(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
NEW YORK - Translating money messages to 100 million kids around the world is not a feat for ordinary humans - you need monsters.
Elmo and Cookie Monster, to be specific.
These two and their furry band of Muppets have been part of Sesame Workshop's "Dream, Save, Do" program, a joint venture of Sesame Street and the MetLife Foundation. Operating for the last four years, the initiative has been leveraging famous Sesame characters to foster financial empowerment for families in nine countries: Mexico, Brazil, Chile, China, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Egypt and the UAE
The outreach has so far been a whopping success in terms of the numbers reached, Sesame Workshop concluded at a summit last month that brought together country directors. The most difficult challenge they identified was how hard it was to translate money messages across different countries and cultures.
One example: A Cookie Monster cartoon about the concept of delayed gratification - which involved waiting for an apple pie to bake - did not make much sense in the Chinese diet. So what did they do? They changed the desired object to dumplings - and it was a hit.
In India, the idea of 'work' was conveyed by the image of a woman sewing; in Brazil, it was someone answering a phone in an office. In some countries 'water' was a tap in a crowded alley; in others it was a sink in a home.
In China, there is no huge need to teach kids about the concept of saving - because all of them are doing it. Many, even at extremely young ages, are planning for college or thinking about their first house. So instead of focusing on saving, local course designers in China tacked towards teaching other financial behaviors like sharing or donating.
"Every lesson has core common elements, but it also tailored to the local market, which is the real magic of it," said April Hawkins, an assistant VP at the MetLife Foundation who helps steward the program.
Sesame Workshop also had to be flexible about how it got the word out. For instance, in the slums of India's New Delhi, a typical structured classroom setting just was not going to be possible.
"So in the narrow alleyways of Delhi, we ended up using vegetable carts," said Shari Rosenfeld, Sesame Workshop's Senior VP for international social impact. "We set up DVD players to broadcast our materials, hooked them up to car batteries, loaded them onto carts, and kids and their families would all gather around."
In some countries, even the name of the program itself was changed. In areas where there is not a lot of money kicking around, and poor kids might not be able to "save" much of anything, the program title was altered to "Dream, Plan, Do."
And which characters, exactly, were tapped to spread the money messages? Not The Count, as you might expect, given his obvious passion for numbers.
Instead, Sesame Street already has an entire cast of popular foreign characters at their disposal. There are existing stars like Lola in Mexico, Chamki in India, Bel in Brazil and Lily in China - all smart, confident young female characters.
In one popular piece of content, all those girl characters from around the globe gathered to sing a song about female empowerment, goal-setting and achievement.
So what is next for Dream, Save, Do? It could very well be the global refugee crisis. Many children have lost everything, so what do you tell a child like that?
"Hope is often lost in communities that have experienced such trauma and distress," says Nada Elattar, Sesame Workshop's director of educational programs. "So that is something we have to focus on next: The idea of having dreams for yourself, and setting goals, as a way to restore hope."