The U.S. is withdrawing millions of dollars in funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street. Officials say the decision stems from serious allegations of fraud directed at the Pakistani theater company that's producing the children's TV program.
Sim Sim Hamara, the Pakistani version of Sesame Street, is set in a mock-up of a typical Pakistani town. There's a school, the ubiquitous Banyan tree, a restaurant and a colorful cast of characters centered on a 6-year-old girl named Rani who loves the sport of cricket.
Only one of the American Sesame Street characters — Elmo — has made the journey to Pakistan.
The highly produced Sim Sim Hamara began airing in Pakistan about six months ago. Its aim was to educate school-aged children — about one-third of Pakistani children can't or don't attend school in the country. Sim Sim Hamara teaches them numbers and letters of the alphabet, and about ideals such as tolerance.
The initial agreement was for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to provide $20 million over a four-year period to the Lahore-based Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, which was developing the program.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner says the funding was withdrawn after the local USAID office received a tip on its anti-fraud hotline.
"We did receive via that hotline what we believe were credible allegations of fraud and abuse by the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop," Toner says. "So we did launch an investigation into the allegations. We've also sent the theater workshop a letter that terminates the project agreement."
To date, Toner says, just under $7 million was actually sent to the theater group. The U.S.-based Sesame Workshop, which was helping the Pakistani group, issued a statement saying it was surprised and dismayed to learn about the allegations — and that it hopes the achievements of Sim Sim Hamara and the gains made in the lives of Pakistani children will continue.
Officials from the Rafi theater group have denied the allegations.
Alex Thier, a senior official for Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID, says it's tragic turn of events.
"We had gotten very positive feedback about the quality of the programming and the popularity of the program itself," Thier says. "But at the end of the day, really our goal is to try and reach the Pakistanis with good programs that are going to improve the stability of the country and so we will definitely continue to focus on the ways in which we can do that."
Thier says it was USAID itself that both established and funded the anti-fraud hotline that forced the withdrawal of U.S. funds for Sim Sim Hamara.
Shamila Chaudhary, a South Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, says USAID had no choice but to end the program — and quickly — because it could not afford an embarrassment.
She says essentially the children's program was swept up in the larger conflict between the U.S. and Pakistan — the relationship between the two countries has become increasingly contentious over the past year — and now Congress is looking to cut even more funding to Pakistan.
"So you have a program like Sesame Street, which is accused of corruption, that puts civilian aid in even more danger," she says.
Chaudhary says she doubts the State Department wants civilian aid targeted the way Congress has targeted security aid.