Pakistani children must Say Goodbye to Elmo
Corruption in USAID-funded program in Pakistan under investigation
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - One of the USAID-funded projects in Pakistan is under the spotlight, namely the Sesame Street television program. Allegations of corruption taken from the USAID Anti-fraud Hotline, compelled US authorities to stop funding this project and call for an investigation.
The issue came to the surface during a daily briefing of the State’s Department on June 5, 2012 when Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson, accepted that allegations were serious enough that US authorities wanted to suspend or cut off the Sesame Street program until US authorities were able to complete this investigation.
However, nobody in Pakistan or the United States is ready to share what the allegations are. When this correspondent contacted the Leslie Goodman Information Officer at USIS Lahore, she said, "Investigations are underway and allegations cannot be shared unless investigations are concluded.”
A USAID spokesperson in Washington, DC, explained the situation stating, "USAID takes all allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse of US funding very seriously and takes actions to suspend or halt programs, investigate claims, and if needed, seek reimbursement for US funding. USAID was made aware of potential fraud and abuse of Rafi Peer Theater Workshop's management of USAID funds for the Pakistan Children's Television Project, after allegations were received through the USAID-created, anti-fraud hotline. In response to the allegations, USAID's Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into the allegations and found them to be credible. We then took action by terminating the project agreement with [the] Rafi Peer Theater Workshop.
“The primary goal of USAID's education program in Pakistan is to bring children to reading at or above grade level over the next five years.
“The Pakistan Children's Television Project contributes to this broader goal by promoting literacy and numeracy, and complements formal schooling through the extensive reach of TV, radio, and theater, especially in remote, rural communities where many have limited or no access to traditional education institutions. The project also contributes directly to the goal of promoting stability and security by promoting tolerance among Pakistanis and respect for girls.
“Rafi Peer Theater Workshop is a Pakistani organization which is separate and distinct from the US organization, Sesame Workshop, with which USAID has a number of ongoing projects around the world. Sesame Workshop has not been implicated in these allegations."
That indicates that US authorities are not ready to share the nature of allegations with anybody and will only share findings of the investigation.
This situation raises many questions about the working of USAID in Pakistan, such as why and how authorities in USAID did not see something wrong enough in the project that someone anonymous saw sitting outside the project and informed of it through the Anti-fraud Hotline. There is also a question that if the Hotline did not receive this information, could this project have continued? Another serious question is why allegations are not being shared with media or civil society if they were credible enough that project was stopped?
People who have an idea of USAID working are of the view that sharing allegations with media will actually raise questions about the working of USAID authorities who were dealing with this project, and this is the reason USAID is refraining from sharing charges before investigations are completed, and that can take some weeks, months, or even a year, and by this time there is a possibility that the responsible people will have been shifted or transfer to other projects within Pakistan or abroad.
Pakistani media is running several stories about this whole issue and claiming that the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop has been allegedly found involved in financial misappropriation of millions of dollars received as a part of the USAID-funded project, Pakistan Children's TV (PCTV).
One newspaper Pakistan Today ran an investigative story and alleged that USAID stopped this project support over “severe” irregularities.
The USAID pledged $20 million to the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW), which was the sole recipient of the aid, while it worked in collaboration with Sesame Street, US.
The project to be initiated with the aid received was to educate the country's children through entertaining puppet shows broadcast through TV, radio, and outreach programs over a period of 4 years.
Children were to be taught basics such as counting, alphabets, ethics, and cleanliness.
Newspapers claimed that Rafi Peer was supposed to complete 78 fresh episodes of the program, “Sim Sim Hamara” in three years, starting from 2010. Currently, however, only the first season has managed to come on-air, while other major portions of the program, including the radio and outreach programs have not even been touched. It also claimed that lack of proper planning, mismanagement, and financial irregularities have all been rampant throughout the project, leading to an initial delay of a year-and-a-half and finally the suspension of aid, as USAID has already notified the RPTW that it will not fund the program after September 30.
Responding to these claims, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop placed a legal notice of defamation against the newspaper and demanded Rs 1 billion from Pakistan Today for "defaming" the group by reporting the termination of aid for its "Sim, Sim Hamara' program by USAID, because of alleged financial irregularities and abuse of aid money.
The legal notice served on the newspaper states that the Rafi Peer group had "adhered strictly and transparently with all USAID compliance guidelines pertaining to procurement, finance, and human resource, and all accounts pertaining to the above-mentioned heads had been duly subjected to internal and external audits by independent auditors employed by RPTW and USAID, and no iota of financial embezzlement, misappropriation, and fudging of accounts had been raised against RPTW.” This notice actually indicates that Rafi Peer group did not do anything wrong, while the US State Department indicated that allegations were serious enough to stop the funding but refrain from sharing allegations with anybody for the reason best known to the State Department itself.
Other reports in Pakistani media claimed that Rafi Peer Theater placed family members for key positions in the company, getting salaries from USAID, while Rafi Peer family claims that in its original bid, it specifically stated that this was a family business and identified their designations. There was no issue then with USAID officials to accept a proposal that has family members at top positions and taking salaries or a share from the project.
Responding to allegations of misappropriation of funds, Rafi Peer said the entire process had been overseen by USAID staffers, and there was no capacity, much less intent, for any kind of fraud.
There is another interesting aspect of this project. The project amount was fixed as 20 million dollars and then revised to $10 million in January 2012 due to reasons not indicated at the project website. Why this project was approved as $20 million, and why USAID almost in the middle of the project considered that this project is worth half of the actual amount it fixed at the start of this project is not known. How a project is being considered by USAID when budgeting is done is another question in the minds of Pakistani journalists. If the worth of the project was only $10 million, why was it over projected and over budgeted as $20 million at the initial stage and at the approval level?
According to project details, the project has family members (real brothers) at all top slots of the project. Faizaan Peerzada was the Chief of the company, Sadaan Peerzada was appointed the Program Director; Usman Peerzada, the Production Director; Imran Peerzada, Head of Content; Tasneem Peerzada, Senior Writer; Sadaan's wife, Mirela Peerzada, Senior Creative Manager; her daughter, Yamina Peerzada, was first hired as the Creative Manager and later as a Puppeteer when her contract ended. Sadaan's elder daughter Alina Peerzada was working as the Operations Director.
Pakistani media has been raising concerns about other USAID projects in Khayber Pukhtun Khawa in the past, but this is first time serious alleged mishandling of a USAID project has been accepted by the US authorities. For example, people were also claiming things were not transparent in a total of US$5.25 million in direct assistance in the rehabilitation of hotels and fish farms in a Swat Valley USAID project.
USAID authorities may want to consider this project as an example for reviewing its other projects in Pakistan that were in process during the last 5 years. There is the possibility that more revealing facts will come to the surface about those projects as well.