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    Turkey and the limits of urbanization

    Güven Sak, PhD23 May 2015 - Okunma Sayısı: 1148

    We in Turkey compare ourselves to Europe. It is too often a heartbreaking exercise, which is why our persistence in the practice is so telling. I think deep down in our hearts, we know that Turkey belongs to the West in general, and to Europe in particular. Turkish history, starting from the Central Asian steppes, could be summed up as a centuries old, constant movement towards the West.

    Any convergence here is good news, which is why I was happy to see that as of today, Turkey has matched Germany’s rate of urbanization. That is important, considering that Germany has had a head start. In the 1840s, the independent states that we know today as Germany had an average urbanization rate of around 20 percent. Turkey would reach that rate in 80 years, in the 1920s, and by then half of the population of the now unified Germany had urbanized. But Turkey caught up. In 2014, Germany was 75 percent urbanized, while Turkey was at 72 percent. That kind of rapid urbanization has been the basis of Turkey’s growth story. Turkish society squeezed more population movement into a shorter time frame, which filled up factories very quickly, ramping up production.

    Why is this all this important? Because that growth model now seems to have reached its limits. Germany’s urbanization plateaued at 75 percent because that more or less seems to be the rate at which a highly developed economy functions. If we in Turkey want to grow from this point on, we need a new model. Filling up the factories with the 28 percent left in the countryside won’t do. We need to work on making the 72 percent in urban centers more productive. That means better training programs, a robust judiciary system, and moving up the global value chain. But we also need to take another look at our society and transform who we are. For example, German’s female labor force participation rate is more than 70 percent, while Turkey’s is stuck in the 30th percentile. Even when tough economic times force Turkish women to work, they go back home once the economy is doing better. Turkey’s job market is simply not accommodating to women. That needs to change, and it is the job of public policy to make that change as smoothly as possible.

    Turks have migrated to the cities, but they have yet to become citizens.  The only way forward now is a qualitative jump.

    Figure 1. Turkey and Germany’s urbanization rates (1840-2014)

    This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 23.05.2015