Before arriving in Diyarbakır I already had a statistical understanding its high level
of poverty relative to Turkey. As such, I was ready to face the traditional images of poverty in its streets. I was not incorrect in my expectation. Begging is more widespread there than that which we are accustomed to in Istanbul. The number of children roaming along the large city walls of Diyarbakır is striking. On the sidewalk, a line of street sellers hawks all sort of goods, from cigarettes to cheap perfumes.
When I returned to Istanbul I checked the figures. They confirm what was quite obvious in the streets. In 2013, the unemployment rate in Diyarbakır province (including Şanlıurfa) was 17.5 percent, while the average rate for Turkey was 9.7 percent. The gap was even wider in the case of the non-agricultural unemployment rate: almost 24 percent versus 12 percent.
I am curious to know the figures related to the number of vendors. In urban areas, the proportion of vendors -- called “mobile or irregular workers” by the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) -- in terms of total employment is 6 percent nationwide, while it is 12.7 percent in Diyarbakır. Last but not least, the rate of informal urban employment is a shocking 47.6 percent in the province while it is around 22.9 percent nationwide. In sum, precarious levels of unemployment and informal employment are already serious issues in Turkey, but the problems are two-fold in Diyarbakır.
If it hadn't been for one of our hosts, Muhammed Akar, I would have left having only seen the dark sides of life in Diyarbakır. Akar -- a lawyer in the Diyarbakır Bar Association and president of Diyarbakır's Justice and Development Party (AKP) Municipal Council -- took us to explore outside the walls of the old city. He especially wanted to show us the town of Kayapınar, just outside of the Diyarbakır. Kayapınar has grown from 3,000 to 300,000 inhabitants in just the last decade. Hundreds of modern buildings line big avenues where shoppers wander in and out of large malls. Though it was the first day of Ramadan, young people -- boys and girls -- packed the terraces of many Nişantaşı-style cafes, sipping their lemonades. Kayapınar reveals how Diyarbakır, unlike many other Anatolian provinces, is definitely a secular place.
I asked Akar what kind of people lived in Kayapınar. “The new middle class,” he answered, adding that the housing boom is now also producing “smart buildings” with added technological features. For sure, the impressive per capita income growth of the 2002-2011 period did not miss Diyarbakır [see my piece, “The growth of the Middle Class”].
However, worries about the future are not lacking. Ahmet Sayar, the new president of Diyarbakır's Chamber of Industry and Commerce, complains that large investment incentives granted to the least developed regions three years ago have disappointed in terms of their results. Investors are hesitating because they aren't sure they will see definitive and lasting peace in the region.
According to president Sayar, in the last few years, many investors from Western Turkey and abroad have made serious investment plans in the region, plans they have not committed to yet. Apart from actual political uncertainties, the lack of skilled workers is another obstacle for investors. In order to fulfill this need for skills, the chamber started construction three months ago on a technical school with a capacity of 1,500 students.
Sayar is very confident about the future if the current peace negotiations between the AKP Government and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) end in a stable and long-lasting solution. He also informed us that when construction is completed on the Tigris' Silvan dam, it will be possible to irrigate 70 percent of the cultivable land in Diyarbakır province. President Sayar believes that, at that time, the land productivity will be tripled.
Let's hope for peace and for Diyarbakır!