Sports as the new platform for development: New route, old paradigm?

The United Nations declaration of 2005 as the International Year of Sport and Physical Education marked a significant step in the connection of sports to international development. This forward looking milestone had the effect of bringing sports and physical activities to the global stage whilst recognizing its potential of mass mobilization. Specifically, the endorsement of the use of sport as catalysts for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) heightened the use of this new untapped platform as it concretized clear goals and objectives to be met. This in turn has resulted in the eruption and participation of various transnational advocacy groups, international and national non-governmental organizations, and other strategic alliances under the banner of ‘sport for development’ (SfD) or ‘sports in development’ (SiD). These alliances and organizations have programs that purport health such in the case of HIV and AIDS initiatives, human rights and in the case of child soldiers, and equality in the case of empowering women and other marginalized groups.

While we cannot deny the power of sports, there is need for a more critical look at these initiatives and a shift away from looking at sports as the new panacea for development. This is not to downplay the significant strides made. David Black states in his article The ambiguities of development: Implications for ‘development through sports, that with all the physiological, physical, and knowledge gain that children receive from many of these projects, if the underlying causes (of poverty, underdevelopment) are not tackled, then there shall be no solution. The temporary diversion from deplorable conditions such as displacement, orphanage, and HIV infection does nothing to solve the bigger underlying the issues and hence the real causes and the search for alternative solutions remains largely ignored. So what if children have knowledge of the causes of HIV? The argument here is not that this knowledge is not important, but rather that unless conditions to ensure knowledge applications are also set, it is useless. This is especially true for instance when the ‘temporary heaven’ that is created for the children cannot be extended beyond the playing field. After playing and getting tired, some still have to go back to the same hostile and poor environment where basic necessities such as running water, electricity, food and shelter are nothing but a dream. The political environment in which the elite and politicians either squander money that is meant for developmental projects or turn one ethnic group against another continues as no one questions it; rather, its reputation is enhanced by the fact that at least, it does allow international organizations to operate on its ground.

The operations of international organizations moreover must also be questioned. Clifford Bob in his book The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism posits that framing and strategic behavior is crucial for NGO’s and that this eventually leads to the overshadowing of underlying causes and local objectives for development in an effort to universalize, simplify and appeal to larger audiences. Firstly, Bob states that the process of gaining support from NGO’s is competitive and uncertain, pushing actors to please the international audience. The consequent result of this is that issues are simplified for easy consumability and such is the case with most, if not all, NGO campaigns. This might mean that HIV and AIDS programs are given sole identity, and all efforts to help them are geared towards this identity of the disease. This is not withstanding the fact that this disease in not the sole killer, especially in Africa where preventable diseases such as malaria and diarrhea continue to claim many lives each year.

Secondly, power is the exchange rate within this marketplace economy, where those with the most power chose those with less. The implication is thus that any needy group that can fit into the profile of a powerful one will find a home. Regardless of the fact that netball might be a popular sport among women in most of Southern Africa, soccer is still the implementers sport. Thirdly, structural biases are aid determinants. There is no denying the top-down approach even with the rhetoric of community based, empowerment, etc. All SiD organizations are from the North, and still with the use of local athletes, it is the organization itself that chooses.  Lastly, even though there is a line between altruism and impact, it is never clearly drawn. Therefore, while we hear about the great power of sports, and how happy children are when they are playing it, hardly do we ever hear about the real impacts in their lives like employment, literacy, educational attainment or any other improvement based on the hailed human development index. When it happens, it does so sporadically.

Fortunately, sports are late bloomers within the international development scene and therefore have the advantage of learning from what has been done and improving on it. There is a rich literature available for lessons learned and what future projects need to look like. There is a need  for projects that work with all sectors of the population and not just the youth, the vulnerable or the marginalized, projects that select sports based on the characteristics of the areas in which they are operating, and projects that use strategies for sustainability of projects themselves and not the organization per say. This new route deserves a new paradigm.

Bose Maposa

Bose Maposa is the Assistant Director of the African Studies Program at Ohio University, USA.

2 Responses to Sports as the new platform for development: New route, old paradigm?

  1. Powerful piece, Bose. I really enjoyed reading it. Indeed we do tend to assume or rather overstate the role of sports in development and take for granted that they do make a positive imprint on society without looking at the long term impacts. This is a tightly argued piece, that I believe leads the movement in ensuring that we can utilise sports (which most people relate to especially in Africa) to do important development work.

    I was inspired a few weeks ago when I read an article about the World Cup stadium in Port Elizabethe where I had the opportuinity to work prior and during the world cup – i was touched to learn that the stadium has been the most effectively utilised of all the statiums built for the world cup in South africa and that in just a few years, the stadium will run in self (and make some profit).

    I couldnt help but feel proud, who would have thought? One of the poorest provinces can beat the big city’s in terms of effective use of the facilities and channeling them for the benefit of the larger community.

    Thanks again for the piece. I thouroughly enjoyed it.


  2. Gcobani,
    Thanks for the kind words! I actually came up with the initial idea to write this when I was at the height of my confidence on the SfD/SiD movement. As I read and researched, I was suddenly confronted with the fact that I was not seeing the any ‘real’ results-which was sad.
    But, I do hope we can learn and things can change. I would love to read that piece on the stadiums, please email it to me.

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