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Secret whistleblower brought down Pakistani Sesame Street

USAID’s suspension of funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street came after an anonymous tip to an anti-fraud hotline and shows that the United States is on top of fraud and abuse in its foreign assistance programs, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told The Cable. Earlier this week, USAID closed the spigot on the $20 ...

USAID's suspension of funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street came after an anonymous tip to an anti-fraud hotline and shows that the United States is on top of fraud and abuse in its foreign assistance programs, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told The Cable.

Earlier this week, USAID closed the spigot on the $20 million that was supposed to be allocated to the television program, called Sim Sim Hamara, or "Our Sim Sim," after $6.7 million had been disbursed. The program, which aired for the first time last December, was being produced by the Sesame Workshop and the Rafi Peer Puppet Workshop, based in Lahore. Faizaan Peerzada, a top executive of Rafi Peer, has denied various allegations that he used the money to pay off old debts, give subcontracts to relatives, and build a pool at his house.

Shah, who has made aid effectiveness and accountability a cornerstone of his agenda at USAID, said in a short interview that USAID knows the risks of working with partners in troubled countries, but it is important to try anyway, so long as there are checks on possible fraud and abuse.

USAID’s suspension of funding for the Pakistani version of Sesame Street came after an anonymous tip to an anti-fraud hotline and shows that the United States is on top of fraud and abuse in its foreign assistance programs, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told The Cable.

Earlier this week, USAID closed the spigot on the $20 million that was supposed to be allocated to the television program, called Sim Sim Hamara, or "Our Sim Sim," after $6.7 million had been disbursed. The program, which aired for the first time last December, was being produced by the Sesame Workshop and the Rafi Peer Puppet Workshop, based in Lahore. Faizaan Peerzada, a top executive of Rafi Peer, has denied various allegations that he used the money to pay off old debts, give subcontracts to relatives, and build a pool at his house.

Shah, who has made aid effectiveness and accountability a cornerstone of his agenda at USAID, said in a short interview that USAID knows the risks of working with partners in troubled countries, but it is important to try anyway, so long as there are checks on possible fraud and abuse.

"When we’re working in difficult environments, there are going to be risks involved. The reason we do the work is because it’s part of a joint national security priority to help address the causes of conflict and instability to begin with," he said. "The case in Pakistan was a case where we had set up an anti-fraud hotline through Transparency International. We got a tip and we acted aggressively on that tip to suspend the program and conduct a further investigation, which is going on now."

For Shah, the incident is an example of a success story in foreign aid transparency, because the failsafe measure worked and the fraud investigation can now proceed to its factual conclusion, whatever that turns out to be.

"It just goes to show that we can be responsive and we can be smarter about how we try to use modern technology — in this case, the anti-fraud hotline — to help fight against and prevent corruption in the implementation of these efforts," he said. "There are obvious risks taken in conflict-affected environments, so we are very vigilant in fighting against corruption and those types of risks, which is why we took this very quick and very significant action, which of course has been very controversial but which we stand behind."

The show featured Elmo and a group of new Pakistani characters including, as ABC reported, "Munna, a 5-year old boy who played the table drums, Baily, a donkey who loved to sing, and Haseen O Jameel, a crocodile living in a well."

A USAID spokesman said the project was created to promote literacy and numeracy, and complements formal education by reaching kids through TV, especially in remote, rural communities where many have limited or no access to traditional education.  

"The project also contributes directly to the goal of promoting stability and security by promoting tolerance among Pakistanis and respect for girls," the spokesman said. "Rafi Peer Theater Workshop is a Pakistani organization which is separate and distinct from the U.S. organization Sesame Workshop with which USAID has a number of ongoing projects around the world. Sesame Workshop has not been implicated in these allegations."

The suspension comes in the midst of a substantial consolidation of USAID projects in Pakistan, an effort Shah talked about during his trip there in April.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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