Tuesday, June 5, 2012

US ends funding for Pakistan's 'Sesame Street'

The U.S. has terminated funding for a $20 million project to develop a Pakistani version of "Sesame Street" in response to alleged corruption by the local puppet theater working on the initiative, U.S. officials said Tuesday. The organization in question is the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop, a group based in the city of Lahore that jointly developed the show with Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American series. The show, which includes Elmo and a host of new Pakistani characters, first aired at the end of last year and was supposed to run for at least three seasons. The U.S. hoped it would improve education in a country where one-third of primary school-age children are not in class. It was also meant to increase tolerance at a time when the influence of radical views is growing. The U.S. cut off funding for the project and launched an investigation after receiving what it deemed to be credible allegations of fraud and abuse on a telephone hotline set up by the U.S. Agency for International Development in Pakistan, said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. "So rather than to continue to throw good money after bad, we thought it was prudent to cut off this program and wait for the results of the investigation," Toner told reporters in Washington. A total of $6.7 million had been spent on the show so far out of a total of $20 million that was planned, he said. The U.S. did not provide details about the alleged corruption. The Pakistan Today newspaper reported Tuesday that the graft included using the U.S. money to pay off old debts and awarding lucrative contracts to relatives, citing unnamed sources close to the project. Faizaan Peerzada, the chief operating officer of Rafi Peer and one of several family members who run the organization, denied the corruption allegations. He claimed the U.S. ended its participation because of the lack of additional available funds. "Rafi Peer is proud of its association with the project and of the quality of children's educational television programming created within Pakistan as a result," the group said in a statement sent to The Associated Press. If the corruption allegations prove true, it would be an embarrassment for the multibillion-dollar U.S. aid program in Pakistan, which some analysts have criticized for lacking focus and not achieving results. Rafi Peer plans to seek alternative sources of funding to continue producing the local version of "Sesame Street," which is called "Sim Sim Hamara," or "Our Sim Sim." The original goal was to reach 3 million children, 1 million of whom are out of school. The show is led by a vivacious 6-year-old girl named Rani who loves cricket and traditional Pakistani music. Her sidekick, Munna, is a 5-year-old boy obsessed with numbers and banging away on Pakistani bongo drums, or tabla. Other new characters include Baily, a kindly donkey who loves to sing, and Haseen O Jameel, a vain crocodile who lives at the bottom of a well. The action revolves around a mock-up of a Pakistani town, complete with houses, a school and Baaji's dhaba, a small shop and restaurant found in many places in the country. The town also includes a large Banyan tree, known as the wisdom tree in South Asia, in the shade of which the children often play. Each episode is based around a word and a number, like the U.S. version, and tackles 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. The American version of "Sesame Street" first aired in 1969, and the U.S. government has worked with the company since then to produce shows in about 20 foreign countries, including Muslim nations like Bangladesh and Indonesia. Sesame Workshop, the creator of the American series, said it was dismayed to hear about the corruption allegations against Rafi Peer and noted that it received separate funding from USAID for its work on the Pakistani show. "It is our hope that the achievements of Sim Sim Hamara, and the gains we have made in the lives of children in Pakistan, will carry on," it said in a statement.

President Putin arrives in Beijing for 3-day visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Beijing for a 3-day official visit. This is Putin's first time in China since regaining the Russian Presidency in May. This is his first trip to Asia under his new Kremlin mandate. Putin is accompanied by six cabinet members, the heads of Russia’s energy giants and major players in Russian business circles. Economic issues are set to figure prominently on the 3-day trip. China is Russia’s largest trading partner, whereas Russia is China’s fastest growing one. The two sides have set a goal to reach 200 billion US dollars in bilateral trade by 2020, a substantial increase from the current volume of nearly 80 billion US dollars. Inter-bank cooperation is expected to be strengthened. In particular, Russia’s Bank of Foreign Economic Activity, where Putin himself is the chairman, is set to sign a series of agreements with the China Development Bank. Energy cooperation is also high on the agenda. The two sides hope to deepen cooperation in oil, natural gas, electric power, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. One major project is a natural gas deal where Russia will supply China with nearly 70 billion cubic meters of natural gas every year for the next 30 years. A framework agreement was signed back in 2009, but the two countries have yet to work out differences over pricing. The two countries also hope to coordinate their positions on international issues, including Syria, the Iranian nuclear crisis, and other regional and global security affairs. During his stay in Beijing, Putin will also attend the Beijing Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The annual Summit will bring together Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with China as presiding country this year. This isn't President Putin's first visit to China, but it might rank among his most important. Over the next couple of days, Putin will exchange opinions with Chinese leaders on a host of issues ranging from bilateral trade to regional security. The talks are aimed not only at strengthening the strategic ties between China and Russia, but also at shaping future relations in a changing region.

Punjab: Development, but at what cost?

The Punjab government has wasted millions of rupees in uprooting and replacing plants, saplings and trees, as well as changing the design of some under construction projects, on Ferozpur Road, apparently with a view to the road’s widening and remodelling.TheNation has reliably learnt that the Transport Engineering and Planning Agency (TEPA) and the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), in collaboration with some other government departments, have uprooted hundreds of precious and costly plants from the greenbelt and road dividers, constructed in the middle and at both sides of Ferozpur Road.Sadly, this practice continues because different government departments are launching new projects – such as reconstruction of Ferozpur Road; construction of overhead bridges and underpasses on Ferozpur road; and construction of a special track in the middle of Ferozpur Road for plying special buses – to please Shahbaz Sharif.Sources in the PHA informed this scribe that the provincial government had also decided to construct a service road side by side the Ferozpur Road, from Kot Lakhpat Overhead Bridge (at the left side of Old Model Town Bridge on Ferozpur Road) to Qaddafi Stadium and alongside the Nawaz Sharif Park Model Town. “Unfortunately, government departments, particularly TEPA and the PHA, are slated to to cut down more trees because they are a hurdle in the construction of such a service lane,” the sources added.TEPA also uprooted dozens of old trees planted by the PHA on the opposite side of the Nawaz Sharif Park just because its engineers changed the design of the footpath and under construction greenbelt, causing a loss of millions of rupees to the national exchequer, said the sources, adding: “It is difficult to calculate how much public money has so far been wasted by government departments that damaged trees and newly-planted saplings alongside the service road on Ferozpur Road.”The sources further said though the new projects initiated by the government were public welfare-oriented and were likely to add to the City’s beauty and facilitate the citizens, the point not to be missed here is that the government was wasting millions of rupees in planting and uprooting precious plants and changing the design of Ferozpur road repeatedly. “The government could have used the same funds on some other projects, especially roads, streets and sewerage pipeline-laying projects in backward areas of the provincial capital that are pending for construction for months or even years because of the lack of financial resources,” the sources maintained.“No pains, no gains!” remarked TEPA Director Mazhar Hussain Khan, who also heads the Bus Rapid Transport System project, while talking to TheNation. He said the govt had launched these projects to facilitate the citizens. “Though government departments had to uproot dozens of plants and trees to complete the project, the govt has not only directed TEPA and the PHA to save the uprooted trees, but also asked them to replant the same with new saplings in the green belts,” Mazhar contended.