Measuring the contribution of sport to SDG goals and targets

Measuring the contribution of sport to SDG goals and targets

This section outlines a global initiative that seeks to measure the contribution of sport to specific SDG goals and targets.

The start of the 21st century saw sport playing a greater role in international development, with sport being touted as a way to support the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). More recently, the 2030 Agenda identified sport as “an important enabler of sustainable development”, recognising:

 “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” (United Nations, 2015). 

This marks a significant opportunity to build on the momentum of the first 15 years of the 21st century and enhance the contributions of sport to sustainable development. Improving systems for measuring the contribution of sport, physical activity and physical education (PE) to development is an essential foundation step towards realising that potential. Doing so also means a broad range of stakeholders must be mobilised, and sport policy must be integrated within the SDG implementation mechanisms.

While the sport for development and peace (SDP) sector has grown significantly in recent years, the breadth of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs means that they are relevant to stakeholders from the entire sport sector, across public, private and civil society actors, including but not limited to SDP. 

Find out more about efforts to measure the contribution of sport to the SDGs

Measuring policy commitment

Governments and intergovernmental agencies have recognised the need for common indicators, benchmarks and self-assessment tools to monitor and evaluate the contribution of sport to SDG goals and targets. Commitments to this were emphasised at the Sixth International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport (MINEPS VI), in the United Nations Action Plan on Sport for Development and Peace 2018-2020 and at the 9th Commonwealth Sports Ministers Meeting, among others. 

The Kazan Action Plan, resulting from MINEPS VI, includes a specific objective to “develop common indicators for measuring the contribution of physical education, physical activity and sport to prioritized SDGs and targets”. The United Nations Action Plan on SDP includes a focus to “strengthen national statistical capacity and monitoring systems to ensure access to sport-related data including through the establishment of indicator protocols”.

In response to these developments, a global initiative has been developed to measure the contribution of sport to the SDGs. This includes a wide range of actors across the public, private and third sectors, including the Commonwealth Secretariat. This has resulted in coordinated efforts to develop a set of model indicators to measure the contribution of sport to the SDGs. This includes: 

  • A theory of change for sport’s contribution to sustainable development
  • A framework for monitoring and evaluating the contribution of sport to SDG goals and targets
  • A draft set of model indicators to validate and quantify sport’s contribution to economic, social and environmental outcomes included in national development priorities and the SDGs

Find out more about the model indicators project

Challenges in measuring sport’s contributions

However, there are challenges in measuring sport’s contributions to development. This is particularly because the SDGs are more ambitious than the MDGs were, with a greater number of areas, and specific goals and indicators, to which sport can contribute. While sport can contribute to social, economic and environmental development, there are huge differences in the type and quality of data collected. Related to this, there has previously been a lack of effective and common indicators to measure sport’s contribution to sustainable development. 

Another challenge is that there are few unified international data sets specific to sport. This has hampered the adoption of common models because policymakers often have to use various sources to make an informed judgement. The process of developing model indicators to measure the contribution of sport to the SDGs and other relevant priorities helps to address this challenge. 

Theories of change may also provide support in better articulating and measuring outcomes (if any). A theory of change describes the sequence of activities that are intended to lead to outcomes and impact, thus explaining how and why change is meant to occur while recognising any underlying beliefs, assumptions and risks. Theories of change are regarded as essential for understanding the rationale and impact of any development work.

However, the sport sector has not (yet) adopted a common theory of change model, although certain actors have developed them to reflect their own organisations’ work. Select international communities of practice have developed common theories of change, but these are based on specific policy, sectoral and/or thematic areas such as sport for disability/gender equity/employment. The development of individual theories of change is encouraging and demonstrates a commitment to more rigorous monitoring and evaluation (M&E) in the sport and development sector. We provide greater guidance below on how to develop and implement an M&E framework (including a theory of change) on the contribution of sport to the SDGs.

Complexity of sport

Some of the challenges above are because of complexities that are specific to sport. Academics have highlighted that sport’s ability to stimulate some form of social change depends on a number of factors, including: 

  • The type of sport played (Adler & Adler, 1998; Coakley, 1983; Côté & Fraser-Thomas, 2007)
  • The orientations (e.g. beliefs or opinions) and actions of peers, parents, coaches, administrators (Fredricks & Eccles, 2004) 
  • The norms, class and culture associated with specific sports (Hartmann & Massoglia, 2007)
  • The social characteristics of sport participants (Hoffman, 2006; Miller, et. al 1998)
  • The material and cultural contexts under which participation occurs (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010; Guest & Schneider, 2003; Hoffman, 2006; Light, 2010; Martinek & Hellison, 1997)
  • The social relationships people make through their sport participation (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010; Theberge, 2000) 
  • Meanings given to sport experiences by different individuals or groups (Fine, 1987; Guest & Schneider, 2003; Wacquant, 1992). 

Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that sport can result in harm or negative experiences and may reinforce existing inequities related to privilege, gender and other dimensions. Thus, sport-based interventions may unintentionally score “an own goal” in their efforts to achieve change.

The structures responsible for sport, physical activity and PE within countries are also complex. There is great diversity among and within countries as to how sport is embedded in the public sector. Sport may have its own ministry, but it is often part of a ministry combined with, for example, youth, gender, culture or recreation. National ministries often have different structures to those at provincial levels. In addition, other ministries may use sport as one part of a much larger mandate. A frequent example is ministries of education, often responsible for sport and PE in schools. 

Outside of the public sector, civil society organisations involved in sport are also diverse. They include, for example, federations promoting organised sport, non-profits delivering SDP initiatives and private companies running corporate social responsibility programmes. This myriad of sport actors addresses a wide range of issues, from health and education to peacebuilding and gender equality. These issues relate to other sectors, many of which require specific indicators, further complicating the task of establishing common indicators for sport, physical activity and PE.

The Commonwealth Secretariat (2017) has identified three interrelated challenges that compound this complexity: 

  • Variances in the availability of data: There are great differences in the availability and quality of data related to sport and development (especially national data at scale – and not just data related to specific projects)
  • Distinguishing between direct and indirect contributions of sport: It is exceptionally difficult to isolate the role of sport in contributing to certain development outcomes as many sport projects involve a combination of sport and non-sport elements.
  • Limitations in relating sport-based outputs to broader outcomes and impact: many sport structures (especially those operating at scale) struggle to collect outcome and impact-based data and tend to rely on output indicators (e.g. number of participants and their demographics)

The question of impact is particularly important as this is likely to persuade policymakers and planners to focus on sport, yet the sport sector has generally struggled to show collective impact. According to Fred Coalter and other critics, many SDP actors seek “to solve broad gauge problems via limited focus interventions”. This means that actors in sport and development often seek to tackle wide-ranging and major issues such as unemployment, poverty and inequality by focusing on individuals rather than the structures and systems that caused these problems in the first place. 

One challenge in addressing this relates to capacity – some policymakers and civil society organisations do not have the resources or competencies to effectively measure impact. It is therefore vital to carry out capacity assessments, looking at whether governments and other stakeholders have the expertise and resources to measure the contributions of sport to development. This will highlight any gaps and inform the need for tailored capacity building.

Developing a measurement framework for sport and the SDGs

One way to address the challenges listed above is to develop a measurement framework for the contribution of sport policies, programmes or projects to wider outcomes. A results-based management (RBM) approach helps analyse the contribution of sport, physical education and physical activity to the SDGs. RBM allows all actors in a system to understand their contribution, directly or indirectly, to achieving results, from inputs and activities to outputs, outcomes and eventual impacts.

For further information on RMB, please consult Section 2 of the toolkit on ‘Measuring the contribution of sport, physical education and physical activity to the SDGs.

Key steps

The following steps can provide guidance in developing and implementing a framework to measure the contributions of sport to the SDGs: 

  • Build a common understanding of the role of sports in development 
  • Research how sport policy areas overlap with relevant development priorities 
  • Formulate a sport policy or strategy reflecting relevant development priorities 
  • Channel policy and strategic objectives into an implementation framework and plan 
  • Develop a sport and development measurement framework 
  • Collect data and co-ordinate analysis and reporting 
  • Formulate a learning and knowledge dissemination approach 
Developing a theory of change

A theory of change is important to understand the way your policy, programme or project contributes to its desired outcomes and impact. It is important for organisations to consider the different pathways and results chains that might lead to change, even if those pathways are not related to your work. 

Developing a theory of change is a team exercise and requires you to think deliberately about how and why change happens. It is important to be realistic and consider the wider context, including factors that you cannot control.

Figure: Theory of Change from Active Communities Network.

Establishing and maintaining a results-based M&E system

The establishment of a sport and SDG measurement framework needs to include an indicator set and some institutional capacity to manage an M&E system. The process involved in establishing an M&E system includes (Kusek and Rist, 2009): 

  • Conducting a readiness assessment
  • Agreeing on objectives and outcomes to monitor and evaluate
  • Selecting key indicators to monitor outcomes 
  • Determining baseline data on indicators Selecting targets 
  • Collecting data and reporting on M&E results 
  • Undertaking iterative evaluations 
  • Reporting findings
  • Using findings to improve project, programme or policy design
  • Sustaining the M&E system within your organisation
Moving forward

The SDGs have provided a means for policy coherence across nations and sectors, including related to sport, physical activity and PE. Developing a common framework to measure the contribution of sport to national development priorities and the SDGs is an integral step in more accurately determining the scope and scale of sport’s contribution. This will allow governments and other actors to make evidence-based decisions around investments in sport and related areas.


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