Commenting on corruption allegations against Rafi Peer Theater group in Pakistan, American Comic Stephen Colbert quipped that Sim Sim Hamara “was our most successful deployment of a puppet in the region since Hamid Karzai”. Colbert, in his inimitable satiric style, is lambasting "$20 million corruption on Sesame Street" and he is demanding that the US Congress hold hearings to find out "what Elmo know and when Elmo know it?"
The allegations and the subsequent cutoff of USAID funding all started with Pakistan Today's story attributed to “reliable sources” leveling sensational charges against Rafi Peer. It mentioned “rampant” and “severe irregularities” in Rafi Peer’s “$20 million” contract with USAID; alleged that the Pakistani company had used USAID money to pay off old debts and put family members on the payroll; took kickbacks from equipment suppliers; bribed USAID officials; and lavished funds on “expensive security systems.”
The allegations surfaced at a time when the Pakistani version of the acclaimed American TV show was gaining popularity among Pakistanis. It was averaging 18.7 million unique viewers—or about 10 percent of the total population—each month from its first broadcast last December through the end of April.
Rafi Peer has since denied all charges and sued the English-language newspaper for some $10 million, according to a report in Newsweek.
Nexia International, the auditing firm hired by USAID for Sim Sim Hamara, told Newsweek that it found no irregularities in the accounts for the financial year that ended on June 30, 2011. “When we audit a USAID project, we do it on their terms of reference,” Sarfraz Mahmood, the company’s Pakistan representative. “We report directly to USAID.” The USAID spokesman in Islamabad, Robert Raines, affirmed his organization has “a strict monitoring system” and is “involved in all levels of auditing of our projects.” In its May 24 letter to Rafi Peer, the agency writes: “USAID would like to underscore our respect for [Rafi Peer’s] creative talent and commitment to furthering the objectives of Sim Sim Hamara.” It also says that it would “encourage the continuation of the program.”
Critics of the Sim Sim Hamara project have alleged from the very beginning that it was an American export intended to "brainwash" Pakistani children. Here's how Khalid Baig of Albalagh summed up his opposition to the arrival of Sesame Street adaptation in Pakistan:
"So it is a war as Sesame Street’s invasion of all these countries has been on a war footing, using every imaginable means to reach every child in the target area. But it is not the war on illiteracy that its accompanying massive propaganda suggests. Rather it is war on literacy and on culture (and religion). The Muppets may look cute. But there is nothing cute about what they are up to."
The perception of American cultural "invasion" of foreign lands is shared by some Americans as well. For example, American journalist Bart Mills
talks about America's "Baywatch imperialism", a reference to the fact that the California beach show featuring Pamela Anderson and other scantily clad women became America's biggest and most successful export to much of the Muslim world in 1990s. Here are some excerpt from Bart Mills' recent column written after the USAID decision to terminate funding of Sim Sim Hamara:
"This sort of imperialism is hardly new. Alexander the Great was wise
enough to use the cultural benefits of ancient Greece to placate the
masses in his conquered worlds, as has every conqueror since. America
has long understood the benefits of showing off its goods, and it works.
As someone who spent some time in Eastern Europe in the late-'80s, I
can tell you that the world, especially the part of it living at the
time under communism, coveted the heck out of what we had, just as much
of the Middle East does today.
Sadly, it seems as though we've
forgotten all that. Instead of trying to win over our enemies by
emphasizing our innate awesomeness, we feed their hatred with drone
attacks. We send them bombs when we should be hooking them up with free
The reason for cut-off of American funding just as the show was gaining traction remains a mystery. Was it really precipitated by unsubstantiated charges of corruption from groups that saw it as yet another American "conspiracy against Pakistan"? Or was it done to placate domestic US lobby angry with Pakistan's unwillingness to yield to US pressure?
In my opinion, the US decision to cut funding is short-sighted. It'll not only hurt the pre-school kids in Pakistan who were learning to read and count by watching the show, but it'll also hurt long-term US interests in the region. As to the Pakistani critics of the show, I'd remind them that Sesame Street is far more benign than other American exports like sugared drinks, fast food and Hollywood which have been corrupting the mind, body and spirit of many Pakistanis.
Here's a video clip of Stephen Colbert
on Sim Sim Hamara corruption scandal:
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