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An own goal for sport and development: Time to change the playing field


An own goal for sport and development: Time to change the playing field

Ben Sanders argues that SDP organisations often reinforce the problems they aim to solve and calls for systematic changes to ensure they contribute to positive social change.



Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) refers to the use of sport to promote varied outcomes beyond the playing field and has been defined as ‘the intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development objectives in low- and middle-income countries and disadvantaged communities in high-income settings.’ Stakeholders working in the field for the last two decades include the United Nations, the public sector, the private sector and civil society with an increasing number of SDP initiatives across the globe.

While other disciplines such as health and education have engendered a more critical perspective on the factors causing and constraining development, certain SDP programmes do exhibit an ongoing gap between evidence and practice. In the most pronounced cases this is reflected with somewhat naïve and idealistic notions of the power of sport. Even if sport is applied in the right manner and results in the intended change, there are deeper structural issues that may negate such well-intentioned work. While a focus of many SDP organisations is to develop the individual to realise his/her capacity, there appears to be a genuine lack of initiatives that seek to challenge or reform the societal structures and conditions that caused this ‘underdevelopment’ to occur in the first place.

Wide-ranging, almost-universal claims made by the SDP movement must therefore be treated with caution. While sport can have positive micro-level impact on individuals, this does not necessarily lead to greater outcomes in the community (meso) and society (macro). Many theorists including Darnell, Coalter, Coakley and Sugden contend that the development of social capital or local co-operation cannot nullify greater macro issues, such as a lack of resources, political support and socio-economic realities. Coalter postulates a major weakness of SDP programmes is that they are “seeking to solve broad gauge problems via limited focus interventions.” A comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach is needed in the SDP sector as it tends to function outside other development sectors and the sociology of sport, failing to relate to the broader role of sport within society. For example many sport for development actors do not acknowledge the role sport may play in reinforcing gender stereotypes and rigid masculinities.

It is vital to explore the potential and impact of sport in fostering social change, including tackling deep-seated issues such as poverty and inequality. However, sport cannot solve these problems alone – such issues require improvements in other sectors such as education and health. Furthermore, as Maguire articulates, sport can reinforce existing inequities if it reproduces a sports-industrial complex that privileges competitive and spectator sport over community-based sport and recreation. It is therefore argued that the potential negative impact of sport must be acknowledged and a distinction drawn between elite/high performance sport and SDP initiatives. How do different role players, including the state, private sector and civil society, play a part in an SDP movement that has only recently emerged on the global agenda and has been largely isolated from mainstream development efforts? Furthermore, scholars such as Darnell have identified a range of ethical issues involved in SDP programmes which tend to use a deficit-reduction approach.


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Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - 23:00