An arena for change: how sport is having an impact on international development

Photo by David Catchpole

As the Olympics fully take off, DiA writer Sam Hall considers the positive impact that sport has on the developing world

The London 2012 Olympics has been steeped in accusations of tax dodging and security concerns, and for a lot of people the event has been met with cynicism. But among these high-profile stories are subplots about how sport can present an arena for positive change beyond our immediate national interests.

UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon carried the Olympic Torch on one of its last sections on Thursday. But it was his predecessor, Kofi Annan, at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, who argued that governments, NGOs, and local communities should employ sport ‘systematically’ to alleviate poverty, disease and conflict. A year later the Magglingen Declaration on Sport and Development was endorsed by the UN, in which eight key points were made about sport’s potential to build societies and improve quality of life around the world.

Since then, elite athletes have forged some noteworthy connections with development and aid organisations. Among these, footballers Ronaldo (Luís Nazário de Lima), Zinedine Zidane, Didier Drogba and David Beckham have all been prominent UN ‘Goodwill Ambassadors’, and an annual ‘Match Against Poverty’ since 2003 has promoted Millennium Development Goals, notably the aim of halving world poverty by 2015.

But in the absence of David Beckham’s prolific media-friendly image, omitted from the Team GB football squad by coach Stuart Pearce for ‘footballing reasons’, Craig Bellamy has been elevated to media duties ahead of the Games. Calm and understated in his demeanour, a stark contrast to his spiky attitude on the pitch and run-ins with controversy, Bellamy presents a modern athlete under no illusions about the project of development. His involvement could not be accused of PR opportunism or of any semblance of being half-hearted. Over £1m of personal wealth has been ploughed into his project in Sierra Leone since he took the initiative to establish an academy following an impromptu visit to the region in 2007.

Unlike some academy equivalents, the Craig Bellamy Foundation, also supported by the UN, is not about profiteering from Africa’s raw talent frequently coveted by Europe’s richest clubs. Instead it aims to ensure that children, brought up in continuing conflict, and in a country considered one of the most uninhabitable places on earth, receive a proper education, become active members in civil society and absorb the foundation’s insistent messages on sexual health and the perils of HIV/Aids. Without work there is no play and since the foundation’s inception truancy rates have dropped dramatically.

But sport doesn’t simply operate as a motive for children to attend school and be actively involved in their communities. Paul Richard’s pioneering research in Sierra Leone concluded that sport establishes a domain in which young people socialise and compete in relatively rule-governed ways, and that the game may aid the resocialising of those deeply affected by warfare. Latterly, in line with sport’s rising status on development agendas, organisations have sponsored sporting initiatives across West Africa, in order to capture the energies and ethical codes of young people who are at risk of falling into military combat.

Following this trend, within the last 10 years sports-based NGOs have been one of the most rapidly growing sectors in development. And under no illusions about its potential, international platforms such as have put together comprehensive documents outlining key areas including education, health, gender and peace-making in which sport can play a major role in improving.

There is tremendous enthusiasm amongst the UN and NGOs to fully harness the development power of sport. By embracing sport, and by using high-profile worldwide events like the Olympics as a platform, sport is an innovative tool for development and peace today. By joining together in collaborative undertakings in the future, governments and NGOs alike can strengthen their efforts to overcome development challenges and attain the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Follow Sam on Twitter @samjohnhall

Follow Development in Action on Twitter @dev_in_action

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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