Educational emergency: Losing ‘Sim Sim Hamara’

Published: June 30, 2012

Sim Sim Hamara attempted at educating one-third of Pakistani children who are unable to attend school. PHOTO: PUBLICITY/FILE

Much to our disappointment, just a few weeks ago Pakistan lost the Urdu version of Sesame Street, commonly referred to as “Sim Sim Hamara”. Sadly, Sim Sim is no longer hamara.

The USAID had invested over $65 million in “Sesame Street” undertakings in more than one dozen countries for over a decade. In Pakistan alone, the investment was around $20 million and was supposed to span over four years. Out of this $6.7 million has already been spent. It is a shame that the US has reason to believe that funds were mishandled much to the embarrassment of every Pakistani who has also known about achievements of the Rafi Peer Group and at one time, held them in high esteem.

Sesame Street was established in 1960 in response to poor literacy skills of American children from low-income households. It encompassed a child-friendly curriculum supporting children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. “Sim Sim Hamara” attempted at educating one-third of those Pakistani children who are unable to attend schools by teaching them about numbers, alphabets and character building in an interactive fashion.

Educational theories have proven that early childhood intervention substantially affects the literacy and numeracy achievement. While the children in most countries of the world are growing up in a benign environment, Pakistani children are being exposed to bomb threats, strikes, ethnic violence in major cities, power outages, and most importantly an unsafe childhood. In Karachi alone, schools remain closed for days when the halaat are kharaab’.

While our generation grew up bicycling on the streets and playing in parks, our children are growing up inside homes in front of the television because we are afraid of the uncertainty that life in Pakistan brings. These restrictions negatively affect children who will emerge as grownups unable to meet the real life challenges in the adult world.

The television show “Sim Sim Hamara” was a much needed and refreshing initiative that brought characters of “Sesame Street” to the homes of Pakistani children reflecting national culture, regional flavour and a mix of urban and rural Pakistan that certainly did not include the harsh atrocities of the lives of Pakistanis. “Sim Sim Hamara” combined aesthetic traditions and the life of a mohalla (neighbourhood) filled with music, and symbols; like a tree, a local school, Baji’s dhaaba, a well, Rani’s backyard, Imo Jee’s studio, a barn and playground that signify an ordinary yet meaningful life to children.

Whether the corruption allegation regarding “Sim Sim Hamara” on the Rafi Peer Group is entirely true or not is a matter that will be investigated, but most important is the fact that Pakistan is in a calamitous state and needs to act responsibly. Pakistan is facing an educational emergency where 20 million Pakistani children have zero access to education, 50% Pakistani public schools lack clean drinking water, 37% schools have no toilets, 55% government schools have no electricity, 33% of the children would never see the inside of a school, and a quarter of Pakistani children will have no education at all.

According to UNESCO, Pakistan ranks 118th out of 129 in its progress towards the achievement of Education For All (EFA) goals. This is an overwhelming situation for a country which is often on the verge of bankruptcy and where the budget allocation for education has been around 2% of the total GDP for the last several years.

Rs100 billion is needed additionally each year for the country to meet basic education requirements and combat the educational emergencies. The government of Pakistan always blames shortage of financial resources for the low literacy and enrolment rates in schools. Interestingly, in comparison, there are twenty-six other countries that send more children to primary school but are poorer than Pakistan. While we’re on the subject, the USAID Pakistan’s role in the development sector cannot be denied, especially when Pakistan received $2965 million just for the fiscal year 2012. The USAID has contributed to health, energy, economic growth, stabilisation, education, cross-cutting themes and humanitarian assistance for long term development. The US currently, also has the largest Fulbright programme in Pakistan where around 450 different awards are given annually.

Other than “Sim Sim Hamara”, USAID has invested in several other educational programs throughout the country including Links to Learning: Education Support to Pakistan (ED-LINKS) programme, Sindh Education Project, Teacher Education Project, Higher Education Commission Support, US-Pakistan Science and Technology Cooperative Programme and Women’s Hostel Project.

It is speculated that the congress is looking to cut down Pakistan’s budget and if it happens, it is the Pakistani nation that is going to suffer due to the over-reliance of the Pakistani governments on foreign aid and irresponsible behaviour of the Pakistani citizens in charge of implantation of programs. The US has a complete right to audit and ask for accounts to ascertain where US taxpayers’ money is spent, and whether it was used to build schools in the Malakand region, or used to buy a car by a Pakistani bureaucrat.

It is high time that we all realise that just by saying, “Open, Sesame” a magical door will not lead to a cave filled with donor agencies who will provide solutions to our problems in exchange of agreements. Neither would “Sim Sim Educational Emergency” shut the door of educational miseries. Ex-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani termed the year 2011 to be Pakistan’s “year of education” after an education emergency was declared in the country, acknowledging that the failure to achieve educational goals could lead to disastrous human, social and economic consequences. If only the government could supplement spoken commitments with actions, things would have been very different, but they are not.

It is time for all of us to realise that Pakistan cannot keep asking for others because there will be a time when others would stop giving. It is time for all of us to understand that failure to achieve educational sustainability is not like losing shares in the stock market. It translates to losing in the global competitive world, losing our future – the nation’s future. Therefore, we need to closely look at the choices we have and decide which path we shall take.

Are we going to lose or are we going to commit to the cause of educational sustainability responsibly?

Read more by Maria here.

Do you think “Sim Sim Hamara” would have helped to educate poor children in Pakistan?

