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?

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.

  • Moazzam Salim

    The expense is obscene. period.Recommend

  • sarah

    cynicism at its best. we have to try and rid ourselves of this habit and give people a chance to prove themselves at least. this is about trying to create a program with education in mind, its not a soap opera or a reality contest. give them a chance, pakistan also deserves a fresh perspective with kids.Recommend

  • Anon123

    Abira, while all the facts and figures you mention in your article, may be correct, how will stopping a kids program from going on air help? Donors are putting in money in schools as well, but if your entire education system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul, throwing money at the problem can only take you so far. Over the years, Sesame Street has helped a lot of kids learn some basic numeracy and literacy skills. There are numerous donor projects in which the actual benefits that get transferred to school children who in theory, are the primary beneficiaries of these education projects, are slim to none. Moreover, given how much money and resources are wasted through the government bureaucracy everyday, I’d say this is actually a good investment. We have plenty of reasons to be despondent in Pakistan, USAID’s funding of an Urdu version of Sesame street doesnt strike me as being one of them. Recommend

  • Tilsim

    $20M does seem a lot but it’s not clear how this money is allocated so it’s premature to jump to conclusions.

    I don’t like the cynicism of the author. There are so many needs in Pakistan. Each donor has a right to chose their priorities. I think an Urdu Sesame Street is a good initiative partnering with a local group.Recommend

  • A

    It’s honestly sad that we as a nation can’t appreciate anything without citing absolutely irrelevant statistics and bombarding us with baseless cynicism. We are talking about systemic change, that’s what sesame street hopes to achieve. Done correctly children’s programming has the potential to change mindsets and thats what this country desperately needs. 20 mil or 40 mil, at least it’s not being spent on bombs and political point scoring.

    Creating heroes for our kids, be it the cookie monster or captain safeguard, is imperative. Recommend

  • Nadir El-Edroos

    The benefits of Seaseme Street as a tool for encouraging, not a substitute for learning is well documented across the world. Its meant to complement other interventions.Recommend

  • Disco Molvi

    Puppets are Haram in Islam. I got told by a teacher in my childhood :-pRecommend

  • UL

    I remember watching the PTV re-runs of Seaseme Street when I was a kid and I must admit I learnt a lot from watching these programmes. I think its a great step to air an Urdu version for the masses. Where our schools are failing, if such private initiatives for the masses can help then we should encourage them.
    My only concern is that PEMRA needs to play a little more active role in regulating the children TV programmes – specially the ones aired by the cable operators. We should have separate channels for different age groups. I wouldnt want my 2-3 year old watching action-packed-Ben10-type cartoons at this young an age!! Recommend

  • IZ

    The author’s myopia is disappointing. In fact Seasame Street may be the single most effective and wisest expenditure of money out of the countless billions the Americans have poured into Pakistan since 9/11 (admittedly that may not be saying much).
    .
    First of all as touching as your own fantasies about how government schools can alter the structure of society are, you might want to look at the kinds of curricula these schools are teaching and their decidedly child-unfriendly approach. There is little or no space for allowing children to develop their imaginations, to exercise or develop a spirit of wonder or investigation and discovery of the world around them. Furthermore children are incessantly bombarded with a culture of violence, transmitted by the mass media and reinforced by both school curricula and society around them. Both of these are facets of a contemporary Pakistani culture that is decidedly anti-child.
    .
    How many books are published locally for children? I recall reading somewhere that New Zealand with its population of 4 million publishes more children’s books in a year than Pakistan had published since independence. And of those that are published here, most are chock full of moralizing tales and homilies to national and religious “heroes” intent on sermonizing to children and doing nothing to allow their imaginations or critical faculties to develop.
    .
    What about children’s programming on TV or radio? How much is there? We have eleventy-billion News channels that show nothing but bloody mayhem or the screeching contests known as talkshows 24 hours a day. We have cooking channels and we have so-called entertainment channels. But not since ‘Ainak Wala Jinn’ was there any half-decent programming for children on TV. A Sesame Street like show with high production values and that does not degenerate into a half hour advertisement (e.g. commander safeguard – itself a highly problematic show complete with violence, racism, sexism and classism embedded). If anything our society seems to have gone backwards in this regard. Why can’t we develop the space for children to learn in an entertaining, lively and exciting manner in Pakistan? Why should it be so low down on our list of priorities?
    .
    Alas it is entirely to be expected that Pakistanis will turn up their nose are complain at the waste of money for anything aimed at kids, but unless you belong to the urban elite who will happily direct their children to western children’s edutainment, children are entirely neglected in our culture. I for one think it is great that this should come to an end. Yes, to say that this will automatically ‘fight militancy’ is lazy, but this does not mean that it will not accomplish a great deal of good.
    .
    But, I hear you cry, education and entertainment is not as important as food. That is undoubtedly true. But perhaps you should direct your ire to the latest batch of F-16s we are buying. $20 million is less than one F-16 and you will recall a foreign ministry official was recently quotes as saying that Pakistan was going to buy as many as they would give us. No doubt a good deal of this money is being spent on American consultants and workshop training sessions abroad and so on, but the lion’s share of any American aid project is spent that way.Recommend

