Muppets Win $100 Million MacArthur Grant to Help Syrian Refugees

  • Sesame Workshop will work with International Rescue Committee
  • Big bet addresses lack of humanitarian aid for education

Child refugees will be getting their own version of “Sesame Street” with support of a $100 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Elmo makes a visit during a pilot of the refugee-aid project that has just won a $100 million grant.

Photographer: Ryan Heffernan via Sesame Workshop

Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee won the grant in MacArthur’s first 100&Change competition, designed to fund a big bet leading to “meaningful and enduring change.” The award is about a thousand times larger than most foundation grants, said Cecilia A. Conrad, the MacArthur officer in charge of the contest, which attracted about 1,900 proposals.
The Sesame and IRC project focuses on educating young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Middle East. It also seeks to help them cope with the stresses of their situation. In-person interventions and a range of media will be offered to children affected by the civil war in Syria.

“We are compelled to respond to the urgent Syrian refugee crisis by supporting what will be the largest early childhood-intervention program ever created in a humanitarian setting,” MacArthur President Julia Stasch said in a statement. Education accounts for less than 2 percent of the global humanitarian-aid budget, she added.

Customized Content

The customized content will include a “Sesame Street’" program, picture books, games and parenting resources. Sesame and IRC plan to set up child-development centers at various points of aid. They also will train community health workers to help distribute content to caregivers and children.

Sesame Workshop has made several localized versions of its popular “Sesame Street” television show for countries including Bangladesh and South Africa, while the IRC’s operations in refugee communities give the project a distribution network and local knowledge. Sesame and IRC will receive the $100 million over five years.

“At a time when governments are in retreat, NGOs and philanthropists need to step up, and that is what we are seeing here – and in a big way,” David Miliband, IRC’s CEO, said in a statement. 

The 100&Change finalists will receive grants of $15 million each over five years. They are Catholic Relief Services, HarvestPlus, and Rice 360° Institute for Global Health at Rice University.

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