Moving sport and development beyond the perennial defensive mode
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Girls playing at Women and Girls wellness center at the Tsore Refugee camp, Homosha Woreda, Assosa Zone, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia
It is time to explore practical ways through which we can stop being perennially defensive about sport and development work.

Navigating the complex, and often conflicting, relationship between mainstream elite sport and the sport-and-development (S&D) sector has been a challenge for academicians and practitioners involved in the field. While the mass appeal of elite sport helps to promote the work of Youth Sports and other S&D organizations, global issues such as institutionalized corruption, organized doping and human rights violations affect the legitimacy and public perception of S&D. Moreover, there are instances of those with ulterior interests co-opting the “sport-for-good” narrative, whereby objectives related to performance, public image or profit are portrayed as social development.

Advocates of S&D have long pitched for conceptualizations across a “single continuum” rather than an ideological categorization based on the context in which organizations operate. While this seems practical, it has pushed the sector into a defensive mode. Academic literature and practical resources have disclaimers that convey sport “could” lead to positive outcomes for “some” participants in “certain circumstances.”  This becomes necessary to shield S&D from programs that use sport but serve ulterior motives or simply reinforce structural barriers.

However, this defensive mode can be a source of frustration for those grassroot practitioners who have witnessed genuine progress over a long term. It also undervalues the need for an ongoing critical evaluation of the work conducted. A dogged reluctance to move from the realm of “good could happen” to “good will happen” leads to a sense of creative stagnation and moral roadblock that fails to capture the imagination of the public. Going by the popular cliché “attack is the best form of defense,” could there be a way to move beyond this dead-end?

Here are a few pointers to initiate a discussion:

New nomenclature

Through “sport” and “development” (in myriad combinations), the sector has sought to establish itself with two words that have been historically ambiguous. Sports, as we know it today, has not been completely stripped off the veneer of neo-imperialism and paternalistic racism that continues to shroud it. In varying contexts, sport has inspired a celebration of the human spirit as much as it has enabled the colonization of the human body; it promotes ideals of inclusion as much as exclusion or exploitation. Similarly, development as a word is characterized by multiple contradicting conceptions, with vast differences in the way it is understood and applied across the world.

In this context, it might be worth exploring new nomenclature for the sector – something that coveys the universal essence of play and can be easily distinguished by all. Perhaps indigenous cultures and languages from across the world could lend words or catchphrases. Once a broad consensus has been reached, related nomenclature could be creatively derived for key aspects of S&D work, which in turn will lead to renewed clarity and collaboration.

Guiding principles

While it is understandable that organizations use a variety of methods to meet their objectives, accepting them all under a common umbrella of “sport-for-good” does not fortify the credibility of the S&D sector. An individual entrepreneur seeking only to build private virtue, a government in need of a cover-up for human rights abuses and a volunteer group coming together to support young refugee children on weekends may all use sport in some form, but will employ vastly different methods to design, implement, evaluate, and propagate about their programs.

Given this reality, S&D work ought to be acknowledged within a framework of certain guiding principles. The principles could endorse universal virtues like equality, cooperation and justice, while giving primacy to participatory methods of program development that are rooted in the participants’ own analysis of constraint and empowerment. Such principles will ideally serve as a basic guide on ‘how’ programs ought to be designed in S&D. They will not only help to hold accountable those operating purely with ulterior motives but will also prompt well-intentioned entrepreneurs and organizations within S&D to become more participant centric.

Inclusive research paradigm

Much like the rulebooks of Olympic sports disciplines, most of the research and documentation within S&D have been developed by those in the Global North. This has inevitably led to a glaring absence of localized interpretations of the impact of S&D programs. To be fair, this issue has been acknowledged by the research community and there are efforts being made to promote diversity of narratives.

Broadening the research paradigm should not only be about academic opportunities for individuals representing diverse communities but also involve a push for research methodologies that enable knowledge production built on participant experience. This will in turn provide the means to develop resources or toolkits that can help to design and evaluate S&D programs in a more authentic manner. Such knowledge will also propagate an awareness of the rights of participants and help them be more vigilant about projects that merely seek to exploit their short-term involvement.

Building an S&D alumni network

For a sector that prides itself in having engaged millions of young people through active participation opportunities, it is unfortunate that the role of  ’empowered’ past participants in documenting, critiquing, and re-shaping S&D methodologies has been limited. The S&D alumni, with their lived experiences of colonization/decolonization, of racism and tolerance, of intersectionality and inclusion, of displacement and integration, of struggle and hope, can better serve the sector with their authentic epistemological interpretation of the programs in which they took part.

This limited presence of alumni voice hasn’t been a matter of deliberate strategy on the part of the S&D stakeholders, but more about the lack of forums/projects that engage them. In that regard, it would do wonders to the S&D community to create such opportunities in the future. Work in this direction could be initiated through simple seminars or media documentation projects. Moreover, there could be more focus on enabling the alumni develop their own projects as that will bring a great deal of credibility and legacy to the sector.


Learning Design Consultant (Freelance)
Bengaluru, India


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