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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Social Innovation and Philanthropy

The Power to Change the World? The Role of Sport in Development


In May 2000, Nelson Mandela stood before a microphone, prepared to address the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony. Never more than a recreational athlete, Mandela might seem an odd choice to serve as the patron of a global sports gala. But the event’s proceeds were going to charities harnessing sport to effect positive change, and Mandela is intimately familiar with using sport for good. Most notably, as South Africa’s president, he helped to bridge the country’s racial divide by integrating the national rugby squad. So as he began to speak, the audience members—who ranged from famed Brazilian soccer player Pelé to musician Jon Bon Jovi—listened closely. “Sport,” Mandela proclaimed, “has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. . . . It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.”[1]

Over the past thirteen years, Mandela’s declaration has become a rallying cry for the burgeoning “sport and development” sector. Ranging from baseball and education nonprofits in Compton, California, to soccer and HIV initiatives in Cape Town, South Africa, this field consists of hundreds of organizations, with at least $100-$200 million in annual backing, attempting to use sport to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. And they are gaining traction. In November 2012, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed its eighth in a series of resolutions endorsing sport as a development tool. This came four years after former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair penned an essay for Time expressing his support for Beyond Sport—an organization that recognizes top sport and development groups. He began his piece by quoting Mandela’s speech.[2]

Yet the notion of sport and development has its critics. Some lament that it is loosely defined, unregulated, and lacks proof that it works. Others suggest that it serves primarily to burnish the image of professional sports organizations. The most forceful critics assert that sport and development harms—not helps—the developing world. These skeptics are not just at the margins: prominent individuals and organizations—including officials from the U.S. federal government—have approached the field tepidly.

So is sport saving the world, or is the vision misguided?


A Plane Ticket and a Ball

Gauging the impact of sport and development is challenging, in part because it is difficult to pin down exactly what to call it, let alone what it means and how many people it is helping. A cursory review of the literature reveals a host of terms that are employed within the field: sport and society, sport and social change, sport and philanthropy, sport through development, and development through sport, just to name a few. All of these labels point to sport’s social benefit, a notion that is far from new. In ancient Greece, leaders signed a truce to halt fighting during the Olympics, and more recently, the belief that sport builds character has gained currency.

The past fifteen years, however, has seen an upsurge in sport and development organizations focused on some of the world’s greatest challenges. Internationally, these initiatives focus primarily on achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and fall under the umbrella of “sport for development and peace.” Domestically, there are several hundred sports-based youth development (SBYD) organizations addressing challenges like poverty, obesity, and educational attainment. Initiatives in both categories use sport to engage people in development programs (using “sport as a hook”) and embed sport in the development curriculum itself (an approach called “sport plus”). Undergirding these methods is Mandela’s credo that sport, because of its unparalleled popularity and inspirational power, has a unique ability to bring people together to achieve positive social change.

Nonetheless, no precise definition of a sport and development organization exists—an ambiguity that some find problematic. One concern is that initiatives focused on elite athletes pretend to have a broader social focus. Another is that groups with a genuine interest in development lack the training and resources to realize this mission. Both kinds of organizations, practitioners fear, can tarnish the field in the eyes of prospective funders. “Anyone with a plane ticket and a ball,” observes an industry veteran I spoke with, “can become a sport and development organization.”

To sharpen boundaries, some call for creating an accreditation system for coaches and practitioners. Currently, however, little oversight occurs, which complicates efforts to validate organizations’ claims about how many people they serve. “In Zambia, I saw kids in slums who’d been trained five or more times by different NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” says Bruce Kidd, former Olympian and University of Toronto professor, in a 2011 Sports Illustrated piece. “NGOs aren’t just fighting for donors, they’re fighting for kids.”[3]


“You Asked for Proof”

