on Earth. People should not be suffering; they should be living honorably and humanly.

“I see the systems we created as systems that do not work. Capitalism, Marxism, Fascism are all the same, all artificial. Capitalism, which is a structure that aims the maximization of the profit, is collapsing. Social entrepreneurship, which aims to earn money by solving the problems that exist, is rising instead. Of course there will be some business that people will profit, but we cannot forget that there are people in this country who go to bed hungry every night.

“We should be questioning why.”

Akgul entered the Kuleli Military High School when he was fourteen and graduated in fourth place from the Military Academy’s Business department, the valedictorian of his class. He was the first member of Turkish Armed Forces to receive an assistant professor’s degree in business and he received a letter of appreciation from Chief Of Staff Necip Toruntay for this effort.

He is known for adopting the Millî Görüş (National View) ideology.

“If I have adopted National View or any other ideology, the biggest reason for my straying is Armed Forces, because I have been held there from age fourteen to thirty eight,” Akgul says. “If I have ever felt close to an ideology, it is Armed Forces who caused this. If I have somehow caused damage in this country, they are the reason. My parents handed me to them when I was very young. I only had the chance to see them twice a year and my visits were only fifteen days long.”

Though Akgul’s parents are illiterate, he is very proud of them.

“They never manipulated me to adopt an ideology but they taught me what I needed to be able to serve this country and make myself useful,” he says. “I am really proud of this. I would like Armed Forces to reply to this, can they? I was embraced by the Armed Forces as a boy.”

When he was invited to Kenya for a micro credit summit, Akgul visited the tin shelter with Queen Sophia, Yunus and a local minister.

“I was supposed to stay for only five minutes, but we stayed an hour and a half, thanks to Queen Sophia’s very well developed moral values,” says Akgul. “I saw that tragedy. I could not eat nor sleep at the hotel that night. Prophet has that really good quote: Visit a patient or a grave every week.”

Akgul says the elderly need to be included in economic development plans.

“We really need to respect and believe in the elderly more than we do right now,” he says. “We need to understand that they need to be a part of the society and they can work like any other member of this community. It is very rude to call them 'old.'

“I remind you that in U.S. they call the elderly 'senior citizens,' which is a very respectful saying. Language is developed by nuances. Calling someone old is insulting them.”

Akgul says he is a conservative by nature, but is also open to progress.

“The person who claims to know a lot knows nothing,” he says. “I read the most recent articles, I closely follow the agenda and my best sources are my doctorate students. External powers use the PKK issue way too often too wear Turkey out and I reprove everyone who acts on this intentionally or not. Why?

“It is impossible to understand the terrorism issues in Turkey that are currently going on. I am a child of that region. I think we should take a seat and discuss what should be done. If they want Kurdish classes, we should be teaching them.

“We are part of a culture that taught the world what multicultural means. We are descendants of a brilliant generation who taught the world what multiculturalism is without imposing any idea on the minorities, but now we try to relearn it from Canada or USA.

“This country is the most rapidly growing country in the world and we do have problems. Everyone does. The U.S. Is dealing with health issues, England’s social security system has collapsed,” he says. “Our intelligence is not enough to create a better system. The leaders should be considering and figuring out a system that eliminates unproductive debates and makes the members of the society happy.

“Turkey is an amazing country.”

* Muhammed Yunus, with Grameen Bank, was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.”

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