Sesame Street: Can puppets change Pakistan?

Published: April 13, 2011
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Why does one need $20 million to make a culturally specific Urdu version of a show?

Sesame Street goes to India - Galli Galli Sim Sim. Sesame street goes to Indonesia. Alam Simsim is Sesame Street in Egypt. Why does one need $20 million to make a culturally specific Urdu version of a show?

A BBC news report stated that USAID has made a grant of $20 million to Rafi Peer Theater group to create a local version of Sesame Street. The setting is a rural village and the protagonist a spirited little girl named Rani.

This report should be in the Onion or get a rotten tomato.

It quotes Imraan Peerzada, a writer for the new series:

She (Rani) will represent what little girls have to go through in this gender-biased society…her journey would inevitably touch on Pakistan’s ongoing fight with militancy, but would not directly refer to religion.

What’s next? Fluoride in our drinking water to make us more docile, compliant and less flammable in case we get hit by bombs?

“We don’t want to label children‚” Peerzada continues. “The basic learning tools of literacy‚ numeracy‚ hygiene‚ and healthy eating have to be in place first.”

But why does one need $20 million to make a culturally specific Urdu version of a show?  These are expensive episodes and must be studded with diamonds. A cost breakdown would be intriguing to audit.

Moreover, if the basic purpose is educating children on health and skills, then shouldn’t that come through schools which are in shambles in rural areas?  How many schools can you run with this money?  How many teachers can you train and pay?  Was there a study conducted of the impact of such programming, which despite its nominally good message and educational value, would take months and years to seep in versus schooling?

A grim reality

When doing flood relief work in parts of Sajawal I saw villages on both sides of the road. Some had electricity and occasionally, in one of the traditional mud homes, you’d even see a TV set.

It is possible that village children gather around and learn a thing or two from Cookie Monster.

But the real problems run deeper.  Children in these villages have to go to Thatta/Makli for schooling after grade five.  For those without resources, this 15 km travel implies an end to education. Only the more privileged boys made the trek to school after fifth grade – education is in a state of emergency.

No food, no literacy – what can Sesame Street do?

In this context, the idea that a brave girl will somehow curb militancy and positively impact education is flawed.  It’s the western world’s fantasy of how the world turns. This fantasy is perpetuated by book after book popularising the myth of the women (and even men) enduring and rising above religious patriarchy with no commentary on how continued war and hunger are bad for women and children too.

In 2009, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute did a study suggesting connections between militancy and food insecurity.  48.6 per cent of Pakistan’s population doesn’t have access to sufficient food.  FATA has the highest percentage of food insecure people (67.7 per cent) and a woeful 6.2 per cent female literacy rate followed by Balochistan.

The 10 most food insecure districts include Dera Bugti, Musa Khel, Upper Dir, North Waziristan, Kohistan, Muhmand, Dalbidin, South Waziristan, Orakzai, and Panjgur.

According to SDPI, there is a connection between food insecurity and literacy and health.

“Negative coping strategies include reducing expenditure on health and education.”

Households in FATA are spending 67 per cent of household income on food items whereas in Sindh the expenditure is 62 per cent.

And the situation is only getting worse as we move towards corporate farming with no solution to landlessness and sharecropping. Food deficit districts have increased from 62 per cent in 2003 to 76 per cent in 2009. Food inflation in Pakistan reached its peak in 2007-08 when it soared to 36 per cent.  Pakistan is ranked 11th at ‘extreme risk’ on the Food Security Risk Index – worse off than India and Bangladesh.

So it is convoluted logic at best that a ‘soft drone’ program will softly wean us off militancy when the heart of the matter is the stomach.

In that light, donating such a large sum of money to one group seems an unjustified and unreasonable expenditure, however creditable their credentials and talents.

At the end of the day, how many jobs will this project create?  How many mouths will it feed?  How many elementary school breakfasts will it fund? How many actual graduates will it create?  With money like this you will have people scrambling for the money generating Elmo.

Hearsay has it that the theater group has hired one lonesome person to travel to remote parts where there is no access to TV and he will show the program on his one dusty laptop. I hope he gets a fast car too, because they will be long and lonely travels for him.

If USAID cannot build schools, can they at least implement a school breakfast program for five years with this money and watch the indicators?

Feed the kids eggs and apples, adapt a holistic approach and stop talking about gender oppression as if it has nothing to do with the hunger and the harder issues of drone warfare and rural dis-empowerment.

We need more than a friendly puppet teaching us about a ‘Letter of the Day’ and the benefits of hand sanitiser.

Abira Ashfaq

Abira Ashfaq

A law teacher in Karachi who works with human rights organisations. She tweets @oil_is_opium. (twitter.com/oil_is_opium)

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