Note: for the many who have asked, I’m happy to say that I will be coming to Los Angeles for the 1st of February only, thanks in very large part to the gracious support of Glenn Thomas of the new El Sistema Global Discussion Group. If you’d like to meet please contact me immediately. My time will be very limited, but I’ll do my best.
It sounds like the title of a lurid novel, but it also summarizes the prevailing paradox of Venezuela: if el Sistema is so successful and effective as a social initiative, why hasn’t it stopped the nation’s ongoing degeneration into extreme violence? With a rate of about 130 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, Caracas habitually tops the list of murder capitals of the world. Nationally the per-capita rate is roughly half that amount but still six times the UN level required to declare an “epidemic” – although current, accurate data is difficult to come by since the government stopped releasing (tracking?) violent crime statistics in 2005, leaving an NGO to attempt to fill the gap independently.
As a social statistic the per-capita murder rate may be sordid and present an incomplete picture of anti-social activity, but it is also one of the most reliable for cross-border comparison. National criminal statute codes are an expression of – or reaction to – local cultures and belief systems, and can vary significantly in terms of how offenses are categorized and punished, but the definition of murder is fairly consistent internationally. Murder rates also have the unhappy advantage of describing indirectly the mindset of criminality, as a benchmark of just how little disregard there may be for life; it’s one thing to rob someone at gunpoint, and quite another to kill them once the wallet or purse has been handed over. In Venezuela the situation is so bad that a “Campaign for Life” has been started by the aforementioned NGO in an attempt to persuade criminals not to kill needlessly while committing other crimes. Baby steps, as they say.
With this backdrop it’s reasonable to ask what influence Sistema has had on the nation’s social situation: statistically speaking, the expansion of its music education programming has been accompanied by a significant rise in violent activity – a warning for all against offering simplistic comparisons. In this area the oft-cited IADB report is somewhat inconclusive, noting only modest reductions in victimization rates between the Intervention group and the Control group of the study in terms of thefts or injuries (p.24). It doesn’t comment on conviction or incarceration rates of program participants vs. control groups, which is surprising given the propensity of Sistema advocates (including myself) to invoke the “Baseline Advocacy Argument” of how the program disconnects young people from criminal opportunity.
What the IADB study demonstrates dramatically and unequivocally is a massive reduction in the school drop-out rate, from 26.4% in the control group to 6.9% in the intervention group. It’s this specific metric that is tied to the primary economic benefit of the program, the return-on-investment of 1.68 Bolívars for every Bolívar expended. Notwithstanding the potential for, or certainty of, a modest self-selection effect therein (that children who are committed to their music education are naturally inclined to transfer the same commitment to their general education/that parents who encourage their children to participate in music also place greater emphasis on education, etc.) this number is nothing short of astounding.
Poverty has been called a vicious circle, an apt description particularly within education. Children from low-income families tend to be less prepared for schooling, thus less able to receive the benefits – and thus end up dropping out sooner, thereby severely and negatively affecting their future income, further perpetuating the Poverty cycle. A near 20% decline in dropout rates will have a significant effect on poverty for the participant group…a decade from now.
There lies the challenge in advocating for Sistema on a numerical basis alone. Despite its recent expansion, it still only serves a small proportion of Venezuela’s very young overall population. Given the nature of its impact, its large scale social benefits will be for the most part (although not entirely) deferred. And while Sistema has grown in the last decade, so has the poverty rate – but at a startlingly higher rate of up to 300% over that timeframe, with urban poverty exceeding 65% in some areas of Caracas. At the same time enforcement has declined and prisons have become the equivalent of vacation resorts – not that increased convictions would help, as the United States’ “War on Crime” of the ‘70s and ‘80s demonstrated with massive “crackdowns” that invariably focused on the most disadvantaged. Once again, the roots of social unrest are not merely the existence of poverty, but the magnitude of the gap between the best off and the worst off. In the US and Venezuela, society’s very structure, rooted in educational and thus income inequality, continues to generate more dispossessed than it can feasibly lock up.
Sistema is having an effect in Venezuela, but one that is manifesting slowly in the face of tremendous social complexity. As I have said before, through its effort to equalize educational opportunity it is part of a solution to social problems, but it is not a Panacea, not a silver bullet. And to those who point to the rapid degeneration of the security situation in Venezuela as proof positive of its failure, I would say “So because the ship is sinking you suggest they stop bailing?”
I’m not ready to consign my nation to the waves just yet, and neither are the Venezuelans.