Global sport policy and the sustainable development goals

Copyrights: Marko Milivojevic photography

Global sport policy and the sustainable development goals

This section provides information on global sport policies, key actors, alignment to the SDGs, as well as relevant measurement approaches.

Global sport policy is complex and influenced by an array of different actors, legislation, regulation, provision and empowerment within a context of global, regional and national relationships.

Global sports policy tends to focus on two broad categories: elite sport and community/grassroots sport development. However, the two categories overlap significantly with policy increasingly recognising broader definitions of the sport sector which include aspects relating to health, education, tourism, economic contributions and social inclusion.

Nonetheless, one way to define the difference is as follows:

  • Elite sport development focuses on sport systems and protecting the integrity of elite sport (e.g. sporting performance: preventing match fixing and doping)  
  • Community sport development focuses on increasing mass participation and the capacity of the community/grassroots sport system (e.g. are there facilities and opportunities for sport at the grassroots level, and are sport, physical education and physical activity inclusive?)

The actors that develop global sports policy shape both of these areas.

Key actors in sport policy

A number of global organisations shape global sports policy, including intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations, civil society groups, the private and academic sectors, and many more. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has provided a common reference point for sport policy – greater detail is provided below in the SDGs section and SDGs and sport section.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has been involved in leading international efforts to maximise the contribution of sport to sustainable development through its sport policy guidance to member states. It has extensively researched the contribution that global sports policy can make to the SDGs and consulted with a range of experts. 

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s previous publications have included:

The MINEPS (International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport) forums coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) are also instrumental in shaping global sport policies. The MINEPS VI website describes the forums’ outcomes and recommendations as “continuously strengthening the educational, cultural and social dimensions of physical education and sport while guiding the implementation of effective policies and practices around the world.

The sport sector also has an important role in policy and the SDG landscape. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), for example, has developed Olympic Agenda 2020. This contains 40 recommendations to promote “Olympic values” and strengthen sport in society. Similarly, other actors such as the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) have developed their own strategic plans (Transformation 2022) that seek to achieve global impact through sport. Individual federations (e.g. FIFA) often also have their own plans to link their sports to wider development objectives.

The Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This sets out a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” for global development that was intended to build upon the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and “complete what they did not achieve”. The 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets within the agenda form the framework for global development until 2030.

Measurement approaches

To ensure the consistent and coherent implementation of the SDGs, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) commissioned the development of specific indicators. As a result, the United Nations Statistical Commission and a specific inter-agency and expert group produced a global indicator framework for measuring progress towards SDGs. 

The UNGA and the Economic and Social Council will assess the progress towards achieving these goals. The preamble of Agenda 2030 emphasised that it was important for countries to review their own progress in meeting the SDGs and develop complementary indicators relevant to their national priorities. The global indicator framework thus requires member states to invest in strengthening their national data systems and evaluation programmes. 

SDG targets and indicators

Overall, there are 17 goals with 169 targets and 230 indicators. Measuring all 230 indicators across diverse global, regional, national and local contexts is a challenge. However, it also provides an opportunity to adopt a more targeted approach to illustrating sport’s contribution to the SDGs, which is elaborated upon below

It was also challenging for the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IEAG-SDGs) to develop the global indicator framework. Certain indicators already had well-established and proven methodologies; others were far more difficult to collect yet still important. To deal with this challenge, the IEAG-SDGs divided the indicators into a three-tier system:

Tier 1: Indicators with easy to find data and clear and established methodologies

Tier 2: Indicators with clear and established methodologies but the data might be difficult to find as it is not regularly produced by all countries

Tier 3: Internationally established methodologies or standards are not yet available for the indicator but the methodology/standards are being (or will be) developed or tested

How does it work for each SDG?

Each SDG has its own array of targets and indicators. For example, SDG 4 – ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all – has 10 targets and 10 indicators. Different levels of data need to be collected to measure each indicator. For example, indicator 4.7.1. below requires collecting data on national education policies, curricula, teacher education and student assessment. 


