A Canadian in Yemen: Giving birth to change [Archives:2002/44/Culture]

October 28 2002

Thomas Froese
Canada’s Prime Minister Jean Chretien was recently chastized harshly by some Canadians for his candid suggestion that 9/11 was linked with growing global disparities and Western greed. Is he right?

If you’re a Westerner, consider this. Let’s say today is Sept. 11 and your mother was aboard one of the planes that went down in America. Let’s say your wife was on another, your sister on a third. They’ve all died horribly. Would it matter?

In truth, in the Developing World, this year, 600,000 pregnant women, enough to fill three jumbo jets every day of the year, will die during childbirth. Quietly.

In Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian city where my wife Dr. Jean Chamberlain-Froese and I are from, one mom dies during childbirth about every two years. For every maternal death in Hamilton, however, 115 women die in university hospitals here in Sana’a.
Across Yemen, a staggering one in nine women won’t survive child delivery. It’s not commonly known, but the rate of maternal death is actually the largest discrepancy in public health care between the world’s rich and poor countries.

Many of the deaths are preventable. Medicine costing as little as a cup of coffee may not be available. There may be no transportation from a rural home to a clinic. A husband or mother-in-law may foolishly deem such a trip unnecessary to begin with. Midwives have poor training.

Is there a link between this and the terror of 9/11? Consider almost 90 per cent of Earth’s 6.1 billion human beings live in the Third World. They can get a well-marketed Coke without trouble. But what about more essential things?
Workers needed
To deal with this blight, international relief organizations have given fresh razors and bandages in little safe-motherhood kits in countless villages. Still, global maternal death rates have actually risen in the last 15 years. The real need is for qualified workers on the ground to train, educate and launch effective indigenous programs.

Which is where my wife comes in. Like other humanitarian workers in Yemen, Dr. Jean comes with valuable professional skills. She’s a doctor of obstetrics from one of Canada’s leading medical universities.

McMaster University is known for its international focus. In fact, after bringing an influential Canadian associate here earlier this year, Jean is now helping to get about $200,000 worth of medical equipment to Yemen over the next several years.

My wife can help train Yemeni students and professionals. She also has a vision for women in other Third World countries to be cared for better, by creating training centers linking professionals in those countries with experts and resources in rich countries like Canada.
Some of her North American colleagues aren’t interested in such work. They’re not interested in a place like Yemen. Some can’t resist the lure of making big money in the West. Others fear the Middle East. Consequences of terrorist acts, like the bombing of the USS Cole, or now the Limburg, can linger for years and create all kinds of stereotypes.
False pride
But here’s another reason some Westerners stay away: one that people here can do something about. Don’t blame others for your problems. And get rid of your false cultural pride. If by good fortune, Dr. Jean or other international workers offer their services, don’t put up roadblocks because you’ll lose your little piece of turf.

Many Western aid workers, including my wife, have seen this mentality. Rather than accept help for the broader good of the community, some professionals in this part of the world appear to care more about how they look. 

Why is that?
It seems they’re afraid if outsiders bring change, a light will shine, yes, uncomfortably, on their personal shortcomings or their country’s deeper needs. Under the guise of rules, nonsensical as they may be, they intentionally block the help of aid workers. And hurt their own people.
Countries like Canada have been blessed with resources. But they’ve also prospered because they value efficiency. People who work hard and creatively are rewarded. Also, the West has multiplied what it’s been given, because, listen closely, when one values truth, one can look at oneself – and one’s culture – with honesty, and then evaluate where one needs to change and grow. That gives a future of hope, not despair.
Good news
So is Canada’s Prime Minister right? Maybe. And maybe acknowledging the greed of some will help close the gap of the world’s haves and have-nots. It’s good to know after years of budget cutbacks, Canada now is increasing its foreign aid.

That’s the silver lining in the dark cloud of 9/11. Many North Americans have suddenly been awakened to global issues. In fact as I write, Dr. Jean is in Canada briefly to lead a symposium for hundreds of medical students and professionals wanting to learn more about international aid work.

Despite great distances and differences, the world is becoming more of a neighborhood. People need to work together in it.

In the end, it’s the folks who keep their doors locked and curtains drawn who, I’m afraid, are truly menacing. They’re the world’s rich who ignore the plight of the poor. And they’re people from disadvantaged countries, like Yemen, whose petty fears hinder lasting change. Both live in a world that must be its own personal kind of terror.
How sad.
Thomas Froese
([email protected])
is an editor with the Yemen Times.