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Maria Ishaq Khan

Maria Ishaq Khan

An educationist at heart who has taught at undergrad and school level, has worked with children, acted as the Chairperson of the Standing Committee of the Culture,Sports and Youth Affairs of the Youth Parliament of Pakistan, and is a Fulbright Scholar. She is a Graduate Student in the Educational Administration and Policy Studies Department at the State University of New York.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Noman Ansari

    The Rafi Peer Group took the word ‘Hamara’ a bit too literally. Recommend

  • faraz

    How can a TV show educate poor children? Poor children don’t attend free public schools and perform labor instead; they don’t sit at home and watch TV. There is no alternative to formal education. This theatre education is an outright fraud. And 20 million dollars on a stupid is unbelievable waste of money. USAID better spend money on schools.Recommend

  • Gazala Aga

    If investigation is going on then why program has been unplugged? it appears that decision has been taken and excuse is being developed?Recommend

  • Hey

    Hey Maria, thats a pretty long bio profile :D Recommend

  • Baba Ji

    $im $im hamara !!! Recommend

  • mkz

    I completely agree with Faraz. THERE IS NO ELECTRICITY IN THE COUNTRY. How are you going to power these TVs that all the families of these children supposedly have? Once again it is an example of western ideas trying to work in developing countries. How USAID came up with this with scrutiny I have no ideaRecommend

  • aaliya

    it takes 5 mins to shut down projects in pakistan specially for the americans. why is it taking them so long to shut down Sim Sim Hamara? also whats the verdict of the investigation? didnt USAID know enough about the fraud done by the family before they started making statements in international media? a bit hasty on their part no? also projects were supposed to go down from 147 to 35 this september which we believe is happening why isnt anyone writing about the other projects? were they not benefiting the children of pakistan? i think i would rather question the USAID policy more here? how come none of the USAID projects end up working in pakistan and the ones that actually work they spoil their name and future themselves. Does America actually want things to Sustain in Pakistan? Recommend

  • Sarah

    Sim Sim Hamara is not only has interventions in Urdu but it is a show which targets the out-of-school children from various provinces in their native language. One of the features of the program that outshone was its regional language component and a Radio component designed solely for mothers & care-givers.
    Responsibility of formal education for children lies on state. However, if the state fails to achieve it does not mean that society cannot deliver it from its own. It was observed during one of the researches conducted that children especially out-of-school children were aptly learning from Sim Sim Hamara.
    Sim Sim Hamara reached out to 21 million children per month in its six months from its one component – the television show in Urdu. Out of $5.2 million spent so far, it costs roughly 24 cents a child. You can imagine the impact it would have received from its regional languages components. Moreover, for children lacking the facility of a television set at home, a special component of Sim Sim Hamara was in line – the Outreach component. The aim for Outreach was to take the program to remote areas across Pakistan in the form of live puppet shows and screenings of the episode to educate the children everywhere. Had this been achieved, the impact would have been mind blowing.Recommend

  • ssz

    It is sad to know that the only show for the education of children in Pakistan has closed down. While USAID responsible for the launch of the show with the help of taxpayers money there is no money from our own taxpayers to this beautiful initiative learning through puppets considered to be the one of the best form of education for children from 3-12.
    Those who are propagating the onslaught of Indian culture on Pakistan should come forward and save this program otherwise their would be no logic in their argument as to why Pakistani children are being Sanskritise d.Recommend

  • Citizen K.

    I don’t understand how one can take such drastic action, without any cause or proof! I agree with you Gazala! If artists from our own country don’t create educational television content, what will these children rely on?! Indian mythological cartoons that they watch on TV?! False accusations, I say!Recommend

  • Mohammad Haider

    I’m glad that :Sim Sim Hamara’ is gone.Though i applaud the people involved in it for educating the country (do poor people with no access to education even have TVs), they were also promoting a brand that was purely commercial (USAID) and only for interest of another country, namely the US.
    When this began i watched a report on BBC talking about the launch of “Sim Sim Hamara” and how the video showed that Pakistan did not even have one decent school where children “can” go to be educated .As an educated Pakistani I was embarrassed by the very negative portrayal of Pakistan and the sad part was the local people involved were happy in Pakistan bashing also.

    When will be stop being beggars and look for other cultures for ideas………Recommend

  • Zaineb

    Mohammad I dont think you’ve actually watched Sim Sim Hamara, just some baseless report. Sim Sim Hamara is full of our culture and our characters and I being a Media student actually went and interviewed street children about it. You would be surprised how much of an impact a shows like this and Captain Safeguard have on these children, they learn basic hygiene and language and its something for them to aspire to. The Rafi Peer offices would get 100s of phone calls from children asking to speak to the characters. And as for poor children with no Televisions as you pointed out, again this show was made for them – there are special Live Action Segments in the show dedicated to them and in the next months they were theater troupes that were to go out to these areas that don’t have electricity and give the children live puppet shows of the episodes. How can you say thats a bad thing? These children who are not given a second thought in our country – you persecute someone when they try? Why they are artists or stupid enough to work with the Americans for the betterment of our country – our own people certainly aren’t bothered enough to support anyone. Recommend

  • Zaineb

    @mkz: Like I told Mohammad, you guys should do your research before you pass your comments – it’s called an “outreach program” basically they take the show TO these children in areas without electricity/technology etc. to do live puppet shows for them. I’m sorry they don’t have electricity so just forget about them? What “local” ideas do you have to help these children? We need to stop giving labels to something that’s beneficial for us. Recommend

  • Zaineb

    @faraz: This was the alternative. It’s an outreach program that caters to all children, even the ones without electricity and television. They also deserve some form of attention and education. It’s a puppet show that has been localized to reach these children.Recommend