How can civil society actors, grassroots sports organisations and others help shape sport and development policy?

Apart from intergovernmental organisations, governments and sports federations, smaller institutions can play an important role in influencing policy. Some of these include grassroots sports organisations, schools, community groups, universities and other actors which advocate for policy change. 

Civil society

According to the World Bank, civil society refers to “a wide of array of organisations: community groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations and foundations”.

Some of the roles of civil society include working directly with beneficiaries to help them have their voices heard, advocating on behalf of citizens and partnering with the public sector. In many cases, civil society organisations publish papers with recommendations based on their research, which policymakers take into account. 

Well-designed policies are based on participatory processes, which may include civil society organisations. Those organisations have knowledge that can be useful in formulating policy, including on how to monitor and evaluate impact. They may also have data showing the results of different types of programmes that can be useful for helping policymakers decide how best to allocate funding and resources. 

One example in sport and development relates to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Physical Education and Sport (CIGEPS), which has a Permanent Consultative Committee (PCC). Civil society organisations are members of the PCC, alongside prominent sports federations and UN agencies, providing technical support and advice. The PCC had a role in helping to formulate the 2017 Kazan Action Plan, ensuring that different types of expertise were included in the process.   


‘Advocacy’ typically refers to an action by a group of citizens, organisations and/or associations who aim to create or amend a specific policy. Advocacy in this sense means organised, persuasive communication or lobbying, directed toward policymakers.

Many advocacy groups exist at the grassroots, and rely on support from the public as well as from NGOs in order to reach decision makers at the top. Once the proposed idea reaches policymakers, it is their job to present the idea for consideration. The advocacy process is vital in making sustainable, institution-level change.

Advocacy plays an important role in sport and development. The most notable advocacy efforts are from organisations who already have strong access to policymaking processes and policymakers. For example, the Commonwealth plays an important role in advocating for its member states to use sport in development, while the International Olympic Committee, which is a permanent observer of the UN General Assembly, was credited with helping to get sport mentioned as “an enabler of development” in Agenda 2030. 


Many NGOs also advocate for sport and development, but those efforts are generally most effective as part of networks. These are often organised thematically. The Centre for Sport and Human Rights, for example, brings together sports federations, governments, civil society organisations and others to promote a world of sport that fully respects human rights. The International Safeguarding Children in Sport initiative promotes the use of its eight safeguards to ensure projects and policies prioritise children’s safety. 

Grassroots sports organisations also contribute to policymaking. The Sport and Recreation Alliance is a group based in the UK who “work with Government, policymakers and the media to make sure grassroots sport and recreation grows and thrives.” It provides evidence on the value of sport and recreation and supports the All Party Parliamentary Group for Sport.

Other networks aim to bring together organisations working on a variety of topics to coordinate on common interests, including on the policy level. That often means advocating for greater investment in sport and for sport to be used more comprehensively in development. That includes national-level networks, such as the Sport for Development Coalition (UK and Ireland), as well as sportanddev, which is a network of more than 1,000 organisations that has, among other things, helped raised the visibility of sport and development and promoted collaboration between different stakeholders. 

The need for greater coordination

The United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) closed in 2017. The UNOSDP represented the sport and development sector at the UN level and at the time of its closure some expressed concern that it would lead to the decline of sport on the policy level. 

The UNOSDP’s portfolio within the UN system has been given to the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, which has provided some reassurance, although its mandate is much wider than just sport and development. UNESCO continues to play a prominent role and many other UN agencies incorporate sport into their work, albeit on a relatively limited level.

The UNOSDP was founded in 2001, at a time when many new initiatives, organisations and conferences related to sport were being launched. Now that it has closed, civil society organisations and other non-policy actors need to build new relationships within the UN system, find new ways to influence policy and gain better access to policymakers. Despite the existence of many networks, there is a need for greater coordination.

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This section was developed in partnership with The Commonwealth.