The Urdu rendition of “Sesame Street”, “Sim Sim Hamara” was introduced in Pakistan last December as one of USAID’s most interesting initiatives for the country. The $20 million collaboration with the reputable Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (owned by the Peerzadas) was made to promote a tolerant and vibrant view of Pakistan for children through a first-of-its-kind children’s show which encompassed a child-friendly curriculum supporting children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. However, USAID has pulled the plug on its funding, as corruption allegations surfaced that the money was being mishandled. Consequently, this also meant that around 150 people lost their jobs.
The Peerzadas staunchly rejected these claims and held a press conference with major media outlets last week to clear their name. While USAID is trying to quickly wrap up proceedings, chief of party Faizan Peerzada is defiant on both counts; first, on clearing his family’s reputation and second, on continuing the programme. According to a Gallup report, the show had a viewership of 20 million every month. “June was a critical month as we were going to go on air in Pashto and Balochi, while other dubbed versions were going to the heartland of Pakistan with a video van. How could you close such a show?” Peerzada beseeched.
He also added, “If after 38 years we wanted to do this (corruption), then I think we should have been in another business,” Peerzada said. He is still unclear about what exactly the allegation was. “There is this fallacy going around that we have embezzled $20 million. It is not possible,” he told The Express Tribune.
Peerzada clarified that USAID had initially cut the funding by $10 million, of which the theatre company would receive seven million dollars and the remaining three million would be for the “Sesame Street” franchise. He added that the initial amount that had been promised by the US agency was $12.97 million, of which about seven million would have been allocated to the workshop. Peerzada’s contention is that his organisation has only spent a total of five million dollars, so the allegation of an embezzlement of $20 million was not logical.
Additionally, Peerzada claims the process was checked on every level by USAID from the very beginning. According to him, procurements over $5,000 had to be processed by a USAID recommended consulting agency Jobs International Project Limited and then sent through Pakistan Children’s Television (PCTV) to USAID to be approved. Peerzada’s argument is that with these set of rules at every step, the funds could not possibly have been misused. The monitoring system within the USAID apparatus has raised questions as to how corruption of this magnitude could occur if the project was being this heavily monitored.
Denying a report published in Pakistan Today, where a source has been quoted saying that the Peerzadas “turned the project into a family affair, awarding all key posts to close relatives,” Peerzada said that its authenticity has been questioned through a $10 million law-suit asking for punitive damages for defamation.
At the end, Peerzada suggested that “Sim Sim Hamara” was engulfed in the uneasy dynamics of Pakistan-United States relations, which may have caused funding to stop. “I strongly believe that it had a role, but I don’t want to take protection under this,” states Peerzada, who does not wish to gain sympathy on this basis.
Lamenting the halt of the workshop, Peerzada said he is adamant that the show must go on, even if they have to go commercial. “We have created an original programme which we will continue on our own time, we did not come with empty pockets to this project,” he added.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.