The blogger Wrench in the Gears worries here (in a 2018 post) about the MacArthur Foundation’s Grant of $100 Million to Sesame Street, intended to help the children of Syrian refugees. The “help” these children get will be delivered by technology, she says, not by humans.

As it happens, I was one of a large number of judges in this competition, though I did not review the Sesame Street proposal. The proposals I read were about developing and distributing sustainable crops, or bringing medical care to vast numbers of people. I was very impressed with the quality of the proposals I read.

She writes:

Sesame Street is an iconic brand that embodies humor, acceptance, and humanity. Who doesn’t love a muppet? So, on December 20 when the MacArthur Foundationannounced they were giving Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee $100 million to educate young children from displaced Syrian families and help them deal with “toxic stress,” most people were thrilled. While the optics were great, I’m here to tell you these muppets are definitely not the type of “friends” Syrian refugee children need.

How will Sesame Workshop and the IRC spend the MacArthur award money? Much of it will be spent on educational technology:

  • Sesame-branded educational content delivered on televisions, phones and digital platforms
  • home visits reinforced by digital content and parenting resources provided via mobile devices
  • child development centers equipped with video-clips pre-recorded on projectors and activity sheets…

Governments all over the world are now adopting policies that employ “innovative finance” to outsource education and other critical public services to private profit-extracting partnerships. These public-private partnerships are often supported by “philanthropic” partners who are now free to make “mission related” for-profit investments.  Enormous and expensive data-collection is linked to their outcomes-based contracts. For more information see this post, Gambling On Our Futures: Big Data, Global Finance and Digital Life. When one hears “pay for success,” “social impact bonds,” and “what works,” realize that this is what is actually meant.

Sesame Workshop’s program with Syrian refugees is an example of how foundations are paving the way for education to be reinvented as an exercise in data-driven, behavior modification. Over the course of this five-year project, traumatized families will be used to refine scaleable online education and behavioral treatment models that generate data and profit for private interests. These efforts will be subsidized by foundations and made possible with assistance from complicit non-profit actors. The products developed from the digital labor of these children will be deployed not only in future “humanitarian” efforts, but also among the growing ranks of children living in poverty in the United States and other countries. The $100 million was not a charitable award; it was a business investment.

These muppets are not our friends. They are merely puppets whose strings are being pulled by predatory impact investors and Silicon Valley executives. This is not a “feel-good” story. The MacArthur Foundation should be ashamed of their treatment of these children and for using plush characters to provide cover for a repugnant agenda.

In this era of US imperialism and late-stage capitalism it seems the monster at the end of this book is in fact the non-profit that opens a door and allows venture capitalists to harm a million and a half vulnerable children. I hope Sesame Workshop will reconsider their direction, disavow their ties to education technology, and instead use MacArthur’s $100 million to provide the non-digital human services Syria’s refugee children so desperately need. I have to believe Jim Henson would want that.