Sport for development and peace: It is time to step up the support or be ready for its demise
From booming to mainstreaming to long term sustainability and then, instead from survival to a possible demise. This could be the trajectory facing sports for development and peace in a post pandemic order.
The last decade could have been properly defined as an era where sports for good-related activities boomed with thousands of great programmes being set up at grassroots levels. Many corporate sponsors had started stepping in, providing the much needed financial support that is indispensible in order to run impactful programs on the ground. Globally the sector achieved a much higher level of visibility; several supporting organisations like Laureus Sport for Good had emerged providing technical and financial support that allowed the flourishing of many meaningful experiences that helped sport for development and peace to expand among the most vulnerable populations around the world, helping putting roots where the needs were the greatest.
The creation of an online resource centre, a platform like sportanddev.org, surely contributed a lot, not only in the dissemination of best practices from all over the place, but also it played a key role in creating a sort of community of practitioners; persons from all backgrounds sharing a common passion, a common love. Finding a donor or a sponsor, even in a developing country, could not be defined as a “mission impossible”.
After all, sports for development and peace programmes are reasonably cost effective, often leveraging the power of volunteers; individuals ready to donate their time and skills for something meaningful. Do not get me wrong, please. I know firsthand how hard is to run a sports programme centred on volunteers and certainly it is not free of costs but in comparison with many other approaches, sports for development and peace can be managed with little resources and big sacrifices on the part of the organisers. If the will exists, of course!
Many local, small organisations were able to scale up in numbers and geographical areas of interventions. Others, for example Coaches Across Continents, found a fantastic working approach that helped them to become global change makers. Others, especially in the developed world, got significant corporate partnerships that allowed them to professionalise and scale. Some of the biggest professional sports leagues, for example the N.B.A. soon started leading the pack with a strong community programme on the sidelines. Now literally not only all the professional sports leagues but almost all professional teams, have embraced some forms of sports for development and peace components. Many of their fans and many local organisations at community levels have benefited vastly from this engagement. At the same time, another picture unfolded: many organisations, especially in the south of the world, started struggling to go beyond their initial stage of development. After the initial euphoria and success, they got stuck with little funding and few skills.
For many of them an organic pathway to growth proved impossible also due to lack of understanding, on the part of local authorities and local stakeholders, of the social impact that sports for development and peace can have on communities, helping solving many their problems.
While I was thrilled at the great programmes being developed worldwide, I have always been worried about long term viability of the smaller programmes. I was worried that some great work could not be sustained over a long period. The closing of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) was a disappointment for many. Instead of expanding and leveraging the good work done by the office through the years, practitioners from all over the world suddenly found themselves without an interlocutor, a representative at the highest levels of the United Nations system.
Given the politics that marred the Olympic Committee in the past and especially given the dysfunctions of many national committees, few people were excited by the changes proposed in the global “administration” of sports for development and peace programmes. Yet many were hopeful that our foundations were strong enough so that the movement could continue to grow. The Sustainable Development Goals offered a great framework to leverage the impact of sports. Therefore many small organizations, struggling day in and day out, remained optimistic that more opportunities would arise for them. These kept advocating for more support, technical and financial, for a space to grow and get nurtured, enabling them to finally consolidate and scale.
Equally important the social business approach had started taking over, replacing financial dependency with self-sustainability. I personally advocated for more resources to the sector. I always thought that not always and not everywhere the social business approach can work but surely I could see a potential on it but also I could see a need to create expertise, to help grassroots activist to think and act more business-like.
I have been dreaming for a global fund for sports for development and peace, providing technical and financial support to the smallest organisations. I have been hoping for major donors to step up their commitment, not only with mini grants but with bold endorsements that would have seriously helped many organisations reach out to more beneficiaries.
While it is too early to forecast the consequences of the pandemic on the sector, surely our future is at stake.
With less funding available, the smallest among us are at risk of extinction while many others, even those already consolidated and with large professional staff, could dramatically cut down on their programmes. The Sport for Good Response Fund proposed by a coalition of grant-making organisations to weather the ongoing crisis could offer a template for the future.
The challenge is to expand this initiative, bringing on board more donors, corporate and the official development assistance of many wealthy countries. Pitching in more convincingly the philanthropic world, the big foundations that so far have been staying away from us, could be very critical too. I am not talking only about funding but also about expanding the skills and expertise of all of us involved in the sector.
What about a global academy? What about more fellowship and mentoring programmes? Right now we have the tools and the experience that can prove we are making a difference and our work counts.
A post pandemic world should not be one where sports for development and peace was a trendy, nice thing of the past, but rather a key component of the reconstruction. The world would be better with more sports for good.