  • Well said

    @IZ: If I could, I would repost your comment a thousand times over. Very well said mate! So eloquently put, from the book publishing fact, down the new (useless) F-16’s we just purchasedRecommend

  • CaffeinatedBliss

    Excellent post!! Do the people slamming the author even realize, that much of the rural areas do not have electricity? How is teaching a child the importance of nutrition going to help, if they HAVE NOTHING TO EAT? Invest the money, build some schools, train some teachers. These people deserve a REAL chance, not a puppet.Recommend

  • Shoaib

    Sesame Street at best serves as a very weak bandage to a structural problem of broken institutions similar to the way NGOs are bandages to broken systems of essential services such as food, health and livelihood. In some sense the argument is similar to the building flyovers and thinking that it would address the congestion on the roads when that can only be truly addressed through a better public transport system and less cars. Yes, its something but not well thought out with little to no realistic impact on the ground.
    I agree with the author that if you are really interested in addressing the educational system, then programs with well defined and measurable indicators is the way to go. Also agree that something as simple as breakfast for children would go a long way in addressing attendance issues at schools (shown success in poor neighborhoods in the US). Building access for rural population to basic school units would be another. For $20M you can do a lot. This is going through a private party and if the aid people are not fans of government implementation (and who is) these funds could do wonders in the hands of groups like TCF or some other schools systems that have a proven track record – considering it is aid money.
    Now to be cynical – this seems more like some kind of a PR exercise or fulfilling some other agenda because no way in hell does this take $20M. $20M is more than 100,000 acres of agriculture inputs, its more than 250,000 people making minimum wage for a month or over 300,000 families having a months ration. Not having a background in TV production I can’t say what a program like this costs but I am guessing a whole lot less than this amount. And what pray is the delivery mechanism for this? Most rural homes (where you still have greater than 50% of your population) have no access to TV except chai dhabas inhabited by men. So on one hand its supposed to address militancy (joke in it self) and on the other hand it takes out the rural population.
    So I am not sure which is more cynical – being cynical of Sesame and programs like these or giving up on systemic change and institution building and saying well this crap is better than nothing. Recommend

  • parvez

    I agree to some extent with the author that this money could have been used for more basic tangible results. Having said that I would not go to the extent that the author has of rubbishing the idea of a children’s show that could help motivate, educate and inspire the very young to better themselves. Good children’s television is badly needed.Recommend

  • Danish S

    Although I agree with most of the points the author raised, however, she failed to grasp one very basic logic. America or USAID are not responsible for creating schools or eliminating poverty from our country. That’s the job of our government and people in general. That said, America is still the largest monetary donor for Pakistan. It’s again our governments who use that money elsewhere rather than using it on education and poverty elimination. Only 1.2% (i’m not mistaking) of our budget is allocated for education. Why aren’t pointing that out? We all know there’s an education emergency in Pakistan, but how is that anyone else’s problem than Pakistan’s? Recommend

  • A R Khan, Wisconsin

    @IZ: I salute you, man. Excellent comment. You should seriously publish this reply as a response to this blog entry on this website. Otherwise very few people will read.

