Safety and sustainability through demand-led projects
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The people that are affected by crises, including refugee women and girls, should have the power over where donor money goes and how decisions are made in.

To what degree can sports projects with displaced women and girls be successful if those communities do not have power over those projects? This is a question I confronted after I was forced to leave Syria when conflict broke out in 2011. I had been working for a local organisation that used sports to help Iraqi refugees, women in safe houses and other underprivileged groups; I worked mainly with girls and women.  

With the onset of war, it was even more important to keep the projects running, but we immediately faced several structural issues with the development sector in our attempts to help. Donors had predefined projects and there were significant costs attached to working through risk and due diligence requirements. Further, collecting data on what was happening on the ground was designed to meet the requirements of external, mainly Western based supporters.

These are essentially the same challenges as outlined via the outcomes of the World Humanitarian Conference in 2016 and recently in a report published by the Centre for Global Development. But for women and girls to safely join sports projects, there had to be community ownership – both men and women locally had to buy-in, which is in opposition to what aid architecture dictates. This buy-in was essential especially in the context of the Middle East, where apart from the wealthier classes, sport is not viewed as a female activity, especially if women and girls can be seen to be doing sport in public view. Gender separation is also normal, and these attitudes are held by both men and women.

One of our main projects was in al Raqqa, Syria. It was an area that faced an influx of internally displaced peoples. The pre-existing network of sports trainers meant we had an in that was not imposed on to communities. To continue our work as being reflective of what the community wanted, we asked the community what changes they wanted to see and designed a demand-led methodology, based on participatory decision making, in partnership with Greaterthan, a consultancy that specialises in implementing participatory decision making.

Demand-led projects

The trainers we supported had a long history of working with children, negotiating access to training spaces, ensuring they had the right paperwork to allow them to operate in ever-changing and sensitive political contexts and more. They were community nodes with a wide network at grassroots level as well as with local bureaucrats. They could use their position as both male and female trainers to access a broad spectrum of women.

This access was feasible due to the organic nature of how sports trainers could use their unique position as role models and nodes to reach into the wider community. Trainers knew their students, they were invited to family dinners or to drink tea. The time spent in the simple act of getting to know people was one of our strongest assets. These relationships meant trainers could reach out to mothers, aunts and older sisters who were willing to speak honestly about the troubles they faced in their daily lives and what they wished they could do for their children and their societies.

I was invited to iftar* by my students” - Amr, capoeira trainer, Al Raqqa Syria

Access to wider community wants can otherwise be disrupted by a perception of the questioner being an outsider or a member of an elite group from within that community (elite capture), or because of capture of foreign NGO money by political elites who tend to be men and who want to use those funds for purposes that do not necessarily reflect the goals of women and girls. Foreigners who do not speak the local languages for example, can often only access members of a community who speak English. These translators may come from a certain class or group which do not have access into other grassroot communities, thereby retaining a glass ceiling when it comes to who gets to access Western donor money.

To ensure the analyses were rigorous and reflective of the wider community, we used different data points as well online analysis tools. Based on this process, we gave needs-based support in designing sports projects for women and girls that the community chose. This ensured buy-in, which is crucial to the safety and security of female students who are living through conflict, many of whom are displaced and who would otherwise face further threats to their physical security, if seen to be engaging in activities that were viewed as against local mores. 

To also meet the systemic challenges around how donor money and decision-making can happen, with regards to women and girls living in areas of conflict who are displaced, we invested in an online platform. This platform addresses the pain points the development sector faces as a whole. Now in its beta version, we aim to reduce the gorging of time taken up by Monitoring and Evaluation, Risk and Safeguarding and financial reporting, allowing all of us to get on with the pressing work of ensuring quality and sustainable development work.

Our aim is to ensure people affected by crises are positioned to have power over where donor money goes, how decisions are made and have the ability to change it up when things do not go to plan. For displaced women and girls to safely access sports projects, they and their communities need to have the power to decide.

*Iftar is the breaking of the daily fast as celebrated by Muslims during the month of Ramadan.


Ummul Choudhury is the CEO of Capoeira4Refugees and the Co-Founder of FrontlineAid.

sportanddev published this content as part of our partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.


Executive Director


Middle East
All sports
Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
10 – Reduced inequalities
Target Group
Girls and women
Displaced people

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