LAHORE, Pakistan — Under the Obama administration, American civilian assistance to Pakistan has tripled to $1.5 billion a year, but many critics say that money doesn't seem to have done much to spur the fight against al Qaida or Islamic extremism.
Now the U.S. is throwing a new weapon into the mix — "Sesame Street," the classic American children's program populated with furry monsters.
Funded with a $20 million grant from USAID, the economic assistance arm of the State Department, the Pakistan version of "Sesame Street" will feature new muppets and a Pakistani village setting. The goal: to help the country's young learn some basic words and numbers and maybe, by promoting better education, help reverse Pakistan's descent into religious conservatism, violent extremism and economic stagnation.
The program is likely to become the most visible American aid project in Pakistan in years. How effective it will be as policy remains to be seen.
The star of SimSim Humara ("Ours"), as the Pakistani edition of "Sesame Street" is called, is Rani, a cute 6-year-old human muppet, who loves science and reading, and her curiosity will be used to encourage questioning. Other characters include a spirited adult woman, Baaji, who enjoys family time and tradition, and Baily, a hard-working donkey who longs to be a pop star. They'll speak entirely in local languages — the Urdu spoken by most Pakistanis, as well as four regional languages.
The only cast member of the American version that will have a role is Elmo, the cheerful monster toddler, but Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Count von Count have been cut to make way for local characters.
Filming will begin here this summer, and the show will air starting in the fall. Its target audience is deprived children outside the big cities. Because it will be broadcast on the national state broadcaster, PTV, it should be available even in the smallest village. Following the "Sesame Street" formula, each show will pick one word and one number to highlight.
"The idea is to prepare and inspire a child to go on the path of learning. And inspire the parents of the child to think that the child must be educated," said Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer at the Lahore-based Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, which was awarded the project, in collaboration with Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American show. "This is a very serious business, the education of the children of Pakistan at a critical time."
The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance — much needed in a dangerously fractured society — but it will feature no pro-American propaganda or any overt challenge to hard-line religious sentiment.
"I think this is a gift for the children of Pakistan, a means of joyful learning," Peerzada said. "I think the American taxpayer will be very happy with the results."
The Peerzadas are one of Pakistan's foremost creative clans. Four Peerzada brothers, one sister and a Peerzada child, run the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, which was established in the 1970s. Their father founded a pioneering theater company.
Another brother, Salman, the oldest, is a filmmaker. In the 1980s, the family moved into puppetry, and there's a puppet museum, said to be Asia's largest, with colorful and ghoulish models from across the world, at their sprawling cultural center on the outskirts of Lahore.
Being an artist, however, hasn't been easy — or safe. Pakistani extremists have relentlessly targeted entertainment, the arts and anything associated with the international community. The Peerzadas used to put on an annual performing arts festival that attracted performers from all over the globe, but the festival has been suspended since 2008 after it was bombed, injuring nine people. In 2009, the restaurant at the cultural center also was bombed, and in May last year there was an explosion at the puppet museum.
Faizaan Peerzada blamed a "mindset that disagrees with diversity" for the attacks, and the family vows to continue their work.
The $20 million grant will produce the Pakistani "Sesame Street" for four years, with 78 episodes in Urdu, 56 in regional languages, a radio show, mobile TV vans to show the program in remote areas and a traveling muppet road show.
Larry Dolan, the director of the education office at USAID for Pakistan, said the expenditure is a valuable addition to the "series of different pots" of educational assistance the U.S. provides. The target audience for the TV show, at 3 million children, is much larger than would benefit from the same expenditure on, say, new school construction.
The muppets will also be used to front public service messages, on issues such as health, that will reach 95 million people.
"Teaching kids early on makes them much more successful when they get to school. And this program will have the capacity to encourage tolerance, which is so key to what we're trying to do here," Dolan said. "In terms of bang for the buck, reaching 95 million people is pretty important. This is much more than a TV program, far more ambitious than a 'Sesame Street' series."
Still, there are critics. They point out that $20 million could fund the building of 113 primary schools and cover their costs for three years, based on the figures used by The Citizens Foundation, a Pakistan non-governmental organization that provides high-quality education to poor children.
"A contextualized Sesame Street would be good, important and useful. But if I had $20 million for education in Pakistan, it's not the first thing I would do," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a newspaper columnist for Pakistan's The News, a daily.
Unlike many USAID projects in Pakistan and elsewhere, the Sesame Street initiative doesn't appear to involve money going on expensive outside consultants and lavish offices. Rafi Peer's existing facilities will be used, at no extra cost.
New York-based Sesame Workshop, founded more than four decades ago as Children's Television Workshop, is a nonprofit organization that has backed 30 different local co-productions of the program around the world, including Indonesia, Nigeria and South Africa.
"Children learn best when educational materials match their own cultural experiences," said Charlotte Cole, senior vice president at Sesame Workshop. "These programs have the essence of 'Sesame Street,' then take on the essence of the local region."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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