    @Abira Ashfaq: Yes we can criticize the amount being spent on this project. But I do not think it is valid to compare this long-term project with other alternative immediate objectives (like food provision). A valid criticism would be to compare this USAID project with other USAID projects as my friend IZ has stated. Recommend

  • anon

    excellent article! the best way to describe it is brainwashing at its very bestRecommend

  • http://www.kaya-kalpa.org Sophia Pandeya

    The question the author should be asking is why a nation that can neither feed, clothe nor educate its citizens needs the world’s 5th largest nuclear arsenal. The fact is that spending on education is non existent in Pakistan and no one is holding the govt accountable.Recommend

  • Danish S

    Oh! how much I regret not proof reading my last comment… :SRecommend

  • Imran

    @Abira, puppets in power could not but may be these puppets can….:-)Recommend

  • Golden Horde

    Awesome!
    Great initiative by USAid. Lets hope pakistani kids learn civility and politeness from such shows cause they sure arnt learning anything from the pakistani parents.

    And as a bonus, lets hope it draws them away from the indian rubbish channels.Recommend

  • Gulreez

    Abira you are spot on and I agree with you. The idea of having a puppet show like “Sesame Street” might sound very cute and sweet to those who already know what it is but not to those who never had a TV set and will never get one for their children under present circumstances. Who share an onion and dry bread with their children for lunch and are not sure if they will have dinner or not.

    What makes me laugh is the idea of showing the show on a laptop to the children, like if watching the show once is going to change their lives for ever.

    In my opinion it would be great to spend this money in Afghanistan on schools first, if the US would have spent the money on education instead of attacking Afghanistan, it would have been much better than what we have now. Recommend

  • Abira

    folks, the word cynical, according to the dictionary, means being contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives. I believe there is a huge difference between blanket cynicism which is unproductive and cancerous – and a healthy amount of skepticism that allows us all to be concerned citizens questioning the choices being made on our behalf whether these are multi million dollar projects for power or USAID funded projects ’cause we will ultimately pay for them. Taxpayers bear the brunt of loans taken on their behalf, and even is the aid comes free there are repercussions. I wrote this piece to make the following points – and not to point out that education is a responsibility of the government (which it is) and which spends a woefully small % of the budget on it and not USAID. In sum, these were the points

    1) an incidental aim of the sesame street project is to curb militancy. The cited study draws a connection between food insecurity and low literacy and militancy. Find genuine solutions to genuine problems based on real data. Drone strikes and puppet shows are a disturbing, paradoxical mixture of solutions.

    2) As citizens we should question the wisdom behind such spending even if its free. To make a silly analogy, if someone wants to donate $20,000 to build a singing fountain in your street because this benefactor thinks it will distract children from watching tv and becoming obese, will you be ok with it? As an involved resident of that street, won’t you have an opinion about how the money is better spent on, perhaps, building a soccer field or creating a summer camp where children are given CPR training or creating a community garden where people grow organic vegetables? Are the purported beneficiaries ever consulted about such a projects? It is infinitely more cynical to think they can not be consulted because most of them are poor and rural, and that they should not have an opinion as long as it is free money. Should you always accept free money as a philosophy – always graciously and smilingly?

    3) Also ask how it is being spent. We never ever lose that right regardless of the donor or lack of interest rates. Ask Rafi Peer how did you allocate this money? Who did you hire? how much did one episode cost? Shouldn’t there have been a transparent bidding process where people were asked to set out costs? Why should anything happen in secrecy that is for the supposed larger benefit of society?

