- Pioneers or Pawns? Women Health Workers and the Politics of Development in Yemen
Pioneers or Pawns? This is the question that runs through Marina de Regt’s extensive ethnography on the training and employment of women health workers (murshidat) by a Dutch-Yemeni development project in Yemen’s Red Sea port city, Hodeida. By focusing not on the institutions or intended “beneficiaries” of development, but rather on the heterogeneous actors involved in the project (the Dutch development workers, Yemeni state officials, and especially, the changing cohorts of urban women trained in preventative and primary healthcare), de Regt is able to offer a nuanced look at the exigencies, contingencies, and even personalities that shape and define “development” at the national, local, and individual levels. While the answer to her recursive question—“Were the murshidat really pioneers, shifting gender boundaries in Yemen, as foreign development workers saw them? Or were they merely pawns, deployed to realize the agendas of international donor organizations and Yemeni state institutions?” (16)—is, as we learn early on, a resounding and double yes, it is in the rich particulars of the women’s life stories and [End Page 105] in de Regt’s adept contextualization of their motivations that we discover exactly how the various murshidat experienced both the liberating and the disciplining aspects of their new labor.
The book is divided into five parts, each containing one chapter that concentrates on the (self) development of the agents of development, followed by a second chapter that situates these main actors within the different phases of the Hodeida Urban Primary Health Care Project (HUPHCP) and in relation to Yemen’s broader sociopolitical history. Having herself worked for two Dutch-funded development projects in Yemen, de Regt begins, in part 1, by examining her own background, motivations, and views on development before directing this same lens at the Yemeni women trained and employed by HUPHCP. During her last year of employment as the project anthropologist, de Regt gathered the “topical” life stories of her female colleagues (by then, friends) and other materials for her dissertation on which this book is based. Her theoretical framework—examining a development project through an actor-oriented approach, using life stories, a diachronic analysis, and a multilevel perspective—is described in chapter 2. Moreover, de Regt points out that her manner of research goes “against the grain of more conventional ways of doing academic research, in which people are in the first place research subjects, then might become friends, and in rare cases even might become colleagues” (3). The significance of de Regt’s “research subjects” being first and foremost her colleagues/friends is made especially clear in the epilogue where one reads of the admirable lengths to which she went to obtain their input on an Arabic translation of her dissertation.
Part 2 begins with a short history of development, women’s labor, and the politics of healthcare in Yemen, before turning to the development discourses and aims of one of its largest foreign donors, The Netherlands. The following chapter looks more closely at the history of this Dutch-Yemeni project and its specific geopolitical context, demonstrating how both individual actors and local, national, and international events influenced and, in important ways, determined its different phases. De Regt concludes that the development project was more affected by its environment than its environment was affected by the project.
Part 3, “Shifting Boundaries,” focuses on the first cohort of murshidat trained in 1985–86 and evaluates the effects of the project’s [End Page 106] pilot phase (1985–88). Chapter 5 demonstrates that the majority of the first murshidat were attracted to this new field out of their desire for education. Additionally, they were able to employ its novelty to their own advantage to gently push against the dominant gender ideologies. Chapter 6 details the contingent nature of the project’s first recruitment efforts and the backgrounds and strategies of the women trained. These relatively well-off women “pioneered” the entry...