The sports ecosystem requires reforms to support refugees
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To fully realize the potential of sport, which has been so far one of the most effective tools in providing physical fitness and mental well-being to refugees, sports programs should be tailored to local needs.

Help a Child is an international Christian humanitarian organization founded in 1968 in the Netherlands. The organization provides a future for children in need, their families, and their communities, regardless of their social, political, religious, ethnic, or economic background. Help a Child has been operating in South Sudan for more than 10 years, responding to vital humanitarian needs with a focus on protection, food security and livelihoods, and peacebuilding for children and communities affected by conflicts and natural calamities.

Help a Child developed and adapted the use of an indigenous sport called Boruboru in its community/child-led protection and peace-building campaigns in 2020, after ascertaining the immense need for strengthening social interactions, increasing child-led protection and social cohesion, especially in hard-to-reach communities and areas characterized by conflicts such as Pibor, Tonj North, and South. Boruboru is predominantly played by girls and women. In most of the conflict-affected communities and IDP camps, women and girls are highly respected because they are not active conflict actors.

To design an effective and transformative sports program, it is paramount for sports organizations to conduct comprehensive contextual conflict analysis, not only to understand the local context of conflicts but also to comprehend the nature and root causes of the main conflicts or crises that forced the refugees into the refuge. Understanding the conflict context and the factors that divide and connect the population will enable partners to design and tailor sports programs that will address specific needs related to strengthening social cohesion, psychosocial support, life skills, and social inclusion.

For instance, through the use of the local South Sudanese sport Boruboru, Help a Child has been able to foster development, inclusivity, and gender balance in sports, promote peace, and equip players with essential personal life skills to enhance learning and retention. In the program, Boruboru is played by girls, while boys play basic roles in organization and management. This tool was designed based on the fact that most conflicts in South Sudan are being perpetrated by men and boys but girls and women have often been the victims of such crises and conflicts. Hence women and girls become critical community-based peace agents.


What needs to change?

1.       Need-driven sports programming: Sports for development and peace must be developed based on specific and contextual needs aiming to transform and achieve outlined objectives. If sports projects are not tied to identified needs, their intentions can easily be watered down to recreation without any skills to retain.

2.       Choice of the type of sport for a particular context: The types of sports should be clearly and carefully selected to reduce the likelihood of negative impacts. For instance, in communities where the youth are involved in dividing the communities, playing male-dominated football competitions between the two conflicting communities could easily provoke confrontations and violence.

3.       Creating community-based advocacy platforms: Sports should create platforms for stakeholders, especially those involved in influencing the changes the sports aim to create. For instance, if the sport is aimed at creating awareness about gender-based violence and child protection, the different stages of the sport should create platforms for stakeholders, implementing agents, local and traditional authorities, children, and parents, so that they can hear from the participants and educate the public about critical policies.

4.       Personal/life skills development: Implementers of sports programming should extract all the necessary skills that sports teams require to be able to win in a match and then develop them into a pre-sports campaign life skill. In all sports, teams have to undergo a series of trainings and rehearsals to prepare themselves to win a match. Those skills are not only relevant in sports, but they are practical life skills young people need for shaping and building their personal careers.

5.       How Boruboru sport empowers its participants: In Boruboru sport for girls, Help a Child developed the following key skills that are being used to transform and empower the participants to excel in their sports, detailed in the image below. There are several stages at which short-, medium- and long-term changes can be measured with clear indicators. 


What are some key actions/changes required to realize the potential role of sport in  collectively responding to refugee situations globally?

1.       Sports for development and peace programming should be incorporated into national development policies of all countries affected by crises and the governments should fund sports activities tailored for humanitarian and development initiatives.

2.       Sports for development and peace should be separated from sports for recreation and economic development in terms of processes and deliverables, so that implementers can measure results for different sports events.

3.       Donors should create special funding for sports for peace and development. Currently, sports are simply considered as cross-cutting humanitarian needs but not as a standalone project, despite the enormous benefits.

4.       There is a need to develop and promote typical local sports like Boruboru because sports developed based on local knowledge have illustrated significant positive changes in the lives of participants.


Oliver Michael is the Program Manager of Help a Child South Sudan and the director of Boruboru.