    Education and entertainment are important for kids, and that goes without saying. Those of you thinking that this article was disparaging tv entertainment for kids missed the point. The newspaper gave the piece that title which is misleading. Recommend

  • Azhar

    For those who do not know anything about USAID and its works around the world it is better to research about them first. I would say NO to even a single penny from organizations like USAID and NED. But well we are beggars and beggars cant be choosers. Its sad isnt it Recommend

  • AR

    they are just trying to educate people. i see no harm in that. this program is aimed at educating children about some basics which they are not aware off and in my opinion thats perfectly fine!
    and yes instead of questioning why a program aimed at educating the society is using 20 million why dont we direct our attention towards the countless politicians who make much more than that and contribute jack to the society. i truly believe this is extremely discouraging for anyone trying to contribute to our society which evidently lacks basic education. all your questions in the second or third paragraph should be directed towards the government that does a jolly good job at absorbing all the money and not at a program directed towards teaching the society things they may be unaware off!Recommend

  • Shoaib

    Elmo must be charging a lot to speak in Urdu! FYI “The kings speech” cost us$ 15 million to make..Its a classic Kerry Lugar “fill in the blank” expense…they have to spend xyz$ by a specified date. For Rs. 1.7 billion (us$ 20 million) we can buy a T.V channel in Pakistan and pay for its expenses. I bet 50% amount is going to the American owners of “Sesame street” as Royalty or “purchase of puppets” , 25% to consultants from USA, 5% to local “consultants” and 20% to actual production…in any case Abira is correct in her point of view.. it is pretty naive to assume politically correct “puppet shows” would shape a child’s character when in he sees no food on the table and violence trumping reason.Recommend

  • Fahad

    WIll you please stop writing negative blogs. In fact, can you just stop writing blogs that would be great thanks.Recommend

  • http://aicha-ib.blogspot.com aiesha

    USAID is trying to manage our problems creatively at least. our government doesn’t even think education is important let alone creativity and imagination. That’s an aid organization. they can choose the area according to their own research. Even if villages will get school, the education system needs to be changed even in the BIG CITIES. So the overhauling of the education needs to be done by the Government whose responsibility it is not some volunteer organization’s. Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    Rafi peer will not get the whole $20 Million. Almost HALF WILL GO TO AMERICAN COMPANY who will do research on how to improve TV viewing of the programme.

    Then $10 Million for 70 EPISODES of HOLLYWOOD quality may not be that much!!!! Classic case of the US givine money with
    one hand and taking back with the otherRecommend

  • Raqib Ali

    To reach more audience, there will be theatres across country too.

    now you know how far $10 Million goes in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    @ Abira Ashfaq

    While you have some valid points, lets not forget that this money will train thousands of Pakistani technicians and they will be trained and it will increase capacity.

    It is a sad reality that we have to ignore many poor people and spend money on things that do not reflect the immediate need of the bread and butter problems of those unfortunate. If we apply the same logic, India should divert all its entertainment funds to slums. In reality, creating a viable entertainment industry (like Bollywood) indirectly helps those in the slums by increasing the size of economic pie.

    In short, it may not be ideal but it will be helpful overall cultural activity/training in Pakistan. Recommend

  • IZ

    Once again Abira and Shoaib I would have to respectfully disagree with both of you. “Find genuine solutions to genuine problems.” But you seem to be simplifying the problems and then refusing to look at what the proposed solutions are.

    As pointed out by another commenter the Sesame Street Project is not meant to ‘curb’ militancy, address gender imbalances, address low literacy or fight food insecurity in of itself. To suggest that it can would be patently ridiculous. And its worth noting that USAID just provided $334 million to the Benazir Income Support Programme which is meant to provide help to women and food-insecure households specifically. (link). This is separate from the grants they have made to NGOs such as Aurat Foundation, which is also starting a USAID funded 5 year initiative aimed at “closing the gender gap in Pakistan by proactively supporing the development of women”.

    Now if you are of the belief that major American aid interventions can eliminate systematic food insecurity, gender imbalances, etc. (which is what you seem to be implying by saying that USAID should allocate the Sesame street money elsewhere) then these other projects should win your approval. Maybe you think that the $20 million allocated here is the make or break amount that would tip the balance in making BISP a success? Or maybe you disagree with the methodology of those programs which do purport to offer solutions to the problems mentioned above. If so, you should be critiquing those programs directly.