Funders often ask Paul Caccamo, the executive director of Up2Us, a coalition of SBYD organizations, for evidence that sport and development works. So in May 2012, he authored a post for Up2Us’s blog entitled “You Asked for Proof.” It points readers to a report called “Front Runners: Leaders of the Sports-Based Youth Development Pack,” which cites anecdotes and observational studies of sport and development programs. “It means,” Caccamo writes, “there is a new field out there that may very well be the most effective solution to childhood obesity, high drop-out rates, gangs and teen pregnancy: it’s SBYD.”[4]

Zak Kaufman, a doctoral student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, however, warns that the data only shows a correlation between sport and development. To evaluate causality, Kaufman is partnering with Grassroot Soccer, a soccer and HIV initiative, to conduct sport and development’s first randomized controlled trial. Launched in South Africa in February 2012, the project is testing whether recipients of Grassroot Soccer’s treatment engage in fewer risky behaviors than those in the control group, who did not receive the Grassroot Soccer intervention. To Kaufman, the research, which will take three years and involve 4,500 participants, could yield valuable insights about whether Grassroot Soccer’s program works and why.

Others are less enthusiastic about randomized controlled trials. Some warn that they could prove onerous for small NGOs and express concerns about assigning a child in need to a control group. Megan Bartlett, the director of Up2Us’s Center for Sports-Based Youth Development, also emphasizes that causal data has limitations. Most notably, it is extremely challenging—and sometimes impossible—to measure all potentially confounding variables.

Funders, however, still want proof that sport and development works, and more rigorous research—especially randomized controlled trials—will help to address their concerns. “Is there a risk?” Mori Taheripour, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) senior advisor on sport for development, said in an interview with the author. “Absolutely. You could do . . . [an] evaluation . . . and find that some of the things you thought to be true may not be.” But sport and development’s “evidence base,” she argues, is the field’s “biggest challenge.”


A Role Model for All Others

In 2002, Todd Jacobson, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) senior vice president for community relations, was driving down a dirt road toward Kliptown, a South African township where he was meeting with the head of a local NGO. Upon arriving, he found himself surrounded by kids who peppered him with questions: Will Marcus Camby be traded? Who will lead the NBA in blocks this year? Have you met Michael Jordan? For Jacobson, the conversation was exhilarating. “I saw firsthand that . . . the power of the [NBA] brand to inspire is incredible,” he recalls in an interview with the author, “and that the league can use its platform . . . to shine a light on [community] partners.”

What some sport and development professionals fear, however, is that when these firms highlight community partners, it’s only for a thirty-second commercial. For example, when told that the heads of several U.S. professional sports leagues recently convened at Beyond Sport United, a symposium dedicated to sport and social change, one industry veteran recited an industry adage. “When is the only time commissioners come together? The answer is when they’re testifying before Congress.” The implication? The gathering would be good public relations for the leagues, but whether it leads to substantial social impact is questionable.

In practice, others contend, the quality of partnerships between sports corporations and NGOs is extremely varied. Some of these collaborations involve enduring relationships that are well funded, carefully evaluated, and focused on specific issues; while others are one-off events that have little long-term effect. The bottom line, says one industry veteran, is that the impact of partnerships between sports corporations and sport and development NGOs is “really varied.”

The challenge then is how to ensure more partnerships of the fruitful variety. One crucial step is for sport and development practitioners to avoid cynicism about the for-profit world. “The social sector,” contends Beyond Sport founder Nick Keller in an interview with the author, “has to speak to the corporate world in language that the corporate sector truly understands and believes in.” If the sport and development movement can establish this dialogue, it could have an enormous social impact because of the sports sector’s massive footprint. “This industry,” suggests Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter in a recent speech at a Beyond Sport conference, “can be a role model for all others.”[5]


North-South Relations

The most forceful criticism of sport and development (and development more broadly) is that it exacerbates unequal power relations. According to this view, programs originate in the more prosperous global north and are implemented in the global south without paying heed to local need.[6] The criticism, if accurate, would represent a damning indictment of sport and development.

