Analysis: It will take more than Sesame Street to sort this out

THIS month, an opinion poll found that the majority of people in the United States, some 55 per cent, consider Pakistan to be their enemy.

The findings are not a surprise, given the troubled relationship between the two countries, and, to be frank, the feeling is completely mutual at the other end.

Pakistan is today one of the countries where the public holds one of the least favourable opinions towards US foreign policy.

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The leader, president Asif Ali Zardari, is regularly ridiculed as a US-funded “puppet”.

Very soon, however, Mr Zardari is going to face some serious competition. Starting from this month, a new breed of “puppets” is to arrive in Pakistan.

Thanks to the magnanimity of American taxpayers, US Aid is funding – to the tune of $20 million (£12.75m) – a troop of puppets to grace Pakistani state TV, in a local adaptation of the popular children’s educational programme Sesame Street.

While Elmo from the American version of the show is retained, such stars as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch have been dropped. In fact, most of the characters are new. They include Rani, a six-year-old girl who loves cricket, and Haseen o Jameel the crocodile. The show, which will be called Sim Sim Hamara, is being hailed as an attempt to “increase tolerance” towards women and minorities in the country.

The show was jointly developed by Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American series, and Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, a group in the Pakistani city of Lahore that has been staging puppet shows for more than three decades.

Nearly 80 episodes will be aired in Pakistan’s national language, Urdu, over the next three years, as well as 13 in each of the four main regional languages, Baluchi, Pashtu, Punjabi and Sindhi.

For those who cheer such ventures, you can’t make it up. At a time when the American economy is facing grave financial challenges, with a national debt which recently topped $15 trillion, the best the policymakers in Washington could come up with is to stitch together a bunch of costly puppets to send to the other end of the globe with the hope it will “increase tolerance”?

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure many of those involved in the project are doing this with a sincere heart to help out those less fortunate.

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However, charity begins at home. Fifteen per cent of Americans were using food stamps in the month of August this year. At the same time, the US is making some serious cuts in education. At least 37 states in the US are providing less funding to local school districts then they were last year. In the state of Georgia, for example, the school year for many pre-kindergarten children has been reduced from 180 to 160 days due to economic woes.

Of course, in Pakistan, the educational system is a much bigger shambles. This is a nuclear-armed country where half the women cannot read and where school funding comprises just 1.5 per cent of GDP. But surely it is the responsibility of the Pakistani state to take care of these matters?

There is already a great deal of wealth in Pakistan – the trouble is, it is concentrated in a few hands. Less than three million people in a country of 180 million reportedly pay income taxes.

Another point to note is there is also a patronising kind of attitude that comes with such aid. For example, how would Americans feel if the UK or Japan, for instance, funded a TV show to “increase tolerance” in the US in order to help deal with the gun-related crimes that kill thousands of children every year?

Nothing comes free, including foreign aid.

According to one report this year, at least 168 children were killed in Pakistan as a result of CIA-operated drones that are used to target suspected militants. So, any good the US does – and the American people do a lot, such as the Bush-era drive against HIV/Aids – inevitably gets drowned out in the face of all the negative publicity over such attacks.

Further, while Sesame Street will perhaps benefit some children in Pakistan with its educational content, it really is scratching the surface of the problem the country faces.

At the end of the day, it is only the Pakistani state that can fix its educational problems – not Elmo or the American taxpayer.

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