    Having said all that, your insistence that militancy springs from low literacy and food insecurity is problematic to say the least. Correlation is not causation and even the study you have quoted is tentative at best when drawing a direct cause and effect connection. For example, lets have a look at what the report says are factors that had led to a decline in food access in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and FATA in the last 7 or 8 years:

    “In KPK, three districts moved down to the low food access group from the moderate category during the last 6 years (2003 to 2009). The majority of the districts (83 percent) are in the very to extremely low food access groups. One of the reasons for such low access to food is deteriorating security situation in the province that is severely affecting the livelihood opportunities of the general masses.” (P.60)

    “The whole of the FATA has serious accessibility problems. Militancy and continuous war in Afghanistan have depleted the major livelihood sources, while prices of essential food commodities remain amongst the highest in the country. All of the agencies of FATA are in the “low to extremely” low food access groups.” (P.60)

    This would suggest that in KPK and FATA cause and effect are reversed and militancy (and the military response to it) has been responsible for increasing food insecurity rather than the other way around.

    So while there may be a correlation between food insecurity and militancy, to argue that one causes the other is to take a simplistic and dare I say non-“genuine” view of the problem. Other factors play a role, including government policy, educational and social interventions, cultural and geo-political factors. After all according to the SDPI report Tharparkar was the district with the worst food security in Pakistan in 2003 and there was no outbreak of militancy there. As for FATA, what is more likely to have led to an increase in militancy? Food insecurity by itself, or the combination of a Taliban campaign, scorched-earth military operation and drone strikes, that drove people from their homes, deprived them of their livelihoods, killed loved ones and which also caused increased food insecurity?

    Furthermore urban areas have the highest food security ratings but there are many urban-based militant groups such as Lasker-e-Jhangvi, etc. whose cadres are actually well educated. It’s also no coincidence that much of the leadership of current militant groups played significant roles as student leaders in the anti-Ahmedi agitation and riots of the 70s.

    Now I don’t blame the author of the report for trying to stress the linkage between food insecurity and militancy. After all its one way of trying to get the establishment to pay attention to what is a genuine problem. The elimination of food insecurity should command our attention and our resources as a top priority irrespective of what role it has to play in militancy. But the author knows the way the cookie crumbles these days and alas no problem is genuine enough to command the attention of the powers-that-be unless it is actively linked to the issue of militancy.

    Which brings us to what the Sesame Street Project can do….Recommend

  • IZ

    Firstly you don’t seem to agree with me in seeing a “genuine problem” here. Here it is, as I stated in my first post. “Pakistan has an anti-child culture”. In other words its social milieu and cultural products are not only not geared towards the healthy development of children’s personalities, they are actively antithetical to it.

    Evidence of this is everywhere. I mentioned children’s books and children’s TV shows in my previous post, as well as the societal approach to education itself. It is even evident in the way that discussions on education are framed in this blogpost and in the comments.
    .
    I find it ironic at the same time as you insist on “genuine solutions” based on “real data” (i.e. readily quantifiable) you also decry that those who seek to treat the ostensible targets of aid interventions as passive objects. As Shoaib comments above “programs with well defined and measurable indicators is the way to go”. But what can we say about this insistence on constantly treating children as statistics we can tally in our measurement of our ‘achievements’. Both yourself and Shoaib mention that providing meals will help boost enrollment rates, happily treating the education of a child as nothing more than a statistic which is a function of financial incentives. But perish the thought of trying to examine educational outcomes. What do children get out of this schooling (other than free meals)? Who cares?

    Where does this view of children as numbers get us? I’m reminded of the emphasis that educational consultants and NGOs now place on the importance of building boundary walls around schools for the poor as a necessary part of raising school attendance figures, since in the words of one child “otherwise half the children would run away from school.” Does that sound like “consulting” children and taking their opinion into account? Well yes it does I suppose. At least they asked the kids about the usefulness of the boundary walls.
    .
    Why do kids run away from school? Why do schools have such high drop-out rates, even when economic pressures are not in play? Why do educational planners in our countries deliberately and consciously decide that learning outcomes should NOT be a measure of a successful education system, while placing ALL the emphasis on indicators that effectively ignore the child’s experience of their education? Might truancy and the quality of education not be related? (i.e. its boring, useless, intimidating, etc.) Might it have something to do with our cultural aversion to developing a child-friendly approach to learning? No, perish the thought that we should consider children as having interests, ambitions, likes and dislikes beyond the merely animal instinct of feeding. Just lock ‘em in there and put out the feeding troughs. Job done.

