Sesame Street in the Middle East: MacArthur announces $100M for refugee education

A child with Elmo. Photo by: Ryan Heffernan / Sesame Workshop

SAN FRANCISCO — What would you do with $100 million? There were nearly 2,000 proposed answers to that question since the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched its 100&Change competition. On Wednesday, the foundation announced that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee would receive a $100 million grant over five years for their proposal to educate Syrian refugee children.

Together, the nonprofit organization behind the educational program Sesame Street and the global humanitarian relief organization will produce customized learning content; provide direct services through home visits; and bring play-based learning to child development centers, all in an effort to address the toxic stress that refugee children experience in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. But for a number of reasons, the significance of 100&Change extends far beyond the $100 million grant. From the scope of what is the largest early childhood intervention program ever created in a humanitarian setting, to the exposure and support provided to the other three finalists, who each received $15 million, the impact of this effort by the MacArthur Foundation is about more than money.

The winning proposal

Children in a refugee camp play with Elmo, the furry red monster from Sesame Street, and other Muppets, smiling and clapping and chanting.

“As they’ve done for decades all over the world, beloved and trusted Muppets lead the way, teaching lessons of resilience and coping to children who have already been through far too much,” reads the voiceover in a powerful video that captures scenes of pain and joy.

“Parents can learn how to better engage with and help their kids; and by providing joy, hope, and access to early education, these children can help build a better world for all children.”

A panel of judges evaluated the 800 proposals that passed an initial review, and rated them based on meaningfulness, verifiability, durability, and feasibility. The MacArthur Foundation’s Board of Directors then selected eight semi-finalists, which were narrowed down further to four finalists. In addition to IRC and Sesame Workshop, that included the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, which is working to improve newborn survival in Africa with the Newborn Essential Solution and Technologies project; HarvestPlus, which aims to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies in Africa by fortifying staple crops; and Catholic Relief Services, which aspired to change the way society cares for children in orphanages by reuniting orphans with their families. On Wednesday, they were surprised to learn that while they did not receive the top prize, they would still receive $15 million over five years.

Last week, finalists gathered in Chicago, the headquarters of the MacArthur Foundation, to argue their case for how they could make measurable progress on a significant problem. Sesame Workshop emphasized its experience developing local versions of Sesame Street in developing countries, and the IRC talked about its network in refugee camps and communities. What was compelling about the proposal was the immediacy of the Syrian refugee crisis, and a partnership that combined the expertise of both teams, Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur’s lead for 100&Change, told Devex via email.

The partnership between Sesame Workshop and IRC predates 100&Change. They first announced their plans to bring Muppets to the Middle East at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. The Brendan van Leer Foundation and Open Society Foundation provided funding for a pilot in Jordan.

This track record of working together is likely part of what helped the partners make the list of eight, Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, told Devex. She joined IRC CEO David Miliband, and a Muppet from Jordan, onstage for TED-like talks delivered by the finalists in Chicago. The audience was filled with other potential donors, Westin explained, saying she appreciated the way the foundation worked hard to mobilize dollars for all eight semi-finalists, not just the top winner.

“We believe an investment of this scale will change the way the humanitarian system responds to refugee crises,” she added. “Today, less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid goes to education. It’s almost understandable in the sense that over the years the humanitarian crisis was about food and shelter and immediate response. But today the average time of refugee families displaced is 10 years, so if we’re not providing education to those youngest refugee children, we’re not giving them a path forward.”

When Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC, describes the impact this kind of intervention can have to her friends, she often relates to them as parents.

“We know Sesame, and our kids know Sesame, and we know how a classroom can be that much more vibrant because of those characters,” she said. “But what is impossible for me and my friends to understand is to imagine what that would feel like when you've just been through the experience of losing your entire country and community to war.”

She talked about how the programs IRC and Sesame will provide not just education, but also entertainment, and said there is a science behind the importance of making children smile.

“This is an opportunity for these children to learn through play, an opportunity they have been robbed of,” said Hirokazu Yoshikawa of the Global TIES for Children Center at New York University, an external research partner of the IRC that is also coordinating monitoring and evaluation for the Sesame Workshop Partnership. “They have a right not only to survive but to thrive in the context of adversity.”  

He spoke with Devex about the critical development that happens for children in those early years, and the long-term repercussions that trauma, stress, and neglect can have. The Macarthur Foundation encouraged independent research in applications for 100&Change, which he said demonstrated a commitment to rigor that he appreciates. He anticipates that a key challenge for IRC and Sesame Workshop will be a rapidly changing policy and political context, as well as providing sustained programs when families are often moving.

