Turkey Should Do More With ICT

Eight years ago, I made my first visit to Istanbul. I was the guest of a successful American businessman who was born and raised in Turkey, so I was able to visit a lot of places that most tourists or businesspeople wouldn’t see.

In addition to making the rounds of the major historical sites, I traipsed around Bosphorus University, well known as Turkey’s Harvard. I had tea in several neighborhoods, became acquainted with all three major football (soccer) teams, took a ferry to Istanbul’s Asian side, visited a friend of my friend’s home, and was welcomed one day into a circle of friends and their lively conversation about the past, present, and future of the country.

At that time in 2004, Turkey’s economy was not good and the country’s spirits were down. Although a new government had recently taken over and was moving the country away from 80 years of Europe-facing, wholly secular politics, there weren’t many changes evident at the time.

Turkey’s petition to join the European Union was being shunned, notably by Germany, a country with millions of Turkish “guest workers.”

From Grim to Great
Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, I was struck by the sight of thousands of fashionable, yet unemployed and grim-faced young men taking a Sunday stroll with their wives, girlfriends, and families along the streets surrounding the city’s signature Taksim Square. The air was palpable with tension and resentment, as a new generation of young Turks grappled with the country’s glorious Ottoman past versus its current impoverished reality.

But today, Turkey is a global superstar. Its enthusiasm for the EU has cooled, putting it mildly. Indeed, the country’s current prosperity seems to mock that of the EU, particularly its neighbor and historical antagonist, Greece. The country, still managed by the Erdogan government that came to power almost a decade ago, has been turning its face toward the Middle East, and has become a major influencer of events in the region and the world.

The Technology-Centric View
I’m not a political writer. I prefer to stay away from the passions politics incite, and stay focused on information & communications technology (ICT) and its influence. My theory is that politicians, movements, and even revolutions come and go, but ICT’s influence is an evergreen that grows day by day regardless of local, regional, and global politics.

My research over the past 18 months, which I’ve written extensively about (just google “Tau Index Strukhoff”), has uncovered countries with regimes as varied as Iran, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Vietnam, South Korea, and Sweden as among the world’s most aggressive in deploying ICT.

The disruptive nature of ICT – today’s starlets are Facebook & Twitter – sometimes seems to be in evidence. Egypt and Tunisia, for example, have done well in my rankings. On the other hand, Libya and Syria have not.

But ICT remains, in my opinion, as the major indicator of how well a country will develop economically over time, whether the current leaders are duly elected, Communists, oligarchs, dictators — or any combination of all these things.

Middling Performance
So how well has Turkey done in my research? The best word I can think of would be “middling.” This may surprise some people. But I think my research shows that Turkey needs to do better when it comes to technology if the dreams of its investors and population are to be realized.

These dreams have created a hellacious real-estate boom in Istanbul and selected other places for several years, one that makes witnesses of recent bursting property bubbles in the US and Europe (think Spain) cringe.

To be sure, millions of new tourists have enjoyed Istanbul, seaside resorts, and other interesting areas within Turkey. And the country’s exports are equal to about 13% of its overall economy (compare this to about 10% for the United States).

But Turkey imports almost $100 billion more each year than it exports, and its technology exports are less than 2% of its total exports, according to the World Bank. Compare this to the United States at 10.5%, Mexico at 20%, Malaysia at 34%, and the Philippines at 38%, for example.

My research brings Turkey’s middling ICT performance to light. By integrating the amount the country spends on technology (again according to World Bank figures), with several other economic and societal factors (provided by the United Nations and other organizations), I found that Turkey ranked 40th among the 82 countries I was able to survey.

This places it almost even with France, Spain, Mexico, and Thailand. It finishes well ahead of Italy, Greece, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Less Good News
But there is a lot of less good news here.

My research is a complex mix of factors, and can be adjusted on the fly to focus more heavily on single or multiple datapoints. Broadly speaking, it tends to favor less wealthy countries, as it takes local cost-of-living (a factor known as PPP) heavily into account.

So Turkey’s relatively low per-person income (less than 25% of the US and less than half of Greece) should help its ranking; yet it still trails most of the Western powers, as well as South Korea and Japan.

More important, it badly trails the neighbors who comprise the former Soviet satellites of Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. Neighboring Bulgaria emerges as one of the superstars, leading its region while finishing second in the world (trailing only South Korea). Romania scores in the world’s top 10 as well, along with Hungary and Ukraine. Within the ICT sphere, Turkey is simply not as dynamic as many of its neighbors and competitors.

I think it’s worthy to note that Turkey’s economic boom is currently accompanied by 10% inflation, and an official unemployment rate of almost 9%. I would urge the country’s political and business leaders to re-focus on ICT, and bring the country’s real future prospects wholly into line with its dreams, because it wouldn’t surprise me if there are still some grim-faced young men walking around Taksim Square.

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