Tuesday, June 19, 2012

US "AfPak" Puppets & Corruption on Sesame Street

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 cable."

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

Sim Sim Hamara

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

Teach For Pakistan

Developing Pakistan's Intellectual Capital

Intellectual Wealth of Nations

Resilient Pakistan Defies Doomsayers

Student Performance By Country and Race

India Shining and Bharat Drowning

South Asian IQs

Low Literacy Rates Threaten Pakistan's Future

Light a Candle, Don't Curse Darkness

Mobile Phones For Mass Literacy in Pakistan

Poor Quality of Higher Education in South Asia

Teaching Facts vs Reasoning

1 comment:

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a Washington Post piece on American fast food restaurant chains in Pakistan:

Anti-American sentiment may have reached historic highs in this country, but for many Pakistanis, the indignation does not extend to their bellies.

Just over the past few days, Islamabad inaugurated its first Hardee’s restaurant and its first American-style sports bar. In recent months, McDonald’s not only reopened its only restaurant in the capital but also added a home-delivery outlet. Those businesses join existing burger joints and other American fast-food restaurants such as Pizza Hut, KFC and Domino’s Pizza.
After opening its first Pakistani restaurant in Lahore in 1998, McDonald’s now counts 21 outlets across the country. Hardee’s launched the first of its four restaurants in Pakistan a year and a half ago and plans to open a total of 25 within five years.

Nowhere is Pakistanis’ love of American fast food more apparent these days than at the newest Hardee’s. A few days after a much-hyped opening attended by U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter and his wife, lines of customers still extended outside the doors. Nawaz Sadiq, manager for development and training at Hardee’s, said the outlet has served an average of 5,000 to 6,000 customers a day so far.

“The Pakistani market is very much brand-conscious,” Sadiq said. “Pakistani people are against America because of its policies, but at the same time, people want quality.”

Unlike in the United States, fast food here is among the more expensive eating-out options. At 390 Pakistani rupees, or about $4.50, a Big Mac is out of reach for most people. Consequently, many customers are part of Pakistan’s highly educated class and have spent time in the United States, or have at least more favorable opinions of the United States than most of their countrymen.
But for Mohsin Masud, owner of the brand-new restaurant 3rd Base, security is not a major concern. Masud, who spent time in the United States and Canada, said he opened his sports bar because he couldn’t find good hamburgers in Islamabad. The restaurant, which has a Facebook page, also specializes in steaks and chicken wings. But one standard sports-bar item is conspicuously absent.

“The only thing missing is the beer,” Masud said, because it is impossible for Muslims in Pakistan to obtain an alcohol license.