Sport as a development tool...

As BTB mentioned in his comment on my earlier post, sport has historically been an integral part of human society. It should come as no surprise then that the use of sport as a tool for international development is gaining in legitimacy and is the focus of increasing interest. In short, the goal of most international development programs is to foster opportunities for individual and societal growth and prosperity for people in every corner of the world. Thus, utilizing sport, which is an entrenched and shared aspect of the human experience, to help empower individuals and societies seems like a no-brainer.

One thing I know for sure, having grown up in the American sports culture and having coached youth sports as an adult (see pic below for proof of my coaching credentials), is that there are few things that American parents like more than sports for their kids.

I think this is mostly a good thing as it shows that parents believe that sport participation and physical activity is important (the only down side is that some parents value youth sports so much that they take every opportunity to yell at and berate the coaches, referees, and even their own children and attempt to fulfill their own failed sporting dreams through their children…whether their children share those dreams or not).

  Most of us believe that sport participation is good for kids not only for the obvious health benefits that regular physical activity affords, but also because it provides a forum for socialization and character building.

I didn’t take time to look for research on the effectiveness of youth sports in achieving these more nebulous aims, but I think it’s safe to assume that some level of sport participation will benefit most kids in many ways…provided the experience is a positive one (see above for one major cause of a poor sports experience…overbearing parents).

Now, I don’t claim to be very worldly, but it seems only reasonable that parents all over the world would want their children to have the opportunity to experience the positive aspects of sport participation. Of course, I recognize that cultural differences and norms affect how people and societies value sports, but considering the popularity of sporting contests such as the World Cup and the Olympics in the developed and developing world alike, I would imagine that when it comes to sports and kids…parents probably aren’t that different whether they hail from Kentucky or Kenya.

Thus, expanding opportunities for sports participation to children in the developing world should be viewed as a necessity and not a luxury.

I briefly mentioned the UN Millennium Development Goals in a previous post.  Several of these benchmarks of development progress involve issues related to children, which underscores the importance that development experts place on programs aimed at increasing opportunities for child growth and development.  Some uses of sport for development are pretty straightforward…such as including physical education and sport programs in educational settings as part of the push for access to universal primary education.  

Sport can (and has) also been used to further other development goals, including empowering women and girls and educating children about infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS.  As another example, one of the books I reviewed in a previous post, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, made reference to football (soccer) as a component of the re-integration program for child soldiers in Sierra Leone.  The “International Platform for Sport and Development” has a website outlining many of the historic and current uses of sport as a development tool.  And, for all the ping-pong fans out there…you’ll be happy to know that table tennis is one of the featured sports on the Sport and Development website

In sum, because we are often overwhelmed by the glitz of the professional sports culture and the absurdity of some aspects of overly competitive and formalized youth sport leagues, it is easy to forget how valuable sport participation can be…especially for children.  If nothing else, sports in their most pure form are fun…and every child, regardless of where he or she is born deserves to have some fun.  That sports can help us achieve other development goals is a bonus.  I think this is something to keep in mind…that providing simple and inexpensive opportunities for sport participation to children all over the world is a worthy goal and one that will likely pay back our investment many times over.