Congress makes Elmo cry by defunding Palestinian 'Sesame Street'
In protest of the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen froze $192 million in funding for USAID programs, including a Palestinian version of 'Sesame Street.' The move has not only jeopardized the show, but US Mideast policy.
There will be no Big Bird, Elmo, Bert, or Ernie for Palestinian children as long as their leaders continue their quest for United Nations recognition. That’s the latest message Palestinians are receiving from Congress.Skip to next paragraph
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In December, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee escalated pressure against the Palestinian statehood appeal to the UN by freezing $192 million in funding for USAID programs. Those funds go primarily to hospitals, education, and government institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the largest programs affected by the suspension of aid is the iconic children’s show, the Palestinian version of "Sesame Street," known in Arabic as “Sharaa’ Simsim.”
The show first began in 1996 and worked to promote messages of peace, tolerance, and diversity. According to the show’s executive producer, Dauod Kuttab, USAID funded the program with a budget of $2.5 million between 2008 and 2011. An additional $2.5 million was scheduled to cover the program’s costs until 2014.
“If we had funding,” Mr. Kuttab says, “we would be writing scripts, we would be reviewing scripts, we would be hiring film-makers to produce the videos.” Though the program worked to promote peace and tolerance, its staff of 80 may face the harsh reality of unemployment.
The suspension of funding to programs like "Sharaa’ Simsim" is hugely detrimental for both US policymakers and the people of the Middle East. First, it deepens mistrust and widens the chasms between US foreign policy and people in the region. And this occurs at a critical time, when unprecedented political change – the Arab Spring – is taking place.
The freeze on these aid programs also damages US soft power abroad, as "Sesame Street" is a landmark American show.
The fund suspension reinforces already widespread suspicions about the “real motives” of US aid to the region, causing people to see it merely as a bargaining tool to support a political agenda rather than to promote peace and improve humanitarian conditions.
The lawmaker behind the freeze is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Her action appears aimed at demonstrating to her constituents and to the Israel lobby that she is taking tough action against the Palestinians. The temptation exists to use foreign policy solely to bolster individual election campaigns.
Regardless of what the real philosophy of American aid to the region is, this perception that political gain trumps peace building is becoming increasingly widespread among global observers, especially in the Middle East, and may irreparably harm the US image in the region.