UM training of nurses in Yemen UM training of nurses in Yemen foto: Geraldine van Kasteren

Maastricht University can make a difference in Yemen

Written by  Graziella Runchina Friday, 22 June 2012 12:18

Contributing to the development of healthcare in Yemen. This was the mission of MUNDO, the UM offi ce for development cooperation, when it launched a four-year, Nuffi c-funded project in 2011 to train health workers in the capital city of Sana’a. Due to unrest in Yemen, the project was delayed by a year. But since April 2012, the link between the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) and the High Institute for Health Sciences in Sana’a has been re-established. “In response to the recent unrest, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to send a political signal to the Yemeni government, temporarily suspending the Training of Nurses and Health Statisticians project”, explains MUNDO project manager Geraldine van Kasteren. “A travel warning is still in effect, but now that President Saleh has stepped down we’ve been allowed to resume our activities.”


For several years now, the three largest universities in Yemen have looked to Maastricht University for inspiration. UM’s flagship educational system, Problem- Based Learning, has attracted particular attention. “Collaborative efforts were being undertaken on various fronts and this project fit in perfectly”, Van Kasteren says. “What really works to our advantage is that the FHML has built up a great reputation in Yemen and the surrounding region over the years.”

Foreign aid welcome

“Healthcare in Yemen is both qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate, so any form of foreign aid is welcome. There aren’t enough doctors, nurses or midwives, which partly explains why the child mortality rate is so high.” Universities across Yemen produce very few doctors – far fewer than necessary for the country’s 24 million inhabitants. Currently, there are only 0.3 doctors for every 1000 Yemenis, compared to 4 for every 1000 inhabitants of the Netherlands. “Add to that the fact that many newly graduated doctors leave for neighbouring countries, which means Yemen is forced to recruit doctors and nurses from abroad to avoid a real disaster. We can make a big difference with this project. Together with regional experts from the University of Suez in Egypt and our own Hogeschool Zuyd, we studied the market demands placed on nurses and adapted our programmes accordingly. By providing support for these programmes, their quality will only increase. And we’re doing the same thing for the health statistician programme.”


Van Kasteren is convinced that launching the project could mean a big step forward for a country like Yemen. “Although we won’t be able to measure it exactly, we do expect an enormous spinoff. The universities have been isolated for a long time and we’re already starting to notice that they’re finding it easier to link up with international networks in their disciplines. Initiatives like this also have a huge impact at a policy level as well.” With almost € 1 million in funding for the project, Van Kasteren and her team are training several dozen educators to pass on their knowledge to hundreds of students. “We’re teaching local nurses how to design training and courses so that students are given centre stage. In this effort, the support of practitioners from Hogeschool Zuyd is indispensable.”

‘Third sex’

Van Kasteren felt perfectly safe each time she visited Yemen. “But as a foreign woman I did feel like the ‘third sex’. On the work floor I feel equal to men, but from a social perspective it’s quite different.” She never leaves the house alone without a headscarf and was expected to stay in separate ‘women’s quarters’ during a dinner at the faculty dean’s house. “But I feel good in Yemen”, she says. “I’m not a tourist so I’m not a target for attacks. And most of the time, when I’m in public I’m surrounded by doctors or deans. That makes my position very special.”

Cultural context

“We’re used to applying our knowledge in our own culture, in our own daily lives”, she continues. “In many cases, applying our expertise in a very different cultural context leads to new and often surprising insights. We share our knowledge, expertise and experience in the field of education to help develop other institutes, and in turn we learn a lot about education and management systems. We can then use this increasing expertise at home, for example in the International Track in Medicine or with the King Abdullah Scholarship students from Saudi Arabia.”

Geraldine van Kasteren (1967) studied Medicine at Maastricht University and spent several years working in regional health centres and hospitals.
She has been involved in medical education in developing countries since 1993, and has previously lived and worked in Kenya and Sudan.
She is currently the coordinator of SHE Collaborates, the new FHML office for international cooperation.

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