Corruption on Sesame Street in Pakistan?

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:

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

Pakistan Adapts Sesame Street

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Sim Sim Hamara Youtube Channel

Pakistan's Media and Telecom Revolution

Impact of Cable TV on Indian Women

Early Childhood Education in Pakistan

Newsweek Joins Pakistan's Media Revolution

UNESCO Report on Pre-School Education in Pakistan

Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Vision of Pakistan

Billion Dollar UK Aid For Pakistani Schools

Pakistan Must Fix Primary Education

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Developing Pakistan's Intellectual Capital

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Views: 289

Comment by Riaz Haq on June 22, 2012 at 5:40pm

Here's an ET story on yet another American cultural export to Pakistan:

The fast-food and restaurant market in Pakistan has reached a threshold where it may be recognised as a driving force for new investments. The billion dollar market of Pakistan isn’t only seeing growth of local food outlets but also attracting international food chains.

Fatburger – Santa Monica, California-based fast-food chain – is the latest one to announce its intentions to take a bite out of the local food market. One of fastest growing food chains around the world, Fatburger will be introduced in Pakistan soon by BIL Foods Ltd, a subsidiary of Dubai-based BIL Investments that owns a chain of restaurants and a chemical company.

Fatburger will join the likes of McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Hardee’s and OPTP that are already operating in the country. Not to mention hundreds of local restaurants and fast-food outlets opening each year to meet the growing demand.

According to industry sources, around 50 new food outlets were due to be operational during the last couple of months in Defence and Clifton areas of Karachi alone. Of those 50 some places, many have already opened while others are in the pipeline, sources said.

The list does not only include restaurants and fast-food chains but also cafes, bakeries and specialty food outlets, the source added.

The growth of the food business has even created a secondary market for young entrepreneurs as many online food portals have opened up and are doing well financially.

While there is no official data available about the size of this market, a conservative study of some 25,000 food centres by Food Connection Pakistan – an online food portal – found that Pakistanis spend at least Rs90 billion ($1 billion) on dining out every year.

“I believe, food is the only entertainment in Pakistan so far,” BIL Foods CEO Samiullah Mohabbat said while sharing his views about international food chains’ interest in Pakistan – in an email to The Express Tribune.

There is still a huge gap for international food chains to enter in the Pakistani market, Mohabbat said.

Referring to the benefits of doing business in Pakistan, the CEO said Pakistan has a strong human resource; English speaking workforce, cost-effective managers and technical workers. Besides, he added, it has a large and growing domestic market.

There are about 180 million consumers with rising incomes, he said, and a growing middle-class moving to sophisticated consumption habits – making it a strong emerging market....


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