Human Rights, Economic Inequality and Ayşe Buğra

One of the most fundamental human rights is without a doubt freedom of expression. Of course, nobody should be compelled to think in the same way; everybody should be able to declare his or her thoughts without insulting each other. Moreover, no one should hesitate nor should they be afraid to express her/his views. I am aware that it is extremely silly to highlight the importance of freedom of speech in 2021, the era of artificial intelligence and digital transformation, but this declaration is necessary. This is particularly true for Turkey where the vast majority of Turkish society still do not tolerate people who have a different opinion from themselves.

Those who do not act like the majority of the society or those who use their fundamental human rights in Turkey quickly have become an “other”. To illustrate, there is an ongoing protest against the newly appointed rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities by faculty and students since January 4, 2021. Melih Bulu -who stood as a Justice and Development Party (current government in Turkey) parliamentary candidate in 2015- was appointed as a new rector of Boğaziçi University on 2nd of January 2021, by the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Students and faculty members complained about this appointment for undermining a decades-long tradition of Boğaziçi’s rectors being selected from within the university. Traditionally, a rector candidate with the highest number of votes during the university elections became Boğaziçi University’s rector. Hence, faculty members and students have demanded that this democratic tradition should continue, and they are calling for Bulu’s resignation. Demonstrators basically want to use their human rights as everyone is free to express her/his opinion under Article 28 of the constitution. Organising a protest is also one of the primary constitutional rights in Turkey. To illustrate, the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, Article 34 indicates: “Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission.”

Unfortunately, the students and faculty members have been met by a heavy police response, and authorities have detained over 600 people as of the 5th of February, 2021. Moreover, the Turkish government has criticised the protesters, labelling them as “provocateurs” and “terrorists.” Moreover, the Turkish president blamed Emeritus Prof. Dr Ayşe Buğra, one of the lead scholars on social policy and economics in Turkey, for provoking student protests at Boğaziçi University. The Turkish President said: “The wife of the person named Osman Kavala, the representative of [George] Soros, is among these provocateurs too.” Criminalising protesters who use their constitutional right or accusing Ayşe Buğra as a provocateur does not match fundamental human rights values. 

Despite the ongoing heavy police response against the demonstrators who demand the democratic election for a new rector of the university, I hope for the days when we can live together in peace in Turkey, regardless of our differences as human beings. One of the main reasons why I have hope is Emeritus Prof. Dr Ayşe Buğra and her great work on economic inequality, social policy, and poverty. She has published several books and articles to provide solutions on reducing the gap between rich and poor; her publications also significantly contribute to the literature for these topics. Her students always praise her as “profoundly generous, thoughtful and modest.” I will try to explain the value of Ayşe Buğra through the global economic inequality issue.

London-based international humanitarian organisation Oxfam releases a report almost every year to address global wealth inequality. On the 25th of January 2021, Oxfam published a piece called “Inequality Virus.” One of this report’s main objectives is to draw attention to how current economic systems increase the gap between rich and poor people. This report is valuable because it draws attention to economic inequality; it also provides possible solutions to improve society’s socio-economic welfare. Oxfam’s report stated that between the 18th of March and the 31st of December, 2020, the ten wealthiest people in the world increased their fortunes by $540 billion. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s data for 2019, only 23 out of 196 countries’ gross domestic product (GDP) is higher than $540 billion. In other words, according to the IMF data, almost 90% of the countries’ GDP is less than the ten richest’ earnings, which occurred during the COVID-19 crisis. 

During the time when the ten wealthiest people in the world increased their wealth significantly, a Ugandan asylum seeker, Mercy Baguma, was found dead next to a ‘starving baby’ in the UK. The Positive Action in Housing charity reported that her one-year-old son was suffering from malnutrition and required hospital treatment while this horrible incident broke out. These two contrasting examples given in the short paragraph above show the economic inequality between rich and poor people.

The existing economic inequality has increased around the world during the global health crisis, including in Turkey. A report shows that the number of millionaires increased by 32,232 from March to June 2020, while almost a million people lost their job in Turkey. Hence, when the vast majority of people lost their primary income, there was a record-breaking increase in the super-rich’s wealth during the COVID-19 crisis. This unfair result and the rise of inequality during the global health crisis are related to the inadequacy of existing economic policies in Turkey and worldwide. Economist Thomas Piketty published a book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, where he examined the history of inequality and claimed that existing economic inequality is rooted in ideology and politics. 

Ayşe Buğra is one of the lead scholars investigating economic inequality, poverty, and social policy. She has devoted her life to studies that better understand poverty and income inequality, and she has been lecturing at Boğaziçi University for 36 years. According to the updated Google Scholar index, the total number of citations made to the works published by Ayşe Buğra was 5,787 as of February 19 2021. In this sense, Ayşe Buğra, whose name was mentioned in 5,787 separate studies, devoted her life to scientific studies, highlighted society's chronic socio-economic problems while offering solutions. Particularly, her book “On Economists and Human Behaviour” is one of the best sources written in Turkish within the field’s literature. It is an informative, valuable book that explores the relationship between human behaviours and economic theories.

As a result, targeting the dignity of Ayşe Buğra and blaming her as a “provocateur” will only harm the social peace among people in Turkey. Instead of criminalising the demonstrators and Ayşe Buğra, the Turkish government should focus on a new socio-economic policy to reduce the gap between poor and rich people. This effort will be better for humanity. Finally, I must say that I feel honoured and proud to stand with Ayşe Buğra; she should never be left alone. Yes, it is possible to live altogether in peace as a human being. Let’s stand shoulder to shoulder with Ayşe Buğra, and “let’s all look at the sky, not below”.