Oct 4, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Sesame Street

how-elmo-works-1Samantha Shapiro has a very good article in today’s New York Times magazine about Sesame Street in Palestine.  While the article focuses a lot of attention on the sort of insane details that makes resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so maddening (such as a fight between Israeli and Palestinian writers over whether hummus was an Israeli or a Palestinian food), the article talked briefly about the show’s efforts to help children cope with difficult social problems in many troubled parts of the world.  Intrigued, I decided to look into their work in more detail.  It blew me away.  Truly, literally, I kid you not, it blew me away.  I am a cynical about most international development projects (derived from personal experience), and thus don’t expect much from these types of programs.  Not in this case.  The folks at Sesame Street are doing some amazing work.

Sesame Workshop (SW), the policy and program development arm of the Sesame Street shows, develops television shows in a number of very difficult environments around the world to help children cope with deep social and political problems.  The work is truly impressive.  First, SW develops programs in a number of harsh conflict and post-conflict countries, such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Palestine.  Not only do their programs teach values such as cooperation, tolerance, and solving problems non-violently, but they also address the anxieties and fears children who live in these countries tend to feel.  Second, SW tailors their shows to the situations relevant in each country.  In Egypt, Alam Simsim stresses the importance of educating girls, an important government priority.  In Palestine, Shara’a Simsim teaches boys to solve problems non-violently.  In South Africa, Takalani Sesame focuses on removing the stigma of having HIV/AIDS.  I watched one of the video clips dealing with this issue and was extremely impressed.  Third, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funds a lot of this work.  I used to work at USAID and still cooperate closely with them.  I never knew they supported Sesame Street programs in other countries.  The work is phenomenal, yet USAID does not go out of its way to publicize their support for it.  This is amazing considering how much abuse USAID takes for being ineffective.  If I ran USAID, I would put Elmo on USAID’s homepage, hire Big Bird as a receptionist, and hang a giant banner of Bert and Ernie outside USAID headquarters.  This is great work.  Promote it shamelessly.

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By the way, if you need your daily dose of cynicism, here it is.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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