But Sesame Workshop and IRC are confident that this $100 million will help them demonstrate how this kind of early childhood programming can work under difficult circumstances, and at large scale.

“Another thing MacArthur brings to this is shining a spotlight on this issue,” Westin said. “By investing in education and early education, that will absolutely be a catalyst for other donors and governments.”

The runners up

Catholic Relief Services, one of the groups to walk away with $15 million, went to Chicago so focused on Plan A that they did not give much thought to Plan B, said Shannon Senefeld, senior vice president for overseas operations.  

“We will have to assess where the $15 million will make the most difference. Our original plan was global, but we will likely now need to focus our geographical target according to the funding available. We will keep working on this issue and moving forward; it will just take a bit longer without the $100 million, but we are dedicated to moving forward,” she told Devex on Wednesday.

While this was not the news her team was hoping for going into the holidays, they are grateful for the funding, and will meet in the New Year to evaluate what they can achieve, and to actively look for additional donors who could help them reach their original vision.

MacArthur partnered with Foundation Center to develop the 100&Change Solutions Bank, which lays out potential collaborators for nonprofits or grantees for funders. It is searchable by topics including alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The foundation also partnered with groups such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which analyzed the top 200 scoring proposals using its lens of social impact; and Charity Navigator, which identified 100&Change applicants it had rated with four stars.

Throughout the process, the foundation has shared its learnings, for example in this post by MacArthur program officer Jeff Ubois.

“Anyone who has ever applied for a grant knows the pain of waiting for an answer from a funder, and anyone who has received an ill-conceived turndown for support knows the pain of feeling misunderstood,” he wrote. “It is one of the contradictions of philanthropy that foundations devoted to the relief of human suffering unintentionally inflict it with an opaque process and unreasonable delays. So, we are thinking hard about how revised timelines for the next cycle of 100&Change might improve our work and support future participants more effectively. We invite your thoughts and comments on how we can best manage the tensions between alacrity, deliberation, and collaboration.”

Even though the other three finalists were disappointed, they told Devex they were grateful for the opportunity, and said they will benefit from their participation even beyond the $15 million boost. “The whole process was enriching. It helped us challenge our strategy, refine our scaling models and strengthen our team. It gave us a better sense of how those outside of our sector view biofortification and our work, which helped us hone our message and engage more people in our ongoing efforts to reduce global hidden hunger,” said Bev Postma, CEO of HarvestPlus, in an email to Devex.

As for CRS, 100&Change pushed them to look at what is possible, Senefeld added. “It made us imagine a world without all the barriers that are usually in place, and it invited us to identify the most pressing problems and challenged us to create the solutions,” she said. “This is a great model that really pushes us outside of our comfort zones, and we are grateful to have been part of the process.”

A focus on solutions

Collectively, the four finalists identify the opportunities for action to improve longer term prospects for children, a challenge that obviously resonates with the MacArthur Foundation, whose stated mission is to build a more “just, verdant, and peaceful world.”

“All four projects proved worthy of MacArthur’s support,” Conrad said in a press release announcing the results. “MacArthur is deeply committed to helping all of them attract the support their critical work requires and finding partners to realize these impactful solutions.”

In a follow up email to Devex, she said the major takeaway for MacArthur — which had gone into this competition saying that “big problems require bold solutions” — is that solutions are possible. She said the foundation is taking steps to share this message with others in the philanthropic community: there are too many underfunded good ideas with evidentiary support that would have impact if they were implemented.

“We hope to inspire a focus on solutions,” she added. “We have modeled a willingness to take a risk of making a significant investment to bring a solution to scale. What we have heard from participants is that people were encouraged to think bigger. It forced them to think big and it was transformative for their organization.”

Miliband of the IRC was among those who called the 100&Change competition not only a transformational investment, but also a model for a new kind of philanthropic thinking, which he said he hopes will inspire other donors and NGOs to step up in a big way.

“There aren’t many times in life you feel you have an opportunity to change the world,” Westin of Sesame Workshop said. “What the Macarthur Foundation is doing at this scale feels like one such opportunity.”

She talked about a turning point for Sesame Street in 1968, when the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a television producer to explore what was then a revolutionary concept: early learning for children via television. Without that model of audacious philanthropy, there would be no Sesame Street, she said.

She views this $100 million grant for the largest early childhood intervention program in the history of humanitarian response as a similar moment. It is not only audacious, she said, but “aspirational and inspirational.”

Read more Devex coverage on the refugee crisis.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.