Reshaping what we know and how we know it
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Institutional relations and emphases across SfD need to be recalibrated and there needs to be more collaborative planning meeting between NGO practitioners, community representatives, funder, and university the delivery of projects.

It is time to ask some different questions about our purposes put it into practice, if social change is to happen. Sport for Development (SfD) has evolved and grown enormously over the first 25 years of the sector’s existence. It became so pervasive that the United Nations Office for Sport for Development and Peace was created in 2001, only for it be dissolved in 2017 as more established branches of the UN incorporated sport as a tool for their own development agendas.

At present, SfD is a diffuse approach to global development challenges, as identified and outlined by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs, however, are aspirational targets. No one believes that any of them will be met by the target date of 2030, though that does not mean we should not strive to do so. Rather, the SDGs provide thematic targets that frame and shape the approach to international development in general and SfD in particular. The various UN branches and the SDGs themselves do not provide guidance on how these goals should be met; that is left to funders, practitioners, and other actors across the sector to decide.

That openness is both a strength and a concern. It is clear the emergent existing structure of institutional relationships between actors across SfD inhibit rather than facilitate actual progress toward any of the SDGs. Specifically, SfD as a sector suffers from some entrenched contradictions because of differing ethos, goals and practices of policy makers, funding bodies, and practitioners of SfD at international, national, and local levels.

A core contradiction in the sector is the conflicting individual institutional goals and practices of funders and practitioners and not at the sector level. Funders want to see that their money and resources have been well and appropriately used. NGOs and other grassroots organizations work towards local change and delivering their projects. Those disparate goals create distinct ideas about what constitutes “success” and what constitutes the evidence of any such “success.” The result is that no project in 25 years of SfD has ever “failed.” (Someone please send me a report of an NGO that had a project that failed; even better, one that did and still managed to obtain funding to deliver the lessons learned from those failures and thus providing a more informed and “better” project).

The sector is beginning to recognize that existing evidence of SfD does not demonstrate social change. The current driving principle of monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) is to evaluate the “effectiveness” of development projects through participant “engagement”. This approach meets funders’ goals but does not serve either NGOs’ goals or provide evidence that directly addresses the SDGs. Consequently, three basic challenges exist:

  1. Financial models of funding do not work towards facilitating actual social change. MEL is a central element of any project, not a drain on resources. Funders’ common stipulations that only a small percentage of any project’s funds can be used for MEL purposes defeats the goals of both practitioner and funder. Restrictive stipulations prevent NGOs and funders from achieving aims targeting change. Such restrictions are detriments if one is actually attempting to meet the NGO aims, funding organizations’ stated aims, and UN SDGs.
  2. Funders’ concerns outweigh and dominate NGO practices. NGOs achieve targets and goals that will keep that organization viable, and the goals (targets) are set by funding bodies who want to see “efficient” returns on their investments. The current approach of what constitutes evidence only reinforces funders’ concerns about their financial “investment.” The forms of evidence produced strive to show that programs are successfully delivered. Those concerns transfer to NGO practice, shaping and constraining the kinds of evidence NGOs need to produce to satisfy funders. The very terms tell us what is wrong with this structural model.
  3. Practitioners do not have time to “learn” from their own MEL, much less from across the sector. If NGOs do not have the wherewithal to actually put what they learn from delivering SfD projects into practice, then it is clear that change beyond an individual level is extremely unlikely and if it is does occur, it is by happenstance and not directed effort.

These three challenges must be addressed. Without meeting these challenges, the stated purpose of SfD – social change – will not happen, despite the best efforts of dedicated personnel. Those that deliver their programs do so with the best intentions in the world – the desire to make a difference, to change the world. Especially for those vulnerable, exploited, marginalized, or otherwise disenfranchised, those that deliver projects are changing lives on an individual level basis. The work they do is astounding. The evidence that changing those individual lives leads to social changes and addresses the SDGS is not there yet because MEL principal practices are too narrow in scope and focus.

There is a growing awareness of this situation and the beginning of some changes to how knowledge about development happens, with the increasing call for qualitative data. That change is insufficient. New tools for producing MEL are not enough. A change in the questions asked and the orientation of MEL itself is required. MEL, as it is currently practiced, reassures funders that their goals are being met. However, exceedingly little evidence is being produced regarding effective change beyond the immediate scope of program delivery.

Institutional relations and emphases across SfD need to be recalibrated. An emphatic shift in MEL will become evident when time and fiscal commitments for a project allow for a focus on what happens three, six, twelve months and more AFTER program delivery. That focus shifts MEL emphasis from “efficient delivery” and participation rates to how skills and knowledge provided are incorporated into people’s lives. To meet these needs for change across the sector requires more than organizations working together; it requires a change in the nature of the relationships between organizations working within the sector. Changing the focus of MEL requires altering the kinds of relationships policy makers, funders, and NGOs and those changes will begin reshaping and strengthening SfD in the decades to come.



Thomas Carter is a practitioner and researcher in Sport for Development and Peace. He currently directs Football4Peace International and leads the Masters of Research in Sport and International Development course at the University of Brighton. He has directed Football4Peace since 2017 whilst also consulting and working with over a dozen different NGOs around the world on their MEL since 2012.

One move is to encourage and foster greater collaboration between universities and NGOs on the ground as the Global Sport for Development Knowledge Collaborative (https://gloknoco.net/) has learned.


Does not apply
Does not apply
Does not apply
Sustainable Development Goals
16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions.
Target Group

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