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The quiet demise of the UNOSDP: Where do we go from here?

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The quiet demise of the UNOSDP: Where do we go from here?

The sudden closure of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace raises questions about the sector’s future.

On 4 May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) has closed. So far, very little information has been released, but according to Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for Guterres:

The Secretary-General has agreed with the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, to establish a direct partnership between the UN and the International Olympic Committee.  Accordingly, it was decided to close the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP).”

Wilfried Lemke, the former special adviser on sport for development and peace, was not replaced immediately after leaving office at the end of 2016, causing some speculation. Nonetheless, the sudden closure – with limited communication and no warning – is surprising. The momentum on the policy level which began in the early 2000s has continued in recent years. The United Nations introduced an International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, celebrated first in 2014, before mentioning sport as an enabler of development in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

The UNOSDP had a mixed track record during Lemke’s time in the office, although it carried out some important work. However, its biggest impact was in what it signified. It symbolised sport and development’s emergence onto the world stage and credibility, not only accessing the UN system but being part of it.

It is not clear why closer UN-IOC collaboration means the UNOSDP is not needed. Chinese media outlet Xinhua, one of the first to break the news, described it as “an apparent cost-saving measure”. But it will divide opinion: the IOC is not always perceived as impartial and not all sports come under its umbrella.

Shortly before the closure was announced, Jutta Engelhardt, the former executive director of, wrote about the need for a new, youthful and dynamic special adviser. This is no longer possible but the sentiment remains true. Now more than ever, the sector needs impartial and energetic leadership. That person’s profile is one question – their organisation is another.

The closure of the UNOSDP does not mean the sector is in decline but, as the Consultative Committee of the Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport under the Council of Europe has said, it might send a problematic message and it causes an even bigger leadership vacuum. We now need to collectively step up efforts to mobilise sufficient political willingness and commitment to re-establish impartial, dynamic and widely accepted leadership for the sector.

In 2003 and 2005, the first high-level conferences on sport and development took place in Magglingen, Switzerland. These set the agenda for policy making and, among other things, led to the birth of In view of UNOSDP’s death, we are now proposing that the spirit of these conferences is revived by running an event which cements sport’s status at the highest level. We have spoken to a number of sports federations, private sector representatives and governments in Switzerland and internationally, and there is significant interest in running another conference. If you would like to get involved, please contact executive director, Marc Probst, on for more information.

We would also like to encourage creative discussion on the topic and invite you to share your thoughts with the community. What does the closure of the UNOSDP mean? What is now needed? What do we do going forward? What are the alternatives to the UNOSDP? Who could take on the leadership role? We have launched a call for articles and would love to hear from you. 



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Marc Probst and Paul Hunt


Monday, May 15, 2017 - 16:45


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