This page explores the connections between policies related to sport, sustainable development and physical education.

Social policy refers to a course of action that benefits individuals and society at large. It recognises the fundamental rights of people everywhere, and often targets marginalised groups to help promote equal opportunities and social welfare, particularly for less-advantaged people. 

Policymakers need to understand that access to sport (and physical activity/physical education) is regarded as a universal human right, enshrined by the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1959), the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport (UNESCO, 1978), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1990), the Olympic Charter (Olympic Review, 1998) and the Geneva Conventions (1949), among many other international, regional and national commitments. Despite these commitments, the right to sport is often referred to as “the forgotten right” (United Nations, 2005) and policymakers need to ensure this is not the case.

The distinction between national and international policy

National policy refers to policies that governments adopt in their own countries. It is up to national governments to develop sport policies that encourage better school activity programmes, place more emphasis on sport within health policies, wider participation in sport among the general population and coordination between different actors to promote the use of sport in multiple areas. The fourth point (promoting the use of sport in multiple areas) is often the most neglected, even though there is increasing recognition that sport can address a range of social challenges. National policies are often influenced by civil society and sometimes by international organisations, who advise governments on how to address the development goals of their country.

There are major differences between countries when it comes to policies related to sport. For example, research by Marion Keim and Christo de Coning (2014) in 11 African countries found that all had basic sports policies but there was considerable variance between countries. The authors also pointed out that the existence of a policy does not always mean effective implementation and that effective systems to monitor the success of policies were often lacking.

In addition, only a minority of countries have specific ministries for sport. Sport is often incorporated into the remits of other ministries, such as education or health. This causes further differences between countries and is one of the reasons for differences in the extent to which sport policies are aligned with wider development policies.

Definitions of international policy are a bit vaguer. For example, foreign policy takes place in the international arena but normally pursues a particular country’s national interest. Should we consider that as international policy? 

For the purpose of this section, we define international policy as rules, conventions, treaties, action plans and similar commitments that are made by countries, sports federations or other bodies in different locations working together to agree on their terms. They may or may not be legally binding. They are often formed by intergovernmental organisations, working groups and networks. Examples relevant to sport and development include UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport (CIGEPS) and the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Sport for Development and Peace unit. 

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) are the most prominent current global agreement affecting international development. They are an example of where international policy intersects with national policy. The goals are intended to be implemented in all countries, regardless of their development status. 

Agenda 2030, the outcome document which contains the SDGs, recognised sport’s role in addressing them: 

Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development. We recognize the growing contribution of sport to the realization of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect and the contributions it makes to the empowerment of women and of young people, individuals and communities as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.

The sport and development sector widely viewed this as a success and it was the result of lobbying from the International Olympic Committee, sportanddev and others. However, some also expressed disappointment that sport was not mentioned in the goals, targets and indicators. Thus while the recognition of sport is positive, there are no dedicated commitments to sport in the SDG framework.

The Kazan Action Plan is the most important document related to the SDGs, while the Commonwealth Secretariat has played a leading role in advising governments and the wider sport and development community on the topic. For more information, read our page on the role of policy in sport and development.

Policies promoting and protecting the right to play sport

There are many examples of policies that protect and promote citizens’ right to play sports. One of the first international instruments linking physical activity and education was the “Declaration on the Rights of the Child” published in 1959. The International Charter of Physical Education and Sport later declared access to physical education as a fundamental right in 1978.

In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrined children’s right to play and became the most widely ratified international human rights treaty. Since then, similar documents have been published as the understanding of the importance of this right has continued to evolve. The Children’s Right to Play and the Environment, for example, ensures play and physical activity are considered a basic right for children around the world. 

Physical education

In addition to sport being considered a right, there is a focus on physical education in schools as a basis for developing lifelong participation in sport. According to the UNESCO World-wide Survey of School Physical Education, in most countries, there are either legal requirements for schools to have physical education on their curriculums, or it is generally practiced. However, there are huge differences between countries in terms of quality and quantity. Legislation differs between countries, some students may not have access to regular quality physical education and the time allocated to physical education is in decline in some countries.

UNESCO published the Quality Physical Education Guidelines for Policymakers as a tool to reinforce the implementation of physical education in national policies. In addition, the first policy area of the 2017 Kazan Action Plan is Developing a Comprehensive Vision of Inclusive Access for All to Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity. It provides guidance to policymakers on, among other things, how to improve the quality of PE and maximise its potential to act as a tool for reaching social objectives.

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This section was developed in partnership with The Commonwealth.