Published on Let's Talk Development

Mozart seduces the World Bank and the IMF

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Something curious happened recently at the D.C. enclaves of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Mozart, no less, seized hold of the two institutions. The 18th-century Austrian composer emerged with his Grand Mass in C minor, K. 427, engulfing the modern glass and steel halls of the Bank and the Fund. The outcome was nothing less than a majestic and glorious sound — in the name of development.
This ambitious project, which involved the World Bank-IMF Chorus, orchestra, and soloists, may make you wonder what world bankers are doing with such music. Why indeed! Clay Wescott, the President of the Chorus introduced the performances with his answer: “appreciating culture in all its diverse forms,” he said, “is central to achieving the Bank’s goals of ending extreme poverty within a generation and boosting shared prosperity.”
Culture contributes to economic development in many ways. Here are just three examples: First, by generating direct economic activity through actual performances and trade in cultural goods and services. Second, through the arts’ ability to emancipate or foster human imagination. Third, through cultivating community solidarity, inclusion, and collaboration. But since culture, a term under which the arts fall, has its share of debates on definition, quantification, and even interpretation, it is a low-hanging fruit rarely plucked in development practice.
As a musician myself, I must confess this argument is the equivalent of proud parents boasting about their children. Many arts supporters understand the diverse value of the arts in furthering development. But the trouble often comes in trying to prove this to others. Data on the topic is limited. The good thing though is that more and more research is looking into this issue. My working paper The Creative Wealth of Nations: How the Preforming Arts can Advance Development and Human Progress, with a Foreword by Amartya Sen, adds to this chorus; it considers the case for more arts in development. For now, let me touch on two points.
Let’s take imagination. Many of us use Post-it® Notes. This accidental invention has become one of the top five best-selling office supply products in the world. But how many of us would guess this: that these sticky notes came about because Arthur Fry, a scientist and inventor, simply wanted reliable bookmarks that wouldn’t fall out of his hymnbook while singing with his church choir? While connecting this to development is perhaps hard to see, it is nonetheless worth acknowledging that this invention was made possible by a choral experience.
Or take human relationships. If development is about people, then which people? Where are they? How do activities like singing in a choir or playing in an ensemble or attending a cultural event help build relationships? The World Bank-IMF Chorus, a group of more than fifty members, cultivates a culture of collaboration, a practice the Bank is trying hard to champion. Collaboration isn’t a panacea, of course, but it’s hard to work together efficiently without it.
Stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. But it’s amazing how they persistently skew reality. Of course, like other forms of influence, the arts can be used to reinforce stereotypes. But used positively, they break them. To echo perhaps obvious examples, the choir director, Sonya Subbayya Sutton, is a woman, a rarity in the classical music world of conductors. A colleague who invited me to the performance with huge enthusiasm is Chinese. She is not a Christian.  Now, I’m Ugandan, What am I doing with Mozart? The Mass in C minor brought us together. The orchestra was enchanting; the chorus was harmonious, even in the intricate fugal sections; and the soloists, Nilam Brown and Patricia Rogers, soared like songbirds circling clear skies. Above all, the audience was transported to another world.
When former IMF Deputy Director Charles Merwin chaired a “Meeting to Discuss Music in the Fund” in 1958, he probably had no idea that years later this group would perform Mozart’s K. 427. I hope one day the choir will take on such works as George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children; commission compositions from little-known composers from all over the world; perform with students at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and even embark on exchange visits with choirs from places like Kinshasa.


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