One of the most difficult tasks for international developers today is reaching the most vulnerable populations in the developing world who are often missed by typical outreach programs. This generally includes young women and children. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to “to engage in play and recreational activities.” Since the convention, sports have become evermore popular as a tool in humanitarian outreach programs. However, it has taken nearly 90 years for sports to be taken seriously as a platform for development and even today several skeptics remain unconvinced about the impact of sports on development.
As far back as 1922, the UN International Labour Organisation signed a deal to collaborate with the International Olympic Committee, which is in many ways considered the starting point for sports as a development tool. But it did not become a part of the international limelight until the late 1970s when UNESCO adopted the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, which promoted the use of sports as a tool for teaching, communication, and understanding. However, real use of sports for development did not pick up until the 2000s when the first conference on sports and development was officially held in Switzerland.
Today, there are several programs that utilize sports to address development issues including HIV/AIDs, education, gender equality, crime, and domestic violence. Most prominent among them are UNICEF’s Sports for Development (S4D) program and the UN’s Sport for Development and Peace program. The UN adopted these programs as a way to tackle Millennium Development Goals surrounding a 2003 General Assembly resolution that declared sports and play a vital tool for development. However, critics of such programs remain. Skeptics argue that such programs are imperialistic – forcing the cultural and economic structures of developed countries onto developing societies. Some feminists even argue that the ways these programs are implemented exclude young women and favor young men.
Empirically speaking, the breadth of people involved negates many of these criticisms and illustrates how sports have grown as a tool for development outreach programs. Progress is being made for sports and development in grassroots organizations as well. Earlier this semester, the Tedx Lund event welcomed Cecilia Andrén Nyström who spoke about her ongoing project in Moçambique. Last fall the 21 year old from Sweden started the project “Futebol dá força”, which means “Football gives strength” in Portuguese. In a country where over 50% of women marry before the age of 18 and the HIV rate is three times higher for women in the ages of 15-24 than that of men, additional initiatives are needed to empower these girls. Futebol dá força has reached and trained nearly 148 voluntary coaches not only in football, but also in human rights, family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, and sexual and reproductive rights. The trainers themselves have then continued on to inspire and educate nearly 3000 actively participating girls. With football as the foundation, Nyström’s program has been used to empower andeducate vulnerable populations of young women in Moçambique as a way to give them tools to influence their individual situations.
Programs such as this one are becoming more popular amongst developers. In August of last year, Trinidad declared a state of emergency due to a significant spike in gang activity and related violence. According to this year’s UN Human Development Report, murder activity in Trinidad and Tobago has increased fivefold over the past decade. So how is the government going to tackle this massive problem? By investing 300 million US dollars into building recreation centers throughout the country the government hopes to prevent delinquent youth from receding into a life of crime. The project, called Hoop of Life, will be used as a way to fight crime and create a social outreach program for youth who are often overlooked by typical education or afterschool programs. But the program was rightfully criticized when it was revealed that nearly $1.5 million was spent on bringing Shaquille O’Neal, the famous American basketball professional, to promote the program in Trinidad. Although it is too early to tell if a program such as this will yield the desired results, previous projects suggest that it may be effective in reducing crime and equipping young people with better opportunities and extracurricular activities.
Sport for development projects on international, governmental, and local levels are being taken more and more seriously – and for good reason. Research shows that youth involved with sports have improved health, better academic standing, and are less likely to get involved with criminal activity. Futebol dá força and similar projects help young women’s empowerment and build an open community for girls coming from similar situations. Although sports for development has been around for nearly ninety years, real progress has only been made in the last few decades. Therefore, these projects are only the beginning of sport for development, but continued success should bring about a variety of these unconventional outreach programs for the future of development.