Sports projects risk losing development focus

Sport is increasingly used as a means to achieve peace and development in vulnerable parts of the world. Sport has an ability to attract many people through its popularity. But despite intentions to contribute to the fight against HIV / AIDS or peace talks, the focus instead risks ending up in competition and achievement. Maybe we place too much faith in sports' contribution to global development? It writes Niklas Hafen, PhD in sports science.

Sport is constantly in the spotlight when it comes to addressing various societal problems. Ill health in the form of overweight and obesity is combated, among other things, with prescription physical activity and through increased resources for sports and health at school. Association-based sports are also believed to keep difficult young people in check and socialize them into well-behaved and responsible citizens.

The societal merits of sport can in many respects be considered trivial, especially since it is often about counteracting typical "in-country problems". What has become a trend, however, is the interest in the merits of sports in other parts of the world. The historical background to this is, among other things, the "development optimism" that developed within the framework of the Truman Doctrine after the Second World War. The doctrine involved an action program launched by the United States to help those then called "third world countries" to develop and achieve the same prosperity as the Western world. A later example is the UN Millennium Development Goals. On an overall level, the goals were to create increased awareness of the needs of vulnerable people around the world. What is interesting is how sport was highlighted as an important means by which some of the goals were considered achievable.

Difficult to put intentions into action

Confidence in sports within the UN is summarized in the slogan Sports for Development and Peace - the deliberate use of sport and physical activity for the purpose of achieving peace and social and economic development in vulnerable parts of the world. Examples of this wave of sporting philanthropy are initiatives where sport is used to counter the spread of HIV / AIDS and to create peaceful coexistence among people in conflict-affected countries. In Scandinavia, Norway is the country that has been most involved in this type of relief effort, but there are also examples from Sweden and Denmark.

In my doctoral dissertation, I investigate two such initiatives: a Swedish and a Danish football project in South Africa and Moldova, respectively. The Swedish project aimed to reduce the spread of HIV / AIDS among young women, and the Danish project aimed to bridge a conflict between two ethnic groups. Although the efforts have good intentions, it has often proved difficult to put them into action. Research has also shown that some initiatives tend to advocate competition and achievement instead of focusing on the societal challenges that the initiatives aim to draw attention to and solve. All in all, this indicates that in several cases there is a gap between theory and practice.

The purpose of my dissertation has been to investigate this by analyzing whether the stated intentions of current initiatives are in line with the measures that are being implemented. One of the conclusions is that they often do not. Both the Swedish and the Danish football project are communicated as relief efforts in which sport is only a means, not an end in itself. From my observations, however, the opposite is clear: that the main goal is the development of football. The activities are dominated by competition, training and performance, not by the fight against HIV / AIDS or peace talks. This results in two fragmented projects, where both intention and direction of travel seem to have been lost.

Contextual adaptation can counteract development goals

The question is how this difference between theory and practice can be understood. In my opinion, it can be explained with the help of two interacting factors, one athletic and the other organizational. The global appeal and popularity of the sporting phenomenon is so strong that it becomes difficult to balance this with more overarching societal goals. In other words, it can be difficult to not focus on the sporting dimensions even in activities that ultimately have other goals. At an organizational level, the difference can be explained by the fact that organizations often have to deal with different environments and that they sometimes, both internally and externally, have to adapt their activities to conflicting demands from these environments - not least to gain legitimacy. In addition, legitimacy can vary depending on the context, and as a result, companies must adapt their strategies to the conditions prevailing where they operate.

The efforts I have studied can simply not take for granted that the same reasoning that gives the projects legitimacy in Scandinavia - that they fight various forms of social problems - gives legitimacy in South Africa and Moldova. On the contrary, it is possible that an excessive focus on the countries' problems in the form of HIV / AIDS or conflicts between social groups in these countries is perceived as provocative and critical, while efforts to strengthen domestic football can reasonably be met with greater goodwill. The efforts have therefore developed two parallel legitimacy-creating strategies: one in Scandinavia and one in South Africa and Moldova, respectively.

The difference between theory and practice that emerged in my dissertation can thus be seen as a consequence of the fact that current efforts must maintain legitimacy in different environments by satisfying different kinds of requirements. This is necessary for the initiatives to be implemented, but risks leading to the initiatives losing focus on development goals.

Although relief efforts that use sport as a means would benefit from further scrutiny, there are probably few other social and cultural phenomena that have such a large impact on people around the world. Sports are often simple, easy and cost-effective and can thus be integrated into people's everyday lives in a smooth way. The big challenge lies in finding a balance between the purely sporting and the ambitions to solve major societal problems through sport. If you succeed well with this, there is a lot of positive to build on. The need for more studies in the field is thus great.

Niklas Hafen

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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