SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
September 26, 2011
In grassroots programs involving tens of thousands of participants around the globe, visionaries are using athletics to tackle the most pressing problems of the developing world—from AIDS in Africa to violence in Rio. Can such projects make a lasting difference, or is the dream of salvation through sports too grandiose? SI senior writer Alexander Wolff set off on a yearlong journey to find the answer
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September 26, 2011

Sports Saves The World

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Fast-forward to 1987, to Kenya and the Eastlands of Nairobi. A Canadian environmental worker named Bob Munro looks on as a handful of kids play with a soccer ball made of discarded shopping bags tied with bits of string. "Clean up the field," Munro tells them, "and I'll give you a real ball." Soon Munro launches the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), a soccer league with a blunt message: If you do something, MYSA does something; if you do nothing, MYSA does nothing. To join elite teams, players must pledge to perform thousands of hours of community service together each season. Those who organize cleanups, counsel peers in AIDS-prevention activities and coach or referee younger kids become eligible for scholarships. Teams can't take a field unless they clear it of trash—but earn points in the standings for doing so. Today MYSA, which is owned and run by the youths themselves and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and '04, touches 25,000 young Kenyans at any given time with nested-in-sport programs in community building, health education and environmentalism.

Kidd points out that the recent rise of SDP coincides with the fall of apartheid as much as it follows from the efforts of Koss and MYSA. Activists who had led the international sports boycott that helped bring down the South African regime—Kidd among them—essentially asked, "What do we do now?" They rallied to the answer that came back from their allies in the new Africa: "Help us build sport."

Today even those in sport's sunlit uplands are responding to that cry. When he stood before the IOC in Singapore in 2005 to deliver the final pitch for London's 2012 Olympic bid, Sebastian Coe pledged millions in aid for SDP to benefit 12 million people in 20 countries. The IOC chose London over Paris, Moscow, Madrid and New York City in large part because of that commitment to "legacy." In its winning bid for the 2016 Olympics, Rio also distinguished itself over rivals such as Chicago with a superior commitment to grassroots sport. With the most recent World Cup and Commonwealth Games having taken place in South Africa and India, respectively, and the next World Cup and Olympics ