After agreeing to underwrite a local Pakistan version of the ubiquitous children’s television show, Sesame Street, USAID officials pulled the funding for this project after corruption rumours began to appear in local newspapers. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look. Is this just another bit of familiar, tawdry corruption or has it been collateral damage in the deterioration of US–Pakistani relations?
Thirty years ago, my family lived in the city of Sapporo in northern Japan. It was – and still is – a very pleasant place to live. There are lots of parks, hiking trails, mountain inns, volcanic lakes, orchestras, clubs, great restaurants – and some of the best winter sports sites on the planet. They had, after all, hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and the city has a world-famous festival that features giant snow sculptures as well. The only “problem” for us, besides sometimes having to dig out from the two metres of snow that could fall in a day, was that the city had very few other Americans living there. That meant there were few opportunities for our two young children to practise their English – although their command of Japanese at the six-year-old-level quickly became astonishing.
To help with our children’s English, a relative in the US helped us out by recording hours and hours of Sesame Street on videotape for us, so our children could do what millions of other children did – learn the alphabet and their numbers from Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, the Cookie Monster and all those other characters designed by Jim Henson.
Yes, of course there was a local Japanese equivalent TV programme, Hirake! Ponkiki. It was superbly produced, bright, cheerful and very engagingly acted, but it wasn’t going to do much for our children’s English. Thus the emergency call for hours and hours of Sesame Street, along with its ever-present theme tune “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” and that other song, “Rubber Ducky”.
Sesame Street, designed by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, has been around since 1969 and there are now fully localised versions around the world, including South Africa’s own Takalani Sesame Street, which has been on the air here since 2000.
By 2001, there were over 120 million viewers watching all the different international versions of Sesame Street then available (including dubbed versions of the US show). By the show’s 40th anniversary in 2009, in one version or another, it was being broadcast in more than 140 countries.
Besides any pedagogic successes, Takalani Sesame Street counts as a real success for the US foreign aid programme as well. The show is an extraordinary example of what is now popularly called soft power – that is, the extension of national influence without recourse to tanks, planes, laser-guided missiles, special ops teams, or the weight of foreign investment or other economic pressures. There are now whole journals and university programmes dedicated to studying soft power and public diplomacy (the government version of soft power). And, in our wired world this stuff may well matter more than those tanks and planes.
Back in Apartheid’s bad old days, so desperate apparently were South Africans to watch Sesame Street that the mandarins at the old, untransformed SABC gingerly solicited US embassy help to intervene with the Children’s Television Workshop (the actual creators and licensers of the show) to implore them to drop their ban on airing the show in South Africa as part of the cultural boycott – for the benefit of the children, of course.
It didn’t happen – perhaps because it was clear the CTW wasn’t about to change its policies, but perhaps, too, because embassy staffers knew this kids’ show was a real trump card – a tangible product that mattered a lot to all sides – and to be played when it really mattered.
Having said all that, I also have a vague memory of seeing it once in a while on Bop-TV (the signal ostensibly broadcast from the so-called independent homeland of Bophuthatswana to the west of Gauteng – presumably aired off what must have been bootlegged copies of the show. Bop-TV could be seen in Soweto on a good day, but barely in the richer, whiter northern suburbs of Johannesburg – or around Pretoria.
So, a couple of years back, in yet one more foreign aid effort from the US to Pakistan – and to deal with literacy and numeracy issues as well as to demonstrate the natural goodness of a more tolerant, ethnically diverse society – the US’s foreign programme committed to fund the development and taping of Sim Sim Hamara, the thoroughly Pakistani version of the durable children’s show.
In the fullness of time, Sim Sim Hamara aired for the first time in December 2011 on the state TV network after almost two years of development and preparation. Promoted by the US as a signal project that would promote education and literacy in a fun and visible way, this local version had introduced to Pakistani children a whole cast of new muppets. There was Haseen-o-Jameel, a flamboyant crocodile; Baji, a traditional Pakistani woman with a passion for nutrition; Rani, the 6-year-old science-crazy schoolgirl. Plus, of course, Elmo – but no wily old Uncle Osama. The first season of 26 episodes had already been recorded by March.
Like all its other siblings around the world, this version had songs, life lessons, a word for the day, storylines that promoted tolerance and respect for elders and it was recorded in Urdu and was to be dubbed into Pashto and Punjabi, Sindhi and Balochi – but now the whole project may end.
The initial funding commitment had been for a total of $20-million, of which $6.7-million had already been disbursed – although state department sources say project funding had actually been cut in half before problems began. The show had been on Pakistani television for the past six months – and it was due to run for a total of four years – when the US halted funding for the programme, citing allegations of corruption by the Pakistani partner organisation, Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop. This theatre group is now saying it hopes it can find the money to continue from somewhere else, otherwise it will come to an end – well before it was planned to, and well before millions of Pakistani children learn to sing “Rubber Ducky”.
The Rafi Workshop, of course, denies all corruption charges. Faizaan Peerzada, one of the group’s managers, told reporters all the charges were baseless. Peerzada said, “This is a reputable family who has done work in very difficult times and I think these claims are false and my legal cell has already served notice to the journalist who has printed this false and ridiculous story.”
Meanwhile, the US aid agency told journalists it first began its investigations after getting fraud allegations via an anonymous hotline. The actual announcement of the funding cut came after the charges had surfaced in a local newspaper that was alleging the family theatre group that was producing the show had been involved in the corruption.
The US State Department spokesman in Washington, Mark Toner, felt compelled to explain to journalists that “This is about allegations of corruption. So rather than continue to throw good money after bad, we thought it was prudent to cut off this programme and wait for the results of this investigation.” Toner added that “We do acknowledge the programming is beneficial, but we had what we believe were credible allegations.”
Meanwhile, the Children’s Television Network, the US producers, said they were “surprised and dismayed to learn about the serious allegaions. We trust that the facts will be fairly and fully assessed, and we will wait for the full report. It is our hope that the achievements of Sim Sim Hamara, and the gains we have made in the lives of children in Pakistan, will carry on.”
This being Pakistan, naturally there are some who are rather more cynical about what has happened. In their 10 June report on the goings on around Sim Sim Hamara, Time magazine led with the question: “Has the Pakistani version of Sesame Street fallen victim to the growing mistrust between Washington and Islamabad?”
“It is a conspiracy,” Rafi’s chief executive, Faizaan Peerzada, told Time. “We have conducted all our operations in line with USAID requirements, down to the type of buses we bought for social outreach programmes.”
Peerzada said he thought the decision to end funding so abruptly may well have been motivated by those deteriorating US-Pakistani ties. “I think it was at least partly motivated by that. The show has been the rare Pakistan-US joint initiative that has never been targeted by conservative groups for promoting American interests or trying to brainwash Pakistani children,” Peerzada charged.
He noted that the show had generated no negatives, even from among the die-hards opposed to American actions in the region. For example, Ali Azmat, a conservative singer who has been vociferous about the US “war on terror”, had performed on the show during its first season to show his support.
Peerzada said that even without USAID money the producers had found investors who wanted to support the project, but now that the allegations about corruption were out there, future funds were in jeopardy. “We have no problem with USAID’s decision to end the partnership, but it is unfair to claim that this was motivated by alleged fraud when none exists,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pakistani media reports are claiming the actual production company, Pakistan Children’s Television, created by Rafi Peer Theatre and USAID to produce the show, had ended up hiring Peerzada family members for key positions in the production company – and diverted some of the production funding to pay off some old Rafi Peer Theatre debts.
Peerzada said this was all nonsense. “In our original bid, we specifically stated that this was a family business and identified our designations. There was no issue then. I fail to see how this could be an issue now”.
He is now suing the newspaper that broke the story, Pakistan Today, for libel and defamation.
For its part, the American embassy in Islamabad simply said: “The U.S. Agency for International Development has put in place strict monitoring systems including an anti-fraud hotline to keep corruption out of its programmes. The anti-fraud hotline, for example, encourages anyone with information about suspected corruption related to USAID-funded projects to report the information to USAID’s Office of Inspector General in the United States.”
It adds that “the U.S. government places the highest priority on helping Pakistan achieve its development objectives, especially in the area of energy, education, health, stabilisation of the border region, and economic growth. These anti-fraud measures are key to ensuring that money spent on development projects achieves the maximum possible benefit for the people of Pakistan.”
The embassy’s press release also put its fraud hotline telephone number at the end of its statement, just in case anybody knew of any other foreign aid projects where Elmo or the Cookie Monster were putting their hands in the cookie jar.
Sadly, the US-Pakistan tie is now charged with suspicions and counter-suspicions. The ill will pervades this relationship so profusely that even an innovative effort to deliver a socially relevant, educationally useful children’s television programme can become a casualty. Cookie Monster is replaced by… just Monster. DM
Photo:Men hold locally developed character Haseen-o-Jameel at the launching ceremony of the Pakistani version of Sesame Street called “Sim Sim Hamara” at Rafi Peer Theater Workshop in Lahore November 26, 2011. (REUTERS/Mohsin Raza)
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