• Great Moments in Public Diplomacy: $10 mil Sesame Street Pakistan Fail

    June 5, 2012

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    After wasting half the money, the US terminated a $20 million project to develop a Pakistani version of Sesame Street, the US Embassy announced.

    The decision came as a Pakistani newspaper reported allegations of corruption by the local puppet theater working on the initiative. The Pakistan Today newspaper reported Tuesday that the cause was “severe” financial irregularities at the production company. The producers allegedly used the US money to pay off old debts and awarded lucrative contracts to relatives.

    As recently as late April of this year, just five weeks ago, the US Embassy in Islamabad featured a story about Ambassador Cameron Munter and Consul General Nina Fite visiting the Sesame Street set at Pakistan Children’s Television to reaffirm the US government’s commitment to children’s education in Pakistan. This was the Ambassador’s second showcase visit to the project.

    Each episode was to be based around a word and a number, like the US version, and tackle general themes like friendship, respect and valuing diversity. This last theme is particularly important in Pakistan, where Islamist extremists often target minority religious sects and others who disagree with their views.

    Unfortunately, the lesson taught was that the US cannot find its own butt for a hole in the ground, once again, as another “hearts and minds” project implodes.

    Reached for comment, a Sesame Street spokespuppet said: “Elmo sad.”

    What It Means

    As much as it is fun to write lines like “Today’s public diplomacy Failure is brought to you by the letter F,” or, “No word on where the US oversight was while $10 million in taxpayer money was eaten by the Cookie Monster,” this project shares too many similarities with State’s failed efforts at hearts and minds work in Iraq and Afghanistan:

    –The fanfare came first, and came on strong, with two high-profile Ambassadorial visits before any results were seen. Results first, press releases later, is a better policy.

    –Where was the oversight? The US had been putting money into this project since 2009 and only after $10 million was thrown down the hole did anyone pull the plug.

    –The press releases trumpeting this project proclaimed “Starting April 2011, seventy eight Urdu language television episodes and 13 episodes in each of the four major provincial languages will broadcast throughout Pakistan. The same number of radio programs will be developed and broadcast as well. The project will also bring 600 live puppet performances and video shows to various rural areas. In addition, the project will work to include out-of-school children in various educational activities.” In fact, only thirteen episodes were produced. Who at State was overseeing the other aspects of this project? A touch of humility, with modest, sincere goals, builds US credibility.

    –Why is it required that an outside source, in this case a newspaper, do State’s due diligence on these projects? Corruption is endemic and close monitoring should be required.

    –If the point was to influence Pakistani youth by having the US give them Sesame Street, what is the public diplomacy impact of the US taking Sesame Street away?

    –(rhetorical question) Will anyone on the US side be fired for another waste of US money and credibility? Or, more likely, will someone be fired for leaking the story?

    Inside Baseball Bonus: The $20 million was USAID money. Inevitably some bonehead will write in to me claiming this was a failed USAID project and not a failed public diplomacy project. Guess what? As far as Pakistan is concerned this is a failed United States project, so get on the team, stop infighting and try to accomplish something besides adding rhetoric to the already steaming pile.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Mary said...


      Somebody was sleeping on the job.

      1. In the U.S.,the production budget for Sesame Street domestically is about $16 or $17 million per year, which produces about 26 episodes.

      2. In Pakistan, only 13 episodes were produced for $20 million.

      06/6/12 1:52 AM | Comment Link

    • teri said...


      We are talking about Pakistan, right? Isn’t that the country where massive flooding two years in a row have left tens of millions without homes? And one can only assume that the TV washed away when the house did. And aren’t they facing unprecedented levels of water-borne illnesses and food insecurity due to the floods? So we give them Sesame Street?? I’m sure all the hungry little ones will appreciate the irony of their tummies rumbling while watching Cookie Monster gobble up all those sweets.

      Reminds me of Oblahblah flying overseas to give a televised speech about the importance of his US-Afghanistan treaty (written and signed without Congress, natch) in a country where 90% of the population does not own a television.

      Nobody finds more inappropriate and useless ways to say “we care” than the US.

      06/6/12 11:02 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      1. Where did you get the photo of the Obama “kill list” meeting?

      2. The Paki Sesayou project was killed when the US embassy learned Elmo and the gang were about to teach US the stages of the demise of empire:

      Stage 1: Hubris Born of Success

      Stage 2: Undisciplined Pursuit of More

      Stage 3: Denial of Risk and Peril

      Stage 4: Grasping for Salvation

      Stage 5: Capitulation to Irrelevance

      Stage 6: Death

      BTW — I always considered having to watch Sesame Street to be cruel and inhumane punishment:

      06/6/12 12:39 PM | Comment Link

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