Even when the situation seems most dire, the development process is never static. Bottom-up, local efforts help make the process the most feasible. Such was the case in North Yemen in the late 1980s, when the country’s first family planning policy was developed. The need for this policy proved to be especially urgent due to North Yemen’s very limited access to maternal healthcare and family planning and very high infant and maternal mortality rates. USAID director Kenneth Sherper worked with the Yemeni Ministry of Economic Planning, which ultimately recognized that family planning was the root of many Yemeni issues.
Although men in the Yemeni government initially opposed Sherper’s efforts, USAID-facilitated brainstorming sessions and local surveys revealed that at that time, women expressed the need for sufficient family planning. Prior to 1990, Yemen had been divided into North Yemen (also known as the Yemen Arab Republic) and South Yemen (known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen). The 1970s and ‘80s proved to be tumultuous decades that saw two Yemenite Wars and a South Yemen Civil War, which epitomized the political unrest of this period. In addition, the absence of democracy and women’s rights in both authoritarian states inhibited the sufficient development of family planning, as Sherper notes in his oral history: “On the side of the family planning issue, one of the difficulties you have is that women who go out during the day have to come back to their village at night.” Policymakers in Washington warned that Sharper would not be able to make changes in family planning and the living situation of women. In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that despite the warning, he took on the challenge.
Kenneth Sherper, who has an impressive academic record holding two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in developmental economics, began his career with USAID in 1965. He subsequently served in South Korea during the tenure of Park Chung-hee and in Ethiopia during its military junta. Sherper also served in Lesotho, Yemen, and he has worked for the United Nations Development Program since 1994.
Kenneth Sherper’s interview was conducted by W. Haven North on November 10, 1998.
Read Kenneth Sherper’s full oral history HERE.
ADST relies on the generous support of our members and readers like you. Please support our efforts to continue capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats.
“I thought this was a terrible situation and something needed to be done about it.”
Identifying the problem:
I think we had some very interesting programs. I guess one of the things that sort of was a challenge to me when I went to Yemen was the fact that I was told when I got my briefings in Washington before I went out that, “Look, because it’s a Muslim country, you’re not going to be able to do anything in population and family planning, you’re not going to be able to do much with women, and the big programs that you’re going to be focusing on are in agriculture and some on education. They have a PL480 program and it’s pretty stable, so we don’t expect any major shifts in the program.”
Maybe I sort of took that as a little bit of a challenge knowing that the development process is never static. When I was out there one of the things that I did was to expand our program for primary health care, reorient it, and expand it. We built primary health care centers. As part of that we had brought a few midwives to Yemen to be trainers of Yemeni nurses and midwives. One of the things that I sort of decided was that I had about seven or eight very bright Yemeni women working in my office. I sent them out on a survey (since only women could talk to women) doing a very informal general survey to find out what women thought their biggest needs were and the biggest problems that they faced were. When they came back, family planning was one of the biggest things. Women wanted it; the men didn’t.
Q: So they knew about it. They knew there was such a thing.
SHERPER: They knew it existed. They knew what men thought. They were listening to the mullahs and they believed what they were told in terms of the Koran. When I went to villages, I visited families that had 10 and 12 and up to 18 children. Not only the infant mortality rate was unusually high (about 170), but also the maternal mortality was running around 11 or 12 per thousand, which is outrageously high. I thought this was a terrible situation and something needed to be done about it. What I devised was with the Ministry of Health, which was very antagonistic to USAID, but they did agree to do some education of women through health services. I brought in a couple of women health professionals who specialized in women’s health and ran a series of workshops on reproductive health. They were very well accepted. The women just crowded to get into these workshops that would last for about five or so days. They would have to travel long distances, but they would come to these. I always made sure that it was opened by a mullah and got the blessings. These women when they would talk about reproductive health got into family planning matters, obviously. I thought this might be a problem, but, in fact, the women wanted it and it went off very, very well. I did this each year. I ran a whole series of workshops around the country in all of the major towns….
Q: You found American specialists who could do that kind of thing well?
SHERPER: No, usually the two that I used most were Americans, but they were Egyptian naturalized Americans, so they spoke Arabic. They were from California, but they had been raised when they were young in Egypt. Then what I did was after the survey was conducted by my staff, I said, “Do you think of women leaders in government positions, in political positions?”
“The only time we’ve seen that many Yemeni women together is when there’s been a wedding.”
“Yemenizing” the process:
Q: There were some?
SHERPER: There are some, that’s right. Many times they are wives of the wealthier or whatever. I said, “Do you think that they would have lunch with me?” They didn’t think so. I said, “If I had a lunch in a hotel, do you think they would come?” They said, “Well, maybe.” I said, “What I want to do is discuss with them some of these development issues. We have to Yemenize this process.” I invited them to lunch. I think I invited about 35 women.
