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Sport for development; my South African experience

Photo from documentary ‘Can I kick it?’ (2010)

While studying in South Africa for one semester I was involved in a development project called “Girls and Football South Africa” (GFSA). This sparked my enthusiasm and interest for the use of sport as a tool in development initiatives and inspired me to write my Bachelor’s thesis on this topic.

By Siri Lijfering It was exactly one year ago that I left Amsterdam to go to South Africato do a minor in development studies at the university of Stellenbosch. During my studies there, I became closely involved in the GFSA project that aimed at providing girls from a township between 9 and 12 years of age, the opportunity to develop their football skills, personal qualities and self esteem ( In the past few years, several ‘sport for development projects’ have been set up in townships, but none for girls, who are considered to be the most marginalized. Due to the parents’ long working hours, the large amount of single-mother households, and the common drug and alcohol abuse by adults, children, and especially girls, are parentalized – having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for others – at a very young age which often results in social isolation. Hence, providing these girls with a safe space where they can play and talk with peers can prevent this.

As I set out on my quest to research the workings and potential of sport for development, I soon realized the ‘sport for development movement’ is up and coming. Numerous events, conferences, forums, e-debates and other meetings are being organized on this topic and in the last few years a mushrooming of development agencies with sport for development as their mandate has occurred. Also, I found out that one of these conferences was organized by the United Nations and would take place this May inGeneva. I knew that if I really was to know everything about the sport-for-development movement, I had to go there.

I was quite anxious, but even more excited about attending this significant international event. The list of participants was long and included more than 400 names ranging from NGO representatives to country representatives to university academics. My enthusiasm soon turned into deception however when it became clear that this forum was rather an occasion to publicly celebrate the sport for development movement than an opportunity to discuss and evaluate it. The slightly more critical talks and questions, posed almost solely by the academic participants of the forum, were either ignored or discarded. In fact, it even seemed any critique was out of place, as if that would mean discrediting the movement in general. I found this worrying, because if we aren’t critical, how can we ever expect to realize the full potential of sport as a tool for development? One simply has to be critical in order to improve.

The experiences from both the forum and the GFSA project, inspired me to set out on a mission to critically assess the movement from an academic viewpoint in my thesis. For this purpose I used both academic and development literature which I complemented with my own experiences in the field. What I soon realized is that the image of sport as the ‘magical solution’, exceptional in its approach to development, is built upon a number of assumptions. These form the pillars that support the movement’s legitimacy. The whole discussion whether sport is a beneficial development strategy or not is also centred on these assumptions. One example is the assumption that sport promotes partnership in development. These envisioned partnerships can be roughly categorized in three categories; between development organisations, between the Global North and the Global South, which includes the relationship with the local community, and between the development practitioners and academics.

However, although sport might facilitate the formation of partnerships in some respects, it impedes the establishment of genuine relationships in other, perhaps even more important aspects, and so -as critics duly point out- the unique ability of sport to create fruitful partnerships between different development organizations is questionable to say the least. Particularly the fierce competition organizations face to secure funding and to ‘stay in the game’ leads to a worrisome lack of cooperation and unequal power balances. As a volunteer for GFSA this aspect became more than just something I had read in academic publications; it became a reality we had to work with everyday. When approaching NGOs working in the same area and in the same domain, desperately few were cooperative and willing to share their knowledge. Most did not even respond or bluntly stated they did not want to work together. This appeared strange to me and Niki, one of the volunteers I interviewed, shared my opinion: “…if they really were all aiming for the same goal which is improving the lives of people, they would not want to compete with each other but they would work together and gather their strengths. It makes you wonder what it is they want then.”

Making a critical assessment of the sport for development movement of course ultimately leads to the question of whether sport is useful as a development strategy at all. Analyzing both sides, I did not feel I was getting any closer to finding a conclusive answer. To date, there is no consensus on the effectiveness of sport for development and it seems that for every argument in favour, a counterargument can be presented.  I found myself at a crossroads and asked myself the question: what to make of all this? It was then that I realized that we have been looking in the wrong direction and cannot provide answers just yet.  We first have to take a step back and look at the overall discussion of the workings of sport as a development strategy. Doing this, we see that the discussion is mainly ideological in nature and based on short-term, mainly quantitative, donor-driven evaluations. Measuring the effectiveness of development program-based notions such as ‘empowerment’ are not only problematic because they are non academic, ill-defined, and highly contested, but also because it implies a structural change in behaviour and state of mind, something which does not occur overnight and therefore cannot be measured on a short term basis. Consequently, it becomes evident that the current way of analyzing is not satisfactory and there are certain issues that need to be addressed in this regard.

In sum, something has to change; we need a fundamentally new approach to the subject. One aspect that needs to be incorporated, according to one of the informants I interviewed, is cultural sensitivity. According to Jos, it is the number one priority to know the community you are working in; “you have to be ready to learn and respect the culture.” Sport is perceived by the volunteers, including myself, not as a ready made solution, a blueprint that could be used in the same way in every community, but instead as a tool that has to be employed differently in every community and for which the workings are dependent on the context it is employed in. InSouth Africa for example, one has to bear in mind the legacy of Apartheid which could hamper the impact of sport on bridging the different racial groups.

In my thesis I argue that employing an anthropological perspective could be part of this solution. A shift in research methodology from being based on predominantly short-term quantitative research data to an approach that compliments the quantitative analysis with long, in-depth qualitative analysis is necessary. In this way, the workings of sport as a development strategy will be constructed on the basis of locally articulated experiences, taking the dynamic and situational nature of sport into account along with the agency of the local community. Providing the movement with a stronger theoretical base will enhance the trust and belief in sport-for-development, which is crucial for the sustainability of the movement, and will prevent it from ultimately being discarded as another seemingly good idea that just never quite made it. It is in this regard that I speak out my hopes that we, anthropologists, can make that difference!

Siri Lijfering has just finished her Bachelors degree in Cultural Anthropology and Development sociology at the VU University and now studies Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh.

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