USAID will spent $20 million to bring Sesame Street to Pakistan. But it is not the price tag that should raise concerns. In the scheme of things, it seems a little impractical to get wound up over what amounts to less than pocket change in terms of the federal budget. And the project is more than worth $20 million if it ends up helping to liberalize Pakistani children, which is the goal.
Here’s the premise of the Urdu-language Sesame Street:
The furry Muppets will trade 123 Sesame Street and Mr. Hooper’s Store for some local flavoring – they’ll live in a dhaba, a traditional Pakistani village with teacarts roaming the streets and simple homes dotting the landscape. The star of the show will be neither an oversized bird nor a blue junk-food lover, but rather a six-year-old Muppet child named Rani, the child of a local farmer sporting pigtails and a distinct curiosity about the world. But Elmo is also poised for a starring role in the Pakistani version.
To make a female character the lead is wonderful, especially with the persecution that women face in Pakistan. But at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw is a bit skeptical about whether the show will reach the audience it needs to in order to make an impact on the culture. “The areas where we really need to reach people and begin to change their way of thinking are more with the tribal groups than in the urban areas which are somewhat friendlier to western interests,” he writes. “And those are the areas which will have the least access to television programming.”
He’s right that that should be the focus, but there’s also significant work that has to be done to change the way of thinking among the mainstream population. The assassinations of two liberal Pakistani leaders over the past few months wasn’t just cheered on by the tribal communities—they were also cheered by many in the urban areas as well.
However, one unanswered question about the program is how much control USAID will have over its content. If the U.S. is putting up $20 million, we better have a say in what makes the final cut for the show.
Which is why this interview with the show’s creators is worrying:
[Quote] But the shows are not about only reading, writing and arithmetic, they also teach Islamic principles. “The meaning of jihad (struggle) can be told with lots of colours and a little bird and a flower. No one needs to be a villain. This is what we try to put into the minds of children: the biggest jihad begins when you look into your own self,” they said. [Quote]
Spending U.S. money to teach Pakistani children basic academic lessons and tolerance is one thing. But our government should not be spending it to teach Islamic religious principles.