How Much Good Can $100 Million Do? Sesame Street and IRC Put a Big Bet to the Test

To meet world humanitarian needs like food, shelter, and medicine would require $54.8 billion a year, according to recent projections by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Governments and philanthropy have committed only about $18.5 billion, and of that, education is only about 2 percent of the total.

Prioritizing the emotional health of young children as part of their education has gained acceptance in recent years, but it still hasn’t been mainstreamed, according to Kristen Gelsdorf, a professor who co-directs the University of Virginia Humanitarian Collaborative and who was not involved in assessing the 100&Change work. While the MacArthur grant was small compared with the scale of the problem — there are currently more than 108 million displaced people in the world and the number is growing — Gelsdorf said the studies of Ahlan Simsim show promising results and may make the approach an easier sell to other donors and relief agencies.

Investing in children’s well-being at an early age, she says, can make it more likely they will grow up in good physical and mental health, have access to good nutrition, be able to pursue economic opportunities, and play a positive role more generally later in life.

“Irreversible harms are done if you don’t address the needs of those young kids and their caregivers,” she says.

There are signs that Sesame Workshop and IRC’s joint approach is making headway among other donors and nonprofits. The LEGO Foundation added another $100 million to help Sesame Workshop with the Syrian refugee programming and expand it to Bangladesh in response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Other international nonprofits, Mercy Corps and Save the Children, have joined to expand the program in Iraq, with the help of an $11 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s president, says the organization is in discussions with a foundation that has offered a “significant” matching grant, which could expand the show to other regions. Because Ahlan Simsim had the “luxury” of being able to measure its short-term impact and had several years to develop in-country programming, Westin believes the approach has been validated for other donors that might have been less likely to devote a lot of cash to the emotional well-being of refugee children.

“I don’t expect to get another hundred million,” she says. “But I do think we can bring in others who are interested.”

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