Merveille Kavira, GPJ, DRC

Sports Add Strength, Momentum to Development Efforts


Article Highlights

Experts say sports can positively impact the lives of individuals, and large-scale change is possible when sports are paired with other development programs.

A basketball game can make friends out of enemies, but can it pull people out of poverty or end a civil war?

Maybe, says Bruce Kidd, a sports development expert at the University of Toronto.

Sports can positively impact the lives of individuals, he says, and large-scale change is possible when sports are paired with other development programs. The problem is that sports are often left out of the global development conversation.

“It’s a necessary but not a sufficient strategy of development,” says Kidd, a onetime Olympic runner who researches international sports development programs. “It can do things that other interventions can’t do, but we can’t over-claim. It’s got to be done in concert with other interventions.”

Little research has been done on how much money is spent on sports through foreign development and aid programs, but experts widely agree that organized sports programs are good for kids in poor or violent communities worldwide.

Kids who participate in sports programs tend to be healthier and better educated.

They learn how to handle victory and defeat, according to the United Nations’ Sport for Development and Peace task force, and are more likely to learn tolerance, cooperation and respect. Often, participating in sports programs gives children access to health education and immunizations.

Games provide a forum for self-expression, especially for kids who don’t have many other opportunities. They’re more likely to be successful at school. Physically active communities often enjoy economic benefits. Sports can even help rehabilitate child laborers.

The benefits are so well-documented that the UN in 2003 formally recognized sports – played at any level – as important tools to advance the Millennium Development Goals it established in 2000.

The UN sports task force in 2005 recommended that sports be better integrated into development programs.

Most international aid efforts fail to budge endemic poverty rates in low-income countries. In part, the problem is that they focus on the economic instead of the social environment, Roger Levermore and Aaron Beacom write in their book “Sport and International Development.”

Even when sports are part of an overall development effort, spending does not always effect positive change. Like many development efforts, sports programs are least effective when they’re implemented without local participation.

“Whether it’s water purity or whether it’s agricultural reform or whether it’s sport, unless it’s done in open recognition of local needs and local strengths or assets, where people who are the intended beneficiaries see themselves in that program, it’s not going to work,” Kidd says.