“This is a highly sensitive issue; we cannot overstep the line and speak beyond what is appropriate”. This is one of the few answers I received from the USAID officials when I started my investigation on the scandal concerning allegations of corruption in one of its programmes, “Sim Sim Hamara”, a Pakistan children’s educational TV project (PCTV), meant to be a local version of the famous “Sesame Street” series.
The only primary sources that remained available for me were the accused themselves, the Peerzadas who run the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW). The “Sim Sim Hamara” programme was welcomed by very favourable reviews with 26 episodes having been aired to the delight of over 120 million viewers.
Back in June 2012, the USAID asserted that they had enough substantial evidence of corruption to interrupt the project. So far, not a single piece of evidence has been disclosed to the public. Meanwhile, the Peerzadas have had to fire 150 people and have been left contemplating their shattered reputation.
Initially, the project was supposed to be shut down by September 30, 2012 due to the unavailability of funding from the USAID. The controversy started in early June with an article that appeared in a Pakistani newspaper accusing the Peerzadas of turning the project into a family affair, of embezzling money to pay off old debts, of programmatic delays, of poor quality of compliance and of fake tenders. The next day, a US State Department spokesperson asserted that the USAID had “credible evidence” of corruption. The only basis for this assertion were some calls supposedly made on the USAID’s anti-corruption hot line.
The agency decided to appoint a firm to conduct a forensic audit of an office of inspector general’s (OIG) internal investigation that had taken place at the RPTW. It then sent a letter to the Peerzadas stating that “the investigation revealed that four major PCTV procurements … totaling $929,701 failed to comply with PCTV’s own procurement policy”. The entire procurement process, however, is scrutinised by the USAID with supporting documents, before any approval on payments to vendors is to be undertaken, which makes it complicated to carry out any hanky-panky.
The OIG’s final report is to be found on the USAID website. The Peerzadas had a lot to say when they discovered it. They assert that the US funding was $10 million, not $20 million. Up till today, $1.6 million are still owed by the USAID to the RPTW. Furthermore, the OIG report does not allege of fraud or embezzlement of funds. On the contrary, it states that “the fund accountability statement presented fairly, in all material respects, programme revenues and costs incurred under the agreement for the period audited”. However, it mentions unsupported costs of $15,629, and $595,394 supposedly allocated for personnel cost. This figure contradicts the previous findings of the OIG about the procurement policy. Apart from this, the report only points to “weaknesses” and “instances of non-compliance”. The RPTW is also accused of failing to air the programme within the agreed time frames. However, season one had to be broadcasted within one year of disbursement of funds and it was. Finally, the so-called findings have been and remain those of a one-sided audit. Around mid-August, the Norwegian embassy, which has been pursuing a nine-year-old collaboration with the RPTW, conducted its own audit within the organisation and everything was found to be in order.
In the comments sent to the Peerzadas by the USAID at the end of August, new contradictions arose with regards to the previous statements. It is once again all about procurement compliance issues. The USAID denies being “in a position to determine if any fraud was committed” but adds simply that “certain findings … give rise to suspicion of fraudulent intentions”. Really? So, was Elmo really caught with his hand in the cookie jar? What if it was the Cookie Monster?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2012.
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