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Music plays a role in Norway’s foreign and development policy

A new study from UiA researcher Solveig Korum shows that music can contribute to the achievement of several of the UN’s sustainability goals.

Band Lalon from Bangladesh on stage during the Jaffna Music Festival.
Band Lalon from Bangladesh on stage during the Jaffna Music Festival. The group took part in tours in South Asia through Concerts Norway. (Photo: Solveig Korum)

Art, culture, and music have been used extensively as tools in Norwegian foreign and development policy since the 1990s. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched the first Norwegian strategy for the field in 2005.

Solveig Korum is a senior adviser in the department for research and development at Kulturtanken in Oslo. She has done research on the use of music as a tool in Norwegian foreign and development policy.

“The reason why one chose to spend money on this in countries such as Sri Lanka, Palestine and India, is precisely that one believes that culture is important and that it can contribute and effect a desired development. But in order to be able to create culture and access free cultural expression, a certain infrastructure must be in place”, Solveig Korum says.

Solveig Korum

Solveig Korum currently works internationally with social sustainability through Kulturtanken. Here she is in the studio while on a business trip to Bangladesh in December 2021. (Photo: Sharmin Sultana Sumi)

How can music change the world?

Earlier this year she defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Agder with the dissertation Music in international development: The experience of Concerts Norway (2000-2018). Korum examined how Concerts Norway has contributed to building musical infrastructures in different countries in the Global South.

She focused on projects conducted by Concerts Norway for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Palestine, India and Sri Lanka. In addition, Korum investigated the ripple effects these projects had on the activities of Concerts Norway at home.

“Speakers often say that music can change the world. And yes, music can change the world. But what change do we envision, for whom, and how is the change sustainable? Here, there may be very different perceptions in the global north and the global south”, Solveig Korum says.

Diversity is crucial

“A lot is about building relationships through music and understanding each other. That is also the framework for my analysis, where I look at three long-term projects funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2000 and 2018”, Korum says.

According to Korum, Western result-oriented development models do not always function smoothly in the encounter with the intuitive and practice-driven world of the arts.

“Cultural exchange and community building through culture must take place on a more equal footing than traditional development assistance”, she underlines.

Networks, knowledge, institutions, and organisations in the field of culture are what she calls important cultural infrastructure. These premises make the creation and expression of art, culture, and music possible and after a while also effective for the development of both society and the individual.

“Cultural infrastructure and knowledge among cultural actors help create a space for people to express themselves and be diverse. By strengthening the diversity of cultural traditions and expressions, one creates a space for expression that is important in the world today, among other things to ensure that more people participate in democracy. Uniformity of culture leads to impoverishment, that is why diversity is crucial for a more sustainable world”, Korum says.

Folkemusikarar frå Rajasthan i India

Folk musicians from Rajasthan in India took part in regional tours in South Asia through Concerts Norway. (Photo: Solveig Korum)

Relationship building creates change

The term good relations is mentioned throughout the thesis as an essential prerequisite for the ability to collaborate well across countries and across professional environments within arts and culture. Korum believes that the relationship building that takes place in connection with cultural development projects can be an example to follow also in other focus areas within global sustainability.

“The field of culture and music facilitates a change of attitude, changes in values, and an increased awareness of how other people live and look at the world”, she says.

Korum points out that cultural expressions and cooperation also promote sensory experiences. We do not understand the sustainability goals or the idea of ​​development with the mind only, but also with the heart, stomach, and the entire sensory apparatus.

“Music and culture can contribute to the achievement of individual goals but can also inspire actions and values ​​that promote all the sustainability goals.”


Concerts Norway contributed to the establishment of a national music and culture archive in Sri Lanka. The centre leader, Dilip Kumara, and his assistant show Korum parts of the archive during her fieldwork in 2018. (Photo: Solveig Korum)

The system paradox

In her thesis, Korum emphasizes that some of the projects she examined did not always reach their highest potential as a result of bureaucracy and the result-based management approach of the ministry. By pushing projects within the field of music into a general, linear, and results-focused model, the goal of creating equality became almost the opposite.

“And this is a paradox: even if you seek to achieve equality, and culture offers those opportunities, the systems for development assistance are often very hierarchical.

I believe that the system - especially in my case from Sri Lanka - was an obstacle to the development that was taking place and that we wanted to work for. In my thesis, I outline an alternative way of managing projects where the aim is for music to effect social change”, she says.

According to Korum, the reduction in foreign policy funding is the biggest obstacle to the emergence of new sustainable projects. This makes the work of building fruitful and long-term musical structures and relationships more difficult. She also points out how important this is during and after a pandemic that creates greater inequalities:

“Now it seems like the new government has a different outlook, and I hope the positive signals materialise in the form of increased investment. I also hope that my research results will help inform the way projects and funds are managed in the future.”

frå Jaffna Music Festival

The picture is from Jaffna Music Festival, which was started by Concerts Norway together with local partners in Sri Lanka. “The musical expressions and rituals of different minorities from all over the island were given an important venue here”, Solveig Korum says. (Photo: Solveig Korum)

International work

After completing her doctoral degree, Korum has been working on social sustainability in Kulturtanken - The Cultural Schoolbag Norway and also internationally. She was appointed by the Ministry of Culture to be the Norwegian representative for the cultural sector in the Nordic programme Sustainable Lifestyles in the Nordic Countries.

The project focuses on the cultural sector in relation to the environment, equality, education, food security and many other parameters of sustainability.

Korum is currently in Bangladesh in connection with a concert tour by the band Chirkutt.

“The relationships I developed as a project leader for Concerts Norway ten years ago are the reason why I am here in Bangladesh now.

Due to good, lasting cooperation and strong friendships we continue to work together musically, even though there is no funding through the Norwegian system anymore. Data from Bangladesh were not included in the study, but the fact that I am sitting here now shows that the relationship-oriented approach has worked”, Korum says.