USAID cuts funding for Elmo on Pakistan TV

The US cut $20 million for Pakistani version of Sesame Street. USAID alleges fraud against the show's producers, but the cutbacks come as the US is pulling back foreign aid.

Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street – complete with an Elmo who squeals in Urdu – is facing a cutback in support from USAID, America’s Agency for International Development.

Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street – complete with an Elmo who squeals in Urdu – is facing a cutback in support from USAID, America’s Agency for International Development.

The cutbacks come amid allegations of fraud by the Lahore-based theater group that produces the children’s show, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, but it also comes at a time when the US-Pakistani relationship is strained, and when the US government is cutting back dramatically on foreign aid worldwide.

USAID allocated $20 million for the production of Sim Sim Hamara (which means “Our Street” in Urdu), and $6.7 million of that was used to produce the first season, which premiered in 2011. The remainder of the contract has been terminated, pending the results of an investigation into the fraud charges.

"We did launch an investigation into the allegations. We also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington on June 5. "No one is questioning, obviously, the value and positive impact of this kind of programming for children. But this is about allegations of corruption."

Faizaan Peerzada, Rafi Peer’s chief operating officer, denied the fraud charges, saying in a statement, “Rafi Peer is proud of its association with the project and the quality of children’s educational television programming created within Pakistan as a result.”

Whatever the ultimate result of the investigation, the shutdown of funds into children’s broadcasting in Pakistan come at an unfortunate time in the US-Pakistani relationship.

NATO airstrikes and US special forces raids on Pakistani territory have strained Pakistani patience with the US-led war on terror, and Pakistan has shut off NATO’s use of Pakistani roads and ports to resupply its troops in Afghanistan. The US, meanwhile, has grown increasingly frustrated with what it sees as signs of either Pakistani collusion with militant groups such as the Taliban, or incompetence in bringing them under control.

But the cutbacks should also be seen in a broader context of America’s steady pullback from foreign assistance. In 2011, US foreign assistance totaled $25.5 billion. President Obama requested an increase in those funds for 2012, up to $28.5 billion, but Congress eventually agreed to a budget of $20 billion, a cutback of almost 20 percent from 2011.

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Sesame Street never stood a chance to patch up the dysfunctional relationship between the US and Pakistan, but a funding cutoff eliminates one more way for the US to project the kinds of moderate values that both it and the Pakistani government seek to reinforce.

It also removes one more tool for educators in a country of 170 million where only 50 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys go to primary school.

Pakistan isn’t the only country to lose funding for a local version of Sesame Street. In January, the US State Department announced it was cutting funds for  Sharaa Sim Sim, the Palestinian version of the show, because of funding cuts from Congress.

“Unfortunately, with the cut in Economic Support Funds, we had to make some hard tradeoffs,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, noting that the Israeli version of the show would continue to receive funding. “This is programming in Israel designed to promote common sense of citizenship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Palestinians, but also between all Israelis and folks in the Palestinian territories.”

Money talks

For some Americans, especially those who are skeptical about the effectiveness of American foreign aid, cutting $20 million in funds for the Pakistani version of Elmo may just feel good. Public perceptions of waste in foreign aid, often based on evidence, have a powerful effect on the American public, since negative news and scandal are the only stories about foreign aid that they are likely to hear in the American news media.

Yet nonmilitary foreign aid is a pittance compared to the money that the Pentagon receives each year. According to PBS columnist Joshua Foust, the Pentagon’s budget has doubled from 2001 to today, and now stands at $670 billion.

That kind of math is something even a child can understand. If Sim Sim Hamara goes off the air, but US bombs keep dropping, another generation of Pakistanis will have only one thing to associate the US government with: war.

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