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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 6

el Sistema: Sististics

by Jonathan Govias / March 18, 2011

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Less than 24 hours after arriving in Caracas on my first visit, I attended a security briefing at the US Embassy. It wasn’t the most reassuring of introductions to the city or nation: the officer leading the presentation gave a very frank assessment of the local security situation. “Welcome to the most dangerous city in the western hemisphere,” he said.

It wasn’t an exaggeration. Caracas has been dubbed the “murder capital of the world,” with CNN reporting more than 500 victims in one month alone in 2008. In recent years, violent crime has skyrocketed by as much as 300% according to some accounts, in parallel with increases in income disparity. It’s against this dire social and economic backdrop that el Sistema operates, leading many to wonder if social engagement through music is even possible, let alone effective, in a situation spiraling so rapidly out of control.

In short, does el Sistema work? The previous article in this series examined cognitive factors at the micro or individual level, but not economic or social results at the macro level—in other words, only the how, not the what. The latter certainly hasn’t been ignored: in 2007 the Inter-American Development Bank released a study investigating the community impact of el Sistema as a preliminary step in negotiating a $150 million USD loan to the program for long term development projects. Unsurprisingly, the results were positive across all areas investigated, including academic achievement, employability, social capital and socioeconomic profiles of participants. Students in el Sistema had one quarter the school dropout rate of their peers outside the program, and half the level of disciplinary incidents. Economically speaking, the study established a 1.68:1 return on investment for every dollar invested.

Discussions of economic benefit are risky for the purposes of advocacy. If value is measured only in financial terms, then funding can only be assured in the absence of more lucrative investments; but the numbers a still compelling, establishing that as bad as the situation might be in Venezuela, it would be worse without el Sistema.

Statistics are ultimately essential, but numbers dehumanize a very human situation. In 2010 the Fesnojiv family lost three members to violent crime, and a senior member of the administration had a narrow escape after taking a bullet to the leg during an attempted kidnapping. A highly capable cultural manager trained in the UK with impeccable English language skills, the administrator would be a welcome immigrant to most of the developed world. As arguments for a change in scenery go, a bullet is probably the most forceful. But he was undaunted, back at work shortly thereafter. Most remarkably, he’s not a musician; he’s simply passionate about what Fesnojiv does. As a sample size of one he makes for poor statistics, but he remains a powerful example of the compelling nature of el Sistema’s mission.

Jonathan Govias is a conductor, consultant and educator for el Sistema programs on four continents. For more resources on el Sistema please visit

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