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Dropping the ball - Critiquing the recent closure of the UNOSDP

Copyrights: Flickr: Cristina Jiménez Ledesma

Dropping the ball - Critiquing the recent closure of the UNOSDP

To what extent does the IOC-UN partnership signal a shift in the sport and development sector?

The recent closure of the UNOSDP office has raised much debate in the sport for development and peace (SDP) field. Certain critics have argued this is damaging for the field, a step back in many ways, while others feel the new IOC-UN partnership will be more sustainable. Whatever your disposition, it seems the decision not to replace Mr Lemke and sustain the post took most people in the sector by surprise.

However, while there is no doubt that the IOC being more centrally involved in SDP is a good thing, there are many valid concerns around the new arrangement. Firstly the move seems to have happened suddenly or with little consultation among a range of stakeholders. Secondly, the IOC seems centrally concerned with elite, organised, competitive, commercial forms of sport. Yes, it does have an emphasis on Olympism and those values, but it can be argued that mega-events such as the Olympics do not always serve the needs of development, which lie at the heart of the SDP movement. In fact, some research shows mega-events may exacerbate existing inequalities.

Furthermore, the IOC has oversight of sport federations and not governments, thus commanding far less influence over the public sector than a UN body. The IOC is entrenched in the world of sport while the UN has greater links to other sectors. It has also become abundantly clear that many federations do not exhibit high standards of governance or accountability (think of the corruption scandals that have engulfed a number of them over the years) and this may again subvert development goals.

But most of all, the IOC represents the official sport structures which, sport evangelists aside, are not always taken seriously in development. A major role for the UNOSDP office was to convince people outside the playing field of the benefits of sport beyond the playing field. People working in education, public health, conflict resolution and other development sectors have for years tended to see sport and physical activity as a 'nice to have' rather than an integral tool to achieve outcomes in their work. This is precisely because there remains a huge distinction between the development of sport and the use of sport to achieve development - and those outside the SDP sector may not know or understand the difference. Of course, the two are also interlinked but I would argue that there is a need for policy makers, development practitioners and aid agencies alike to 'take sport seriously as form of a development' but to be less serious about the development of sport itself. There still remains a tendency to only pay real attention to, and fund, sport when it is serious, elite, competitive - when it results in medals or trophies or accolades. Why is the same level of attention not bestowed upon SDP programmes that keep girls in schools for example? Is that not just as, or even more important, than any level of sporting excellence?

A strong UNOSDP and a strong SDP movement should, and could, draw attention to the valuable role sport can play beyond the sporting arena. It could convince others of the value of an intentional, non-traditional, inclusive and gender transformative approach to sport. It could of course still continue to work with structures such as the IOC and others to incorporate these values into their daily work, but could cast the net wider to draw in those who are not yet convinced by the SDP movement.

I do not doubt that the intentions of the IOC and the new commission are honourable but it does appear the closure of the UNOSDP office may be akin to an own goal in pushing the sector forward. This is not a straightforward substitution (to continue the sporting metaphor) as the very people we need to believe in the potential of SDP as a crosscutting tool for development outcomes may no longer be on the same playing field. 

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017 - 14:26