These were women leaders around Sana’a. I had my staff carry the invitations and talk to them and then follow it up with telephone calls right up to the day of the luncheon. I got 32 of the 35 that came. They were coming to lunch and they were going to talk about women’s development issues with the USAID Director. They didn’t know what that really meant, but it was a free lunch, I guess. It was in a hotel, a relatively neutral place. The hotel people said, “The only time we’ve seen that many Yemeni women together is when there’s been a wedding.” They were quite surprised that I was able to get that many people for lunch. In this luncheon, after lunch, I asked them, “Would you be interested in helping me? I want to help the women of Yemen, but I don’t know what to help them with and what is the most important or the highest priority. I would like to have a workshop with women attending it. I would bring in some women facilitators. We would have a little opening ceremony with a couple of government officials and myself. You won’t see any men then until the last day when I want to hear what your conclusions are, what your results are. Here are the tasks that I would like you to do. I would like you to just brainstorm for three days. There will be a facilitator to help guide you, but when you come to the end of that three days, tell me what are the most critical development needs that you see.” They had talked among themselves for some time and then they said, “Well, yes, that could be possible,” and they would help arrange it. I set that up and we had participation of more than 60 women, not many of these leader women by the way. They came by bus from every little town all over the country. We had this seminar. I had facilitators there. Then I got this list at the end. I said, “You not only have to tell me what they are, but you have to prioritize them. If you can’t prioritize them one, two, three, then I want them in clusters of the top five and the next five and the next five.” So, they did this. This gave me sort of the best indication that I’ve had of what to do. From that, I was able to initiate programs to help women learn some basic skills about accounting-
Q: What were their priorities?
SHERPER: One of the priorities they wanted is they wanted to get into business, but they had no clue on how to do it, except they thought they could generate the resources. I said, “I’m not here to give out money. I’m here to help you in other ways.” They had no management skills, no accounting skills, and no supervisory skills if they hired somebody in how to deal with them and so on.” Most of these women, probably half of them, wore veils. Others were a little more liberal.
Q: Had they had any schooling at all?
SHERPER: Many of them went for about four grades, so they had some schooling. Some never went to school. If you look at the overall literacy rates in Yemen at that time, it was about 18 or 19 percent. For men, it was about 30%. For women, it was about 11% or less than that. Maybe it was nine. So, it was very, very low. They wanted to run shops and to be tailors and dressmakers. I set up this program that helped some of them.
Q: You didn’t have objections from any of the men, mullahs?
SHERPER: In the case of the entrepreneurial kind of orientation, there weren’t problems. The problems came when they started talking about getting family planning information.
Q: Was that on their list?
SHERPER: It was, but they knew that they would have problems with it. There was a list of about 35 or 40 things. I would say family planning came in there around seventh or eighth. It was still very high, but that I approached differently, which I can mention in a minute. The only thing I would say is that what I did was, I was able to start a project to support women’s activities. Some of them were quite successful. Some were in handicrafts. Some were selling baked goods. Some were making school uniforms. There were a number of things, as well as basic skill training. It went over very well. The government was quite pleased with that, too.
On the side of the family planning issue, one of the difficulties you have is that women who go out during the day have to come back to their village at night. They can’t sleep away from their village unless they have a very enlightened husband or they can stay with a friend or a relative where they go. We brought from Sudan a number of midwives to teach family planning in the villages. They would go out and bring the mountain to them, so to speak, and train them. The traditional midwives were oftentimes the old grandmothers who had lived through the process of delivering a child, but really had no new technologies or weren’t aware of a lot of the things they should be aware of. That was going really quite well. We attached these Sudanese midwives to our primary healthcare centers and then they did outreach and spent their time in a village teaching women from that village and maybe a couple of surrounding ones.
“I got him involved and we developed the first family planning policy they had in Yemen.”
Developing Yemen’s first family planning policy:
Then I was requested to assist in the nurses training as a result of this work. I asked if we could review the curriculum to help strengthen it. I brought in some specialists and they rewrote the curriculum for training nurses. In there we were able to get a whole chapter and a module on family planning that didn’t exist before. That became part of the training program. As you know, these things always take a long time before you get to the end. On the upside of this, I worked with the Ministry of Economic Planning, which was my counterpart. For the first time, I was telling them, “You need to have a family planning policy.” I gave all these examples of what I saw in the villages, the kids, the educational and health issues, and so on that are associated with this. The deputy minister became a good friend of mine.
He would call me and we would talk on the phone from time to time. One day, he called me and said, “Can you come over to see me?” I said, “When?” He said, “Well, if you’ve got time, I’d like to see you now.” I said, “What about?” He said, “We’ll talk about it when you get here.” I didn’t know what to expect. He said, “I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been saying about family planning. It really is the root of a lot of our problems. We’ve got too many people we can’t take care of. We can’t educate them. We can’t provide them with health services. We have problems with shelter and food.” I said, “That’s a situation we’re working on.” He said, “I would like to propose to the Cabinet a family planning policy that you had suggested. Can you help me write it?” I said, “Yes, the policy we can do. It has to be your policy, but I can give you some ideas. The policy needs to have attached to it some sort of strategy on how you’re going to do it to implement it. The policy alone will just sit there unless you bring it down to concrete terms. Why don’t we work with the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) person who is here?” He was there all by himself, and had not been able to make many inroads. A nice guy. He was from Sudan. I got him involved and we developed the first family planning policy they had in Yemen. All of these areas about working with women and family planning and so on, I think, we got some movement on, some real positive changes, and a tremendous amount of awareness created about the problems and issues related to it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Animal Science & Agronomy, University of Minnesota 1953–1957
MA in Agricultural Economics, University of Minnesota 1958–1960
MA in Public Administration, Syracuse University 1971–1972
Ph.D. in Developmental Economics, Syracuse University 1972–1976
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—Deputy of Drought Relief Division 1976–1979
Maseru, Lesotho—Deputy Director, Bureau of African Affairs 1979–1981
Sana’a, Yemen—USAID Director 1987–1989