Sports has the capacity to transform lives of individuals. It bolsters physical, psychological, emotional, and social well-being and development. At the same time sports plays a significant role in cultures and communities around the world. These factors alone justify investment in sports programming. But there is also a growing understanding that sports programmes merit support because they are powerful vehicles for achieving broader goals, particularly in advancing development and peace agendas.
The development community has typically marginalized sports, viewing it as a relatively low priority among a host of needs and goals.
Recently, though, an international movement has taken root that recognizes that sport does not have to compete with other development priorities but can instead be a powerful means for addressing them.
The United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank, governments, the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees, non-governmental organizations, and corporate entities have banded together to think strategically about sports for development and peace.
At the field level, dozens of programs have been harnessing the power of sports for physical education, humanitarian response, reconciliation and peace building, rehabilitation and integration of persons with disabilities, advocacy and social/policy change, awareness raising and education, and economic development.
Much work must still be done to fully link the international movement to practitioners in the field and to bring the sport and development sectors together.
Sports programming has the potential to play an important role in fostering development and peace.
Both formal studies and a wealth of anecdotal evidence have demonstrated that participation in sport has countless benefits for individuals.
Among the most obvious positive outcomes are improvements in physical health, such as weight control, strength building, increased flexibility, enhanced coordination and motor skills, improved cardiovascular health, and pain reduction.
People who are physically active often tend to develop healthier lifestyles and better eating habits. A second, but no less important, beneficial aspect of sports is the impact that it has on psychological and emotional healing and well-being.
Sports also provides an alternative to risky or anti-social behavior, creating sufficient structure, discipline, and incentive to keep some people away from drugs, violence, or criminal activity.
The use of sports to promote peace and development is not entirely new; the Olympics are a historic example of sport used for a higher purpose.
However, until recently, sport has remained on the sidelines of mainstream humanitarian and development programming, considered a luxury in the context of other development objectives. Now, though, there is a growing understanding that sport does not have to compete with other priorities but can actually be a means for addressing them.
Experts around the world have concluded that physical education is a critical component of a child’s overall education. It can improve body awareness and help a child develop healthy habits at an early age. There is also evidence that participation in physical education improves concentration and performance in academic courses.
Furthermore, such classes provide an opportunity to address broader health and safety issues and ensure that all children, including those with disabilities, have an opportunity to participate in sports.
In the wake of war, disaster, or humanitarian crisis, sports programs can play an important role in relieving stress, healing emotional wounds, restoring a sense of normalcy, and creating an opportunity for healthy social interaction.
In camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, where people are away from home and often have little to occupy their time, sports activities can be a welcome break from the monotony of day-to-day life and a rare opportunity to have fun. Because it is a common language that can bridge cultural, ethnic, and geographic divides, many initiatives use sport to promote the reconciliation of communities or nations in conflict.
Programmes may operate at a local level, creating ethnically mixed teams or clinics, for example. They may also operate on a national or regional level, promoting the interaction of people from different locations.
Sports also plays a role in international diplomacy, helping establish communication within civil society that sometimes paves the way for political dialogue. In addition to promoting physical rehabilitation, sports programs can have a significant impact on the emotional healing and social integration of persons with disabilities. They allow people to come together, share experiences, and build camaraderie. Such programmes may form the basis for self-help groups or larger advocacy initiatives.
The participation of persons with disabilities in sports can also lead to a shift in public perception about disability, focusing attention on ability and commonality, rather than disability and difference. One of the most common uses of sport in the development arena is as a forum for conveying educational, public health, safety, environmental, or other messages.
Sports may also be used to foster individual development and learning. Sports events may act as a magnet, drawing in people who can then be engaged in education sessions before or after an event. In some cases, learning and information sharing are interwoven with sports activities themselves.
Although it is an area that requires more attention and research, there is already plenty of evidence that sport can be used to spur economic development.
The construction and rehabilitation of sports facilities and development of sport for entertainment create employment and marketing opportunities. The manufacturing of sports equipment also serves as a source of jobs. Furthermore, sports programs can be used as a training ground for a new workforce, teaching skills that make young people more employable and productive.
Sports is a feel-good activity. Seeing children playing and enjoying themselves is heartwarming and tends to elicit positive responses from observers. But the mere fact that a programme utilises sport as a tool, or that participants are having fun, does not mean that the program is effective or deserving of scarce resources.
Elite sports programmes and athletes have an important role to play in the overall development of sport. They supply role models and generate media coverage and funds that can be used to spark interest in, and support for, sports programs at the recreational level. But because elite or highly competitive sport has high entertainment value, and potentially economic value, it can be tempting to focus resources exclusively on these athletes and events.
While sports has an almost unique capacity to bring people together, if not executed with great care, sports activities sometimes divide or exclude people. Because they have had less exposure to sport and therefore lack experience or confidence, or because social or cultural stereotypes and assumptions inhibit them, some groups of people are unlikely to participate in sports activities unless an active effort is made to involve them. In many places, ethnic, religious, or cultural divisions may also lead to the exclusion of some people from sport. Ensuring that sports programs are inclusive necessitates that implementers treat participation as a process, not simply a desired outcome.
Programme planning should involve all key stakeholders, including potential participants, and should specifically address how to encourage the participation of women, girls, people with disabilities, or others who might typically be marginalized.
Sports programmes are vulnerable to abuse by people who see an influx of resources as an opportunity to improve their own financial situations. To discourage corruption, programs should be carefully planned with all key stakeholders and maximum transparency should be maintained throughout the process.
Rigorous monitoring is necessary to ensure that funds and materials are being used as planned. Any hint of corruption should be investigated and addressed immediately. For its many positive effects, sport also has the capacity to become a magnet for negative social behaviors, as well. Highly competitive athletes sometimes turn to performance enhancing drugs, a practice that must be prevented and punished with strict rules and clear consequences.
Dozens of organizations and programs around the world have tapped into the power of sport to promote development and peace. Until very recently, though, such projects have tended to be sporadic and isolated. Over the past few years, a movement has been building at the international level in support of sports for development and peace, bringing with it an unprecedented level of focus, coordination, and strategic thinking.
The next step in this growth process is to fully link the movement taking place at the international level with practitioners and programs in the field—and to connect these actors on the ground with one another. At the same time, there also remains significant work to be done to bring the worlds of sport and development together, to help each understand the mutual benefits of this relationship.
Finally, there is also room to work with private sector entities to bring them into partnerships that use sports to promote development and peace.
(The views expressed are personal)