Sport as a Tool for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the United Nations Millenium Development Goals

Polaris Sports
Report from the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace

Central to the United Nations notion of development is sustainable human development, which recognizes that development is more than economic growth. Development is a process of enlarging people’s choices and increasing the opportunities available to all members of the society. Based on the principle of inclusion, equity and sustainability, emphasis is on the importance of increasing opportunities for the current generation as well as generations to come. The basic human capabilities that are necessary for this are to “lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community”. Sport can directly build these capabilities.

Participation in sport has significant physical benefits, contributing to people’s ability to lead long and healthy lives, improving well-being, extending life expectancy and reducing the likelihood of several major noncommunicable diseases, particularly heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Sport also provides psychosocial benefits, such as fostering social integration and teaching coping mechanisms, as well as psychological benefits, such as reducing depression and improving concentration.

Sport further builds human capabilities by increasing knowledge and contributing to education. Incorporating physical education into the school curriculum and providing opportunities for recreation improves a child’s ability to learn, with evidence indicating that it also increases attendance and overall achievement. Sport also educates people about the body, raising awareness and respect for their bodies and those of others, critical for healthy living and prevention of diseases, like HIV/AIDS. Similarly, participation in outdoor sports raises awareness and respect for the environment, teaching people about the importance of clean and healthy environment.

Sport is also a key component of social life, directly engaging communities. It brings people together in a fun and participatory way. It helps create social relationships, build connections and improve communication between individuals and groups. Sport also mobilizes volunteers and promotes active community involvement, helping to build social capital and strengthen the social fabric.

Sport and Economic Development

While sport is essential to human development, it also contributes to economic development. The economic potential of sport is highlighted by its economic weight, resulting from activities such as the manufacture of sporting goods, sport events, sport-related services and the media. In the UK, for example, the value-added of sport activities is estimated to be 1.7 % of GDP, with sport-related turnover comparable to that of the automotive and food industries.

Beyond being an economic force in itself, sport is also a potential catalyst for economic development. A physically active population is a healthier population, improving the productivity of the workforce and increasing economic output. Sport and physical activity also provide one of the most cost-effective forms of preventive medicine, with the potential to dramatically cut health care costs.

Sport adds further to economic development by providing a cheap method of improving employability, especially among young people. By teaching core skills essential for the workplace such as teamwork, leadership, discipline and the value of effort, it provides young people with a constructive activity that helps reduce levels of juvenile crimes and anti-social behavior and, in instances of child labour, provides a meaningful substitute to work.

Sport can also be an engine for local economic development and job creation. Sport programmes provide employment opportunities as well as stimulate demand for goods and services. Sport is also an important source of public and private expenditure, such as that spent on infrastructure, during major events and on consumption. Together, these factors result in sport having considerable potential for initiating economic development.

Sport and Peace

The potential links between sport and peace are also powerful. From international events to the grassroots, sport brings people together in a way that can cross boundaries and break down barriers, making the playing field a simple and often apolitical site for initiating contact between antagonistic groups. Consequently, sport can be an ideal forum for resuming social dialogue and bridging divides, highlighting the similarities between people and breaking down prejudice.

The popularity of sport and its convening power further contribute to sport being a powerful voice for communicating messages of peace and site for symbolic public acts on the global and local levels. Sport is an effective element in community-based initiatives that aim to create sustainable peace. The skills and values learned through sport are many of the same skills and values taught in peace education to resolve and prevent conflict and create conditions conducive to peace, from the inter-personal to the international. Well-crafted sports activities teach respect, honesty, communication, cooperation, empathy and how and why to adhere to rules. Sport is a powerful way to communicate these values, especially to young people, in a way that is fun and participatory. For refugees, displaced persons, orphans and former child soldiers, sport offers a sense of normality providing structure in destabilizing environment, and serving as a means to positively channel energies.

Sport as a Human Right

Sport is more than a practical method to achieve development and peace. The opportunity to participate in and enjoy sport and play is a human right that must be promoted and supported. Sport and play are therefore not only a means, but also an end.

That sport is a human right is explicitly embodied in Article 1 of the Charter of Physical Education and Sport adopted by UNESCO in 1978. The Charter states that: “The practice of physical education and sport is a fundamental human right for all.” It stresses that every person is entitled to participate in sport, including especially women, young people, the elderly and the disabled.

Similarly, a child’s right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” This article continues, stating that not only do children have the right to play, they also have the right to the provision of the opportunity to play, requiring states t o “ encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”.

Several other United Nations Instruments also acknowledge the importance of access to and participation in sport, such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women.

In spite of these international instruments, the right to sport and play is often denied. In many cases, this is because of discrimination, particularly by gender and ability. It is also frequently due to political neglect of the importance of sport in society, exemplified by the decline in spending on physical education and the lack of appropriate spaces and resources necessary for sport.

However, the facts that access to and participation in sport and play are human rights create responsibility to ensure these rights are upheld. It places a duty on governments, the United Nations system and others to ensure that the opportunity for participation in sport and play exist, allowing all people to enjoy their right to sport and play. Download full article here. 

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