Amadou Gallo Fall, a Senegalese native who heads the NBA’s Africa office, acknowledges in an interview with the author that there is a “danger . . . when [people] in the West think [they] know what is best for people in the developing world.” Yet Fall emphasizes that his experience illustrates that sport can empower people in the global south. After growing up in Senegal, he played college basketball in the United States and then dedicated his life to youth and socioeconomic development, founding Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal (SEEDS), a Senegalese youth basketball and education NGO, and pursuing a career with the NBA. “In my journey through sports,” explains Fall in a telephone interview, “I’ve realized I could create [opportunities for youth].”

By designing programs that are directly attuned to global power imbalances, many sport and development leaders are striving to make sure that Fall’s experience is not an isolated one. Eric Dienes, the liaison officer for the UN’s Office on Sport for Development and Peace, describes by e-mail the UN’s extensive, collaborative process to ensure that “projects are designed based on the needs of countries and their people.” And Taheripour emphasizes that she and her colleagues at USAID partner extensively with local organizations.

In short, the questions about power imbalances are important to raise, but given the experiences of leaders like Fall and the efforts of organizations like the UN and USAID, these concerns should not lead to reflexive criticism of sport and development.


Moving Beyond Mandela

Thirteen years after Mandela’s speech, sport and development is where one would expect a nascent field to be: working to define, evaluate, and scale up its work. But it can do more. To begin with, sport and development practitioners should strengthen ties with the rest of the development sector, which is grappling with many of the same evaluative and regulatory questions. (Many sport and development practitioners, notes the University of Toronto’s Bruce Kidd in an interview, are former athletes with limited development experience.) The field’s leaders also should channel the passion of young professionals, who see the movement’s gaps as opportunities, not problems. “What is exciting about sport for development is the unlimited possibilities,” says Aimee Dixon, a recent college graduate who is the associate director of a lacrosse NGO in Uganda, in an interview with the author. “It doesn’t feel like a job. It’s more like a calling.”

Above all, sport and development practitioners must engage with stakeholders substantively. The field’s leaders often justify their work heavily through personal experiences: “If you played a sport,” Up2Us’s Caccamo blogs, “you get it.” But personal appeals can backfire when funders and policy makers want data tied to policy outcomes. Consider the dialogue between Caccamo and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). “Given the fact that [Secretary of Education Arne Duncan] is . . . a former basketball coach [in the] Chicago public schools,” says Caccamo in an interview, “I’m amazed . . .  that they haven’t taken on some greater focus [on] . . .  sports interventions to achieve the outcomes they’re seeking.” But Michael Robbins, DOE’s senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships, does not see an explicit connection to DOE’s functions and funding streams. “The dialogue,” he asks in an interview, “is to what specific end?”

More broadly, the “power of sport”—conveyed through personal anecdotes and rhetoric—has helped propel sport and development to this point. Moving forward, if the field seems tethered to this abstract notion, people will question its connection to development. Ironically, to realize the power of sport, the sport and development movement needs to soften its rallying cry.

Photo source here.

David Tannenwald is a case writer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a freelance writer focused on the intersection of sports and society. Before becoming a writer, he spent four years working in and researching the “sport and development” sector. 

[1] Mandela, Nelson. 2000. Speech by Nelson Mandela at the Inaugural Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, Monaco 2000. Monte Carlo, 25 May.

[2] Blair, Tony. 2008. An uplifting power. Time, 19 June.

[3] Wolff, Alexander. 2011. Sports saves the world. Sports Illustrated, 26 September.

[4] Caccamo, Paul. 2012. You asked for proof. Up2Us Blog, 17 May.

[5] Beyond Sport. 2011. Michael Porter calls on teams at Beyond Sport United to leave CSR behind and move forward to “creating shared value.” Press release, 23 September.

[6] Levermore, Roger. 2009. Sport-in-international development: Theoretical frameworks. In Sport and international development. Edited by Roger Levermore and Aaron Beacom. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 38-45.