Istanbul Mayor’s ‘pay it forward’ campaign raises over $1 million in 2 days for city’s poor

It took residents of Istanbul just 55 hours to raise $1.4 million in response to a campaign by the city’s Mayor to help families struggling to pay their bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

The “Askıda Fatura” (Bill on the Hook) scheme was launched by Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu on Monday 4 May in response to thousands of households with insufficient funds to pay their utility bills.

The online pay-it-forward scheme operates anonymously. Those undergoing financial hardship can put forward their overdue gas, electricity and water bills, which are then covered by a benefactor.

Within three days, the campaign generated over $1.45 million (equivalent to 10.36 million TL, or £1.16 million), providing financial aid for some 84,380 families in need.

“No one in this city shall remain in dire straits. We are here, and we are one”

“The numbers are growing by the minute! In 55 hours, $1.4M worth of unpaid utility bills in #Istanbul were anonymously covered by kind strangers, to help those financially struck by the pandemic. Let this campaign set an example for the whole world!” Mayor İmamoğlu wrote in a tweet on May 8.

Anonymity remains central to the scheme, with the Mayor stating at the campaign launch that, “The hand that gives will never know the hand that receives. Istanbul is putting its mark on a historical act of solidarity. No one in this city shall remain in dire straits. We are here, and we are one.”

To prevent misuse, only bills approved through the Istanbul Metropolitan Council’s means-testing mechanism are uploaded to the Askıda Fatura website.

The scheme comes on top of the food parcels, vouchers and cash assistance the Council distributes to tens of thousands of families each day. Millions of jobs have been lost during the two-month lockdown, particular those in casual work.

A temporary solution was found for those facing greatest financial hardship by suspending payment of their utility bills until June. However, many feared they would not be able to pay three months’ worth of bills when the payment holiday ends next month.

Noting that “life is getting harder by the day”, the Mayor said it was vital “to strengthen our solidarity.”

“Many citizens call the council to ask what they can do for their fellow citizens that are experiencing financial difficulties. ‘What can I do?’ they ask. Now, what we’re doing is pairing up financially challenged citizens with those who want to help,” the Mayor added.

Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu launches his Askıda Fatura campaign

Askıda Fatura: a centuries-old Turkish tradition

The Askıda Fatura campaign borrows its name from a longstanding Turkish tradition that dates back centuries, whereby a person would go to a bakery and pay for two loaves of bread, but only leave with one, telling the baker that the other loaf will be left “on the hook”.

When people unable to afford bread would come in to the shop and ask, “Is there bread on the hook?”, they would be able to get a loaf of bread for free. This act of kindness is perhaps one of the earliest pay it forward schemes in the world.