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Why is Turkey an odd country?
Our country’s agenda gets so odd at times that one inevitably wonders if such things happen in other places as well. Are we one of a kind? Is there any other country that has suffered from terrorism and high inflation for 30 years? Do they sentence their star pianists to prison for re-tweeting poems? Are the sidewalks of any other capital city, governed by the same mayor for 19 years, falling apart as they are in Ankara? Is what’s happening around us the normal flow of human history, or are we experiencing things that are peculiar to Turks?
I am aware that these are far-reaching questions. I will offer only superficial answers by showing three tables, in which you will see results refined from the data of 220 other countries, populated by creatures who walk and talk just like us Turks. The first two tables show per capita income and educational levels, and the third table shows levels of urbanization. I believe that Turkey’s peculiarities lie in the conclusions we can draw these three tables.
The first is below. I ranked all of the countries in the world according to their per capita income, from highest to lowest. Then I added data on the average educational attainment of citizens, in terms of years of schooling. Below is a cut-out of Turkey’s place in the chart. As you can see, Turkey ranks 66th in the world. There are 65 countries where people are richer than us. The surprising data is in the last column, the years of schooling. Please take a look. What attracts your attention? In the countries with per capita income of 13,000 – 14,000 USD (based on purchasing power) the years of schooling of citizens range from 7.5 years to 12.2 years. The average years of schooling in these countries is 9.7, which corresponds to the second year of upper secondary education. Adults in Turkey have on average 6.5 years of schooling, which means that they are simply seventh grade drop-outs. First conclusion: we are much less educated than people in countries with similar levels of per capita income.
Table 1. Countries with similar levels of per capita income to Turkey and their educational attainment
Source: United Nations, Human Development Index Database
Now, let’s take a look at the second table. It contains the same data, but this time I ranked countries by their educational attainment, not by per capita income, and again zoomed in on Turkey’s place in the chart. What do you see when you look at the countries with similar educational attainment (second grade of lower secondary education dropout) and their per capita income levels? First, Turkey ranks 137th in educational attainment – remember from the table above that we ranked 66th in per capita income. The second striking fact is that most of the countries in this table are in Africa. Maybe this is the reason why the sidewalks of Ankara remind me of Zambia – I guess the sidewalk thing is a matter of education, not money. Anyway, let’s get to the core finding: the countries comparable to us in education have per capita incomes of 1,500 to 8,500 USD, except for oil-rich Kuwait. The average per capita income of these countries is 4,600 USD, whereas Turkey’s per capita income is 13,400 USD. Second conclusion: We are three times richer than countries with the same level of educational attainment!
Table 2: Countries with a similar level of educational attainment to Turkey and their per capita income
Source: United Nations, Human Development Index Database
I think we are getting closer to the source of our oddness. "We are too rich to be as illiterate as we are." That, at least, is what the United Nations data reveal. In other words, we are one of the few countries that manage to earn money without getting educated. So, let’s ask the key question then. How did we do this? How did we become rich without educating our people?
The answer is in the table below, which shows the first 10 countries in the world by an indicator. It turns out that Turkey ranks 6th in the world based on this indicator. And this indicator is the change in urbanization rates between 1960 and 2012. What I mean by urbanization rate is the percentage of a country’s total population that live in the urban areas as opposed to rural areas. Yes, we are not in the first 10 places in per capita income or educational attainment or football rankings, but we managed to crowd into cities at a staggering rate in the past half a century.  Turkey’s urban population was 9 million in 1960 and 19 million in 1980. Today 53 million of our people live in urban areas. Our urbanization rate has risen to 71.4 percent as of 2012, from 31.5 percent in 1960. I will discuss the characteristics of rapidly urbanizing countries like us in another article. What I can say for now is that the countries urbanizing faster than we are have economies largely reliant on oil and natural gas revenues, such as Saudi Arabia in second place, Angola in third place, and Algeria in fifth place. Apart from these natural resource-rich countries, there are only two that have urbanized faster than Turkey: Korea and Malaysia. Korea’s average years of schooling is 11.6 and high technology products have a share of 29 percent in its exports. Malaysia’s average years of schooling is 9.5 and high technology products have a share of 45 percent in its exports. In Turkey, on the other hand, the average years of schooling is 6.5 and advanced technology products occupy a meager 2 percent share in exports.
Conclusion? Yes, we are an odd country. It is odd to invest in real estate and apartment blocks instead of in education. If we had chosen to invest in our people, I guess the sidewalks in our cities would be less like those in Zambia. Nor would our national discourse resemble the general assembly meetings of Fenerbahçe football club.
Table 3: Fastest urbanizing countries in the world over the last 52 years
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators Database
* Countries with population of more than 10 million.
 The reason why I have taken the countries with populations over 10 million in the last table and all countries in the first two tables is that the first two tables relate to human development, whereas the last table relates to urbanization. It seems rational to compare the income or educational attainment of a Turkish person with those living in a small island country. It does not make sense, however, to compare our level of urbanization with countries of smaller population than the districts of Kadıköy or Çankaya.