    Here then is the wisdom of spending money on “a puppet show”. This would be a major step towards developing some kind of child-friendly approach to learning – a cultural product designed and aimed at helping children develop important skills and attitudes in a fun, dynamic and imaginative way. It might give children something to look forward to which is educational and entertaining? Yes, as Shoaib rightfully pointed out, it can’t replace a fully functioning schooling system as an answer to literacy and education, but firstly a fully functioning schooling system is not going to happen unless you develop a culture of child-friendliness and move towards a more humanistic culture of learning. Have you seen how art classes for class 1 and class 2 children work in some government schools? Children are given textbooks with a drawing on one page and are meant to reproduce in on the next. When they colour they are marked for ‘colouring within the lines’ and get a rap on the knuckles for not doing so faithfully. In most cases the teachers don’t know how else to teach because this was how they were taught. Can you imagine the change in learning concepts in an activity-based art class? Or learning through the singing of songs, rhythms and rhymes?
    .
    Yes, the benefits are not always easily quantifiable. But, well lets have a look at some studies done of the impact of Sesame Street in the U.S. For example there is this 30 year longitudinal study of the impact of Sesame Street conducted in Georgetown University which showed that amongst other things watching Sesame Street “has proven to enhance academic skills and social behavior” both in the short term (“viewers experienced positive outcomes in the areas of alphabet and number knowledge, body part naming, form recognition, relational term understanding, and sorting and classification abilities”), in the long-term (where secondary school kids who had watched it in their preschool years “earned better grades in English, Math and Science and had higher grade point averages than non-viewers. Furthermore, viewers demonstrated more frequent use of books, higher academic self-esteem and an increased appreciation for the value of educational achievement”) and in their social skills (“Sesame Street has also been successful in contributing to children’s understandings of complex issues such as death, love, marriage, pregnancy, and race relations.”). In other words Sesame Street has a proven track record of being able to address issues that, if you care about the personal development of children, are genuine problems. They learn to enjoy learning.

    Its also worth thinking about what Sesame Street stands for and how it started out and what its approach to children’s learning was. After all this is the show that showed African-Americans as equals rather than as subservient at a time of great racial tension (getting it banned for a short time in the state of Mississippi). This is the show that showed black and white children learning and playing together while the southern states were still fighting tooth and nail to keep segregated schools. It has been hailed (and attacked) for its commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance. It’s the show that deliberately created a character that likes eating garbage and is antisocial and made him lovable so that children become more accepting of differences. Compare that with the fascistic aggression and ‘othering’ that takes place in the only other locally produced children’s show to achieve any kind of mass appeal in Pakistan in the last 5 years (Commander Safeguard). If the local show can carry over the same kind of commitment and philosophy to the shows that it produces then it would be doing a great deal more good than the mere “singing fountain” you make it out to be.Recommend

