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USAID – The real case against Rafi Peer Theater?

USAID sullies Sesame Street, Henson Family and Rafi Peer Theater & creates a diplomatic nightmare for the State Department across Art for Children world.

Today is the last working day before Eid in Pakistan. It’s a Saturday so you would generally expect things to be slow. They are not.

The week after Eid also marks the beginning of my season as a trainer. Which unfortunately means that come Tuesday, I will start living in airports and transit lounges till next Ramadan. And if that isn’t bad enough there are payments to be made, invoices to be raised, collection calls and an endless stream of paperwork that I need to sign before I head to the airport in 48 hours.

All of which will now have to wait. Because I am angry. Not at anyone else. Only at the person who is writing these lines.

To understand my schizophrenia, you have to take a ride back in time with me.

USAID Case Against Rafi Peer Theater and Sesame Street

About two month ago, sitting in an aisle seat, on the inside pages of a local news rag, I read an item documenting USAID’s case against Rafi Peer Theater.

The piece summarized that Rafi Peer Theater, the partner responsible for implementing a local Urdu version of Sesame Street in Pakistan had embezzled 20 million US$ of USAID grant money. In addition there were numerous “discovered and reported” instances of family involvement and nepotism reported against the group which was the reason for suspension of funding.

My first reaction was obviously what USAID intended. How could the Peerzada family swoop so low? I have grown up with Sesame Street and my kids have done the same. Why did they kill the only decent thing USAID had done in this country (other than their IBA involvement) in the last 65 years.

I parked Rafi Peer Theater and the entire Peerzada family in the compartment reserved for witches and death eaters who steal happiness from little children and moved on. USAID remained the innocent well wisher that had tried to change Pakistan for better but had failed because of the evil Sith Lords at Rafi Peer Theater.

It was yet another sad day for Pakistan, another mark against the Peerzada men.

Till I saw a rerun of Talat Hussain’s piece on Dawn TV this morning.

You have no idea how angry that made me. Not against USAID. I had always known that there was something amiss in the branch of the US government, but at myself.

How could I judge the Peerzadas without hearing their side of the story? How could I think that USAID would be on the right when the other party in the wrong was a small arts and theater workshop group that works with children? If there is one entity in the world with a established track record for stealing happiness from little children, it would have to be USAID. Not Rafi Peer Theater.

I had once again confused “the Man” with the victim.

The Talat Hussain video is unfortunately in Urdu. A large part of the audience in the world has heard the USAID version against Sesame Street as quoted by the New York Times, Newsweek and CNN. No one has bothered to write a retraction or cover the other side.

Or the true story, which is not a surprise when it comes to the power that USAID and the US State Department yields over the standard bearers of objective journalism mentioned above.

Since I misjudged the Peerzadas I owe them a summary of their case against USAID. What follows is a rough summary of the discussion in Talat Hussain segment run on Dawn News on 17th August 2012.

If you think stealing happiness from little children is a crime worth punishing, please pass this piece and the evidence along.

Someone in USAID needs to pay for what they have done. It will not happen till these facts make it to the right channels in North America. The AID comes from the American people, the American people should know the stunts USAID has been pulling in their name.

USAID against Rafi Peer Theater – Just the Facts please.

USAID claim number One (roughly speaking). The Rafi Peer Theater Network was just an incestuous group of incompetent family members who were favored over truly deserving. They stole money to buy cars, jeeps and equipment which was not needed nor justified.

Before granting the contract, USAID was aware of the close family network in place at Rafi Peer Theater. The family has run and controlled the Rafi Peer Theater workshop for the last 37 years. The original pre-award auditors employed by USAID had identified Rafi Peer Theater as a high risk organization. As a result USAID had implemented aggressive compliance, controls and measures with their own consultants in place. The external US consultants employed by USAID as part of the project were paid US$240,000 a year by USAID to ensure that a crisis or lapse of this nature should never occur.

Every disbursement and application of funds was preapproved and audited by USAID’s in house team that was on site at Rafi Peer Theater. Without the tacit, clear and prior approval of USAID on expenses and the objective of said expenses no disbursement or reimbursement would have ever occurred. All expenses and checks on the project were pre-approved 15 days before actual signing and disbursement by USAID.

A post disbursement audit conducted by USAID, before the contract was terminated, upgraded the Rafi Peer Theater to a middle risk partner from a high risk partner by the same auditor after taking into consideration the actual history of disbursement over the life of the project.

USAID claim number Two (roughly speaking). The Rafi Peer Theater Network embezzled twenty million US dollars from the fund.

Total disbursement before the contract was prematurely terminated by USAID was US$ 5.2 million. Another US$ 1 million and change is outstanding and is owed to the Rafi Peer Theater. The signed contract was for US$ 10 million. With an option to extend for another US$10 million.

USAID claim number Three. The contract was terminated because of rampant corruption, nepotism and compliance issues at the partner organization.

The USAID team actually brought Rafi Peer Theater team onsite to the US consulate and informed them that the program was being terminated because USAID had run out of available funding and would no longer be in a position to support the project. A month after informing Rafi Peer Theater of this decision USAID started the vilification campaign in local and US media.

As part of the original preparation exercise for this project, the Rafi Peer Theater workshop team spent a year in consultation with the USAID team in understanding and implementing process, controls and procedures specified by USAID as a pre-requirement for disbursement of funds. The revised processes, manuals, and SOPS were reviewed and approved by USAID. The original funding was release after 12 months of up-gradation o of controls and processes.

The Rafi Peer Theater team has been working with many international donors (and continues to work with them) on projects focused around children Theater for the last 9 years. They have gone through numerous donor and project audits in the past and the process of communicating shortfalls and issues is generally very transparent and open.

However in the case of USAID there has been no direct communication between the two organization on the finding of their audit report.

USAID took a unilateral decision to run a vilification campaign and has actively interfered to stop broadcasts of press conferences organized by Rafi Peer Theater to tell the actual story behind the USAID, Sesame Street scandal. (Hello Geo, Express News and Express Tribune).

Which brings you to the real reason behind this campaign. The real (plausible?) reason is the desire of USAID to walk out of the contractual obligation for the remaining amount and justify the termination of this project to their stakeholders. USAID still owes about a million dollars and change to a small children theater workshop group in Pakistan and simply doesn’t find it feasible to make that payment. It is cheaper to simply try this campaign in the media universe where no one can match the might of the AID agency.

Tarnish the image of one of the most loved symbols in children education as well as a theater group that has brought smiles to children faces around the world from Pakistan.

So much so for stealing happiness from little children. Brought to you by the American people.