Figure SDG 4: Quality education

Click here for more information regarding the targets and monitoring of the SDGs.

SDG toolkits

Actors such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and others have produced SDG toolkits. These assist countries in integrating SDG measurement into national planning and measurement. 

As well as reporting on the SDGs, states also have other international commitments, such as the African Union Agenda 2063 and the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA Pathway). They also need to report on specific goals, indicators and targets for those. In addition, they have commitments related to specific sectors or thematic areas, such as physical activity frameworks produced by the World Health Organization (WHO). Policymakers therefore need to consider how to align different national, regional and international frameworks, and how tools (or toolkits) can best complement one another.

Sport and the Sustainable Development Goals

Agenda 2030, the outcome document which contains the SDGs, recognises sport’s role in addressing them: “Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognize the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.

The sport and development sector widely viewed this as a success and it was the result of lobbying from the International Olympic Committee, sportanddev and others. However, some also expressed disappointment that sport was not mentioned in the goals, targets and indicators. Thus while the recognition of sport is positive, there are no dedicated commitments to sport in the SDG framework.

The Kazan Action Plan is the most important sport policy document related to the SDGs, identifying 10 SDGs and 36 targets to which sport can contribute. The Commonwealth Secretariat, UN agencies and other stakeholders have played an important part in advising governments and the wider sport and development community on how best to align sport policies to the SDGs and other priorities.

Aligning sport policies to the SDGs and development priorities

Many national and international actors have taken steps to align sports policy to the SDGs though this has happened in many different ways. The 8th Commonwealth Sports Ministers Meeting in 2016 provided direction for Commonwealth states to align their sport policy to national development priorities and the SDGs. This provided the impetus for the agenda of MINEPS VI and resulted in the development of the Kazan Action Plan. The Kazan Action Plan was widely ratified and encourages governments to commit to three key areas: ensuring inclusive access to sport for all; promoting sport as a tool for sustainable development and peace; and protecting the integrity of sport. 

The Kazan Action Plan, along with Commonwealth policy guidance, prioritises 10 SDGs to which sport can contribute most significantly. These are:

  • Health (SDG 3)
  • Education (SDG 4) 
  • Gender (SDG 5) 
  • Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8)
  • Equality (SDG 10)
  • Sustainable cities and communities (SDG 11)
  • Sustainable consumption (SDG 12)
  • Combating climate change (SDG 13)
  • Peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16) 
  • Partnerships for the goals (SDG 17). 

The Kazan Action Plan identifies 36 specific targets that are relevant to sport for the 10 SDGs above. Prior Commonwealth (2017) policy guidance identified 27 targets related to 6 SDGS.

A call for common and consistent approaches

The universal adoption of the SDGs and recognition of sport within Agenda 2030  provide an opportunity for sport to contribute to sustainable development and to establish common and coherent approaches across the sport policy landscape. In the past sport policy has tended to be inconsistent across, and even within, countries. For instance, Keim and De Coning found that 11 African countries had basic sports policies and legislative arrangements, but there was considerable variance between countries. There was also a clear need to improve the implementation of these policies, develop international reporting protocols and create specific indicators to monitor performance. 

One factor that contributes to these inconsistencies is that organisations in sport for development and peace (SDP) identify with this movement differently from other (traditional) sports practitioners. The latter may deliver sport in a community setting but be unfamiliar with terms such as sport for development and peace or sport and development and related rhetoric, though they may use sport for broader development outcomes. The SDP term (and related terms such as sport for good, sport and development and sport for social change) are now variously applied. Descriptions range from talk of a separate “SDP sector” – suggesting a fundamental distinction from the wider sports sector – to the more modest use of the term to describe a set of good practices or methodologies that can be applied successfully by any practitioner using sport within a development context. The confusing use of terminology can often lead to unclear or convoluted policy discussions. 

Nonetheless, the SDGs and associated targets provide a global framework and a clear opportunity for the sports sector to clarify its role in international development and maximise that role. Creating common tools and shared protocols for measurement is key to doing that successfully.

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