  • IZ

    Your final objection is related to how the money is being spent. This is a question I can’t answer since I have nothing to do with the project and know no-one who is. But there are some clues if you bother to look for them (rather than making the ridiculous assertion that one person will drive around showing people the show on his laptop). Apart from the 78 episodes this article mentions “Six hundred live performances are planned across 90 districts, and books and multimedia versions are in the works.
    .
    Furthermore its worth noting that a portion of the funds are going to Sesame Workshop to conduct research. Again this is in keeping with the “CTW” model pioneered by Sesame Workshop to make sure it was meeting its educational goals. If I can quote from Wikipedia:
    “When educational experts and producers in other countries approached the CTW to assist them in producing their own versions of Sesame Street, which were called “co-productions”, a variant of the CTW model was used. The need for preschool education in each country was accessed through research and interviews with television producers, researchers, and educational experts, just as what had been done in the US. Then they convened the experts in a series of meetings, held in the individual countries, to create and develop a curriculum, the show’s educational goals, and its set and characters. Finally, they held a series of meetings, both at the CTW offices in New York City and in the individual countries, to train the co-production team in the CTW model. The co-productions, when possible, also performed formative studies to test the efficacy of their curriculum”
    .
    More on international co-productions of Sesame Street can be found here, including in Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa.
    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/worldaccordingtosesamestreet/film.html
    .
    Now as I said I don’t know details, but when you are misrepresenting some facts and ignoring others that are public knowledge, I’m not sure if the problem is with a lack of transparency or a lack of effort on your part to educate yourself about the issue. Have you made an effort to get more information? Was such an attempt rebuffed?

    Shoaib asserted that most rural homes have no access to TV and so dismissed the efficacy of the program, but firstly why should this just only target rural homes, and secondly given that 16 million households in Pakistan are said to have TV access (accounting for over 60% of the population) one can argue that this is still an effective way to reach a large constituency. Perfect? No. Effective? Yes.
    .
    Frankly speaking I find the contempt and criticism for the particular project to be itself a symptom of the problem that it can go some ways in addressing – the bizarre idea that the developmental and educational process for children is unworthy of time, attention or money. I mean apart from the BISP, where else did USAID money go to last year? We saw about the same amount ($19.5 million) go to Fulbright Scholarships for a handful of upper-middle class students. We see ($45 million) go to HEC, an institution whose success we seem to measure in the amount of discomfort it causes India.
    .
    I won’t even mention the $65.2 million of US military aid spent on the “free” anti-submarine frigate Pakistan got last month. Because you know, stopping all those Taliban submarines is such an essential part of combating militancy in the country. It seems to have been accepted “graciously and smilingly”.

    It does not occur to people to question these programs or scoff at the idea that they are developing Pakistan, reducing gender imbalances, improving US-Pakistani relations or combating militancy. Sesame Street draws ire and cynicism because it’s “just for kids”, that too a “politically correct” one (heaven forbid)!Recommend

  • Shoaib

    @Raqib
    What you are saying is the trickle down effect will benefit the poor. The supply side economics endorsed by Reaganites in the US which has been failing for 30 years there. As someone said, the only thing that trickles down on the poor is pi**. Tasneem Siddiqui in one of his books criticizes the fact that people measure success of a country using GDP growth. He says most of the this growth does not reach the bottom 50% and I think in our case it really shows.
    Also the comparison to Bollywood does not really hold. Bollywood is an ultra capitalistic model out to make money only for itself. Anything that goes outside is incidental and mostly unsustainable (my guess unless you can produce a study which links the impact of Bollywood on social and economic indicators of slums). USAID on the other hand is an aid agency. One can expect better judgement and more impact with what they do. We should question this of course because we pay in blood for it. This is the soft side of the war – pay us aid money, give our politician and army handouts and you get to bomb our people or kill them in the streets. The least we can do is ask for better use of the money. Recommend

  • sophia ahmed

    Puppets or not puppets. If the money is being spent on us we should say where we should spend it, not the donors. We need schools. Thats the emergency. The next grant can be for Sesame street. Recommend

  • IZ

    Cmon its been 3 hours and my comments are still havent been approved. Whats the deal? Too much reading to do? In the meantime people are still posting comments that essentially consist of “ZOMIGOSH! Puppets!!!”Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    @ Shoib

    I agree that capitalist models are very faulty but at the moment that’s all we have in all developed countries. Daring to go against them can only be done by strong nations. We
    are not ‘couragious’ like uncle Saddam.

    What I am trying to say is that when we have capacity after being trained at the US level, then maybe Al-Qaida propaganda video quality will improve too after some of these people are hired by Jamat e Islami & Fazlur Rehman party… Can’t explain my point in a more crude way!!!!Recommend

  • Abira

    Misanthrope, IZ, who are you anyway..?

    you know I wrote a response and then accidentally deleted it.

    here is the gist.

