Is anyone paying attention to the big issues?

An interesting aspect of the decade that I’ve spent studying El Sistema has been the occasional glimpses of how multinational institutions actually work and the realization that no one seems to notice or care.

Take the Inter-American Development Bank and El Sistema’s infrastructure projects. From the start of the bank’s involvement with El Sistema in 1996-97, it placed great importance on decentralisation via the construction of seven regional music centres. According to a bank document from this period, cited in my article with Ana Lucía Frega,

the [construction of the] headquarters in Caracas would be appropriate only if it were accompanied by the Regional Centres, for which reason the creation and strengthening of the Regional Centres should be one of the tasks that the Foundation [i.e. El Sistema] addresses as a matter of priority.

10 years later, no progress had been made on this front, so when the IDB issued its second and much larger Phase II loan in 2007, it stated the central goal as

to deconcentrate the System, by creating an intermediate regional level between the national directorate and the community-based centers. […] The program will also finance the investment in regional infrastructure (seven Regional Centers)

The regional centres were the single biggest budget item: $109.9 million (more than half the total investment by the IDB and the Venezuelan government).

Another 10 years later, there is still no progress on this front. What’s interesting now, though, is that the IDB appears to have given up, at least as far as its public-facing information is concerned. There is a whole section of El Sistema’s fancy website devoted to the IDB project, and the page that lists the components of the project makes no mention of either deconcentration or regional centres. The section on investment in facilities simply describes the construction of the new HQ in central Caracas, next door to the one constructed with IDB money just a decade ago.

In other words, having spent at least a decade making it clear that its top priority was decentralization, and issuing a 9-figure loan to that end, the IDB has ended up deepening El Sistema’s centralization by financing two music centres in the same Caracas neighbourhood. This is not just a matter of changing course; it’s a matter of making an elaborate case to do one thing and then doing the opposite. And the amount of money being spent on the new HQ is eye-watering: its cost was calculated at $437 million back in 2010, and the figures for such mega-projects almost always rise over time. That’s a heck of a lot of money to spend in a developing country on a project that is not only unnecessary but also exacerbates a key problem that the funder itself diagnosed.

Is there any mention or explanation or discussion of this 180-degree turn anywhere? I have never seen any, even though you don’t need to be an investigative reporter to find out about it, since the key information is publicly available online. El Sistema is a major classical music story that tens of thousands of people around the world follow avidly, yet no one seems to notice or care about the big issues. Far more attention is paid to trivial details like paper violins than to an illogical volte-face with a price tag of over $100 million.


Another curious case is the United Nations. It has long been a supporter of El Sistema, with the UNDP, for example, joining forces with the IDB and backing the orchestral scheme as an anti-poverty program on the basis that “it targets impoverished young people.” You might have thought that the publication of the IDB’s major research project in late 2016, which suggested that El Sistema entrants are three times less likely to be poor than all 6 to 14 year-olds, might have led to some red faces and second thoughts at the UN. (Particularly given the lack of any convincing evidence that the program works, despite 20 years of attempts to find it.) But far from it, or so it seems.

A UN expert, Alfred de Zayas, who visited Sistema HQ in December last year, had only good things to say about the program (at least as reported by the Sistema press office). A month later, El Sistema announced on its Instagram account,

At the end of 2017 we signed an alliance with various institutions, among them the UNDP

One is left with all kinds of questions. Is anyone at the UN reading the research about the program that it supports? Do they not care that this research undermines the UN’s justification for supporting El Sistema? What are the grounds for such policies, if they are not based on evidence? And, as above, does anyone actually notice or care about these about-turns and contradictions in the multimillion-dollar policies of multinational institutions?


I can’t help adding a final note about the pronouncements of the UN’s Alfred de Zayas. He is the UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council. If his democratic and equitable antennae didn’t start buzzing angrily as soon as he walked into the Centro de Acción Social por la Música, then he and his minions haven’t been keeping their eye on the Sistema ball.

According to the Sistema press office, he stated “there is nothing more civilizing than an orchestra,” and “there are no better values than those that are taught through music.” He may be an expert in law and human rights, but he’s got a lot to learn about music. Any scholar of music history or education worth their salt would have a few things to say about those statements, particularly in a post-colonial context like Venezuela (“civilizing”? Are we back in the 16th century?). Consulting someone with expertise on El Sistema would have opened his eyes to the rather more complicated realities. In fact, even a passing acquaintance with media reporting on the current travails of the orchestral sphere would be enough to provoke doubts about those claims. But this multinational organisation responsible for multimillion-dollar expenditure seems to rely more on myths and dubious clichés than on current research and events when formulating its music policy.