The Pakistani version of Sesame Street was hailed by the U.S. government as “a mesmerizing reflection of national culture, regional flavors, and a mix of urban and rural Pakistan” after it debuted last December on state-run television. Six months later, citing allegations of corruption, the U.S. has pulled back funding from Sim Sim Hamara—the local name for the show. The future of the hearts-and-minds project—and its 120 Pakistani staff—is now uncertain.
Bankrolled by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the show was supposed to highlight the “diversity of people, customs, and cultures in Pakistan” as well as to “reflect messages of inclusion, mutual respect, and equal opportunity.” And, ironically, that’s just where the show may have failed. For some, USAID’s abrupt decision to cut funding to the popular program, on the basis of an anonymous call to its anticorruption hotline, is further evidence that the Americans just don’t get Pakistanis. “We Pakistanis have a habit of pulling down the handful of people in our country who might be doing some good work,” says artist Salima Hashmi, who worked on Sesame Street’s Urdu-dubbed version in 1999. “This is a national illness.”
If the U.S. is unaware of this collective character flaw, it ought to know better. “How can they do this on the basis of a call?” says Faizaan Peerzada, chief executive of the family-run Lahore-based Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, which beat out more than 300 applicants for the USAID-funded project in early 2010. The 54-year-old says the U.S. agency has not shared the charges with his company, let alone the chance to refute them. “We have not been included in the inquiry,” he said. “We have the right to know what we did wrong.”
On June 5, Pakistan Today ran a story attributed to “reliable sources” leveling sensational allegations against Rafi Peer. It spoke of “rampant” and “severe irregularities” in Rafi Peer’s “$20 million” contract with USAID; said the Pakistani company had used U.S. funds 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.” Rafi Peer denies all the charges and has sued the English-language daily for some $10 million.
“During the last three decades, the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop has hosted 48 international festivals in the field of dance, drama, music, and puppetry and is solely responsible for keeping the traditional art of folk puppetry alive in Pakistan,” the company said in a press statement responding to the story. For such work, Rafi Peer has come into the crosshairs of militants. In May 2010῀ a Sufi music event at Peeru’s Café—where Sim Sim Hamara is shot—was bombed, leaving nine wounded. The compound was also attacked in 2009 and in 2008, the same year that bombs disrupted its World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore.
“It is also pertinent to mention that USAID has, throughout the life of the project, been closely involved in the management, operations, procurement, and auditing of the project,” reads Rafi Peer’s statement. Nexia International, the auditing firm hired by USAID for Sim Sim Hamara, says 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, told Newsweek. “We report directly to USAID.” The agency’s spokesman in Islamabad, Robert Raines, affirmed his organization has “a strict monitoring system” and is “involved in all levels of auditing of our projects.”
While the project was in development, Rafi Peer and the show’s U.S. licensor, Sesame Workshop, had to work through some cultural differences. “We had to explain there were certain things that cannot be shown in Pakistan,” says Moneeza Hashmi, who competed with Rafi Peer for the project and then joined as script supervisor. “Some of what they wanted us to use was culturally insensitive.” She recalls one exchange over a segment about an animal farm. “I had to explain why we cannot show pigs in Pakistan!”
The project was originally to have received $16–$20 million until 2014. The U.S. Congress shaved this down to $10 million, of which 30 percent was allocated to the Sesame Workshop. With the $6.7 million that came to Rafi Peer—a fraction of the annual $300 million USAID says it spends on various projects in Pakistan—the company completed 26 half-hour episodes, scripts for Season 2, and 13 episodes dubbed in the Pashto language.
Even though it debuted months later than initially planned, Sim Sim Hamara was averaging 18.7 million unique viewers—or about 10 percent of the total population—each month from its first broadcast through the end of April. And yet in May, USAID told Rafi Peer it had run short of funds and would not be able to continue assistance beyond Sept. 30. This deadline was later moved forward by the U.S., citing “credible allegations of fraud and abuse.” 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 states that it would “encourage the continuation of the program.”
Like its Indian counterpart, Sim Sim Hamara was slated to eventually become self-sustaining—something Peerzada had been working toward. He recently met with Sesame Workshop executives who visited him in Lahore after USAID’s decision, and he says they want the show to go on. But more than the shifted goal post, it is the corruption allegations against his company that make his job harder, if not impossible. “Today, Rafi Peer cannot raise a single dollar,” he says. “The whole world is calling us names. I wish USAID had handled this more responsibly.”
For all practical purposes, Sim Sim Hamara’s fate appears to be sealed. Work on road shows, radio programs, and episodes in other regional languages have stopped. Half a dozen staff members have already been let go. And the show’s official YouTube channel, which prominently featured the USAID logo, has been “terminated” by the social-media website over an apparent copyright violation.
“The wonderful work Rafi Peer has done for the children in this country is absolutely undeniable,” says Moneeza Hashmi, who worked on the project scripts for three months. “I don’t know if it became the victim of some political quagmire, you never know.” U.S. funding to Palestinian initiatives, including their Arabic version of Sesame Street, was stopped in January in response to the Palestinians’ bid at the U.N. for statehood.
The Norwegian government, which has worked with Rafi Peer for almost two decades and helped fund its Museum of Puppetry—which has hosted some 600,000 children since opening its doors eight years ago—has also withdrawn support. “We have put our collaboration on hold,” Terje Barstad of the Norwegian embassy told Newsweek. “However, we have no reason to believe anything was wrong during our collaboration with Rafi Peer.”
“I’m more concerned about the reputation of my family, my organization, and my country,” says Peerzada about the future of Sim Sim Hamara. “It is very sad. We are an artistic group of people. We are liberals. We have been left tumbling.”
Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan, where Benazir Shah is a staff reporter.