    I am not disagreeing with most of your comments…however, the critique, which is mine, remains as follows:

    there must be accountability and transparency. I am interested in seeing how these funds are used, and this is a huge amount of money.

    ideally, purported beneficiaries should be in the loop.

    and for that matter, there should be transparency in even how Aurat uses them. I am no expert on NGOs and funding, but there is a huge problem in this country on how NGOS and organizations become donor driven and not need driven, and in fact disconnected from impact on the ground.

    then your assessment of causation and correlation is much ado about nothing. the quoted study in fact says there are many root causes of militancy. there is link with hunger, thats all. its not scientific. But it does not take a genius to figure that you take care of peoples’ needs – food, education, health – there will be less discontent.

    then the value of Sesame street. it has value. But the studies you cite are all US based and we are talking about a totally different socio economic and political landscape here in Thar, FATA, etc. Many of the social safety nets present in (even) america do not exist here. people do not have access to er/govt funded health care and there is increasing desperation around food.

    I find it silly to debate the rights of the child – from a human rights perspective no one will deny they must be fed, educated, recognized, respected, allowed to grow spiritually and intellectually through constantly evolving education and entertainment…

    But look, food first. I am going to reassert. Free breakfast in all government schools for $18 million for as long as that lasts.. for $2 million, make a kick ass sesame street by someone who bids in an open bidding process. How is that an urban elite mindset?

    if you have worked in rural areas you will know in one day that the benefits of a show aside — people do not have the necessary tools and economic empowerment to implement change. In Sajawal (I keep bringing that up because that is my experience) ALL children in one particular village were addicted to ghutka. Yes, ideally a show that will keep talking about how ghutka causes cancer will be good. But people also need clinics and social workers – students also need good education that will give them meaningful academic and social outlooks and activities. children are addicted due to boredom and lack of basic needs. Now you can dismiss that and say that that is the government’s job and does not mean a sesame street can not and should not be created till the cows come home. So be it!

    But then, cut out the corruption and you will see change. corruption as in a majority of the chunk being siphoned back, or the rest going to fund extravagant lifestyle. Then, lets have it all outs – the facts. How many people have they hired? How EXACTLY will the money be used?

    My role in this blog is not to make baseless accusations, or deny people rights to watch a funky awesome educational show. It is the opposite. It is to ask people to inform themselves, and then engage in public debate read, write, and participate in public hearings where possible, and bring democracy back.

    We have lost that culture with the breakdown of our social systems since the 80s and we need to build that.

    the rest is details..

    also, I am getting fatigued, and this is my last response. If you have something mind blowing to say, please write a blog about it.

    thanks for hanging in there and taking such an interest in the issue…Recommend

  • IZ

    “for $2 million, make a kick ass sesame street”

    At least I got you to change your mind by 10%! :)Recommend

  • Abira

    @IZ: dude, seriously….!! stop being such a man. ;)Recommend

  • Non-Disco Molvi

    @Disco Molvi:
    Allah o Akbar!
    Inquilaab against puppets.!!Recommend

  • jmccarthy

    @Abira:
    Could you please contact me re including you in a story?
    [email protected]
    Cheers,
    JMRecommend

  • His Majesty

    I would say that in current times when pakistan is facing soaring inflation, rocket high prices for basic necessities and high unemployment, we should not be discussing about sesame street but instead come out from our so-good online world to find practical solutions for the real time problems faced by the gareeb awaam of pakistan such as unemployment.
    In these times, an injection of $20 million in our economy would be a warm welcome.
    Although education is very necessary it is not just good to spend millions on a puppet show which would be of little help. Had this money been given by our kind hearted US friends for developing educational institutes in the rural areas, it would had been allocated more efficiently.
    Lastly the government is already in a deficit (for the reasons, we might need another blog) so it cannot support education so it is the people who would have to volunteer for the sacred act of teachingRecommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    well if they can govern pakistan – i am sure they could cope with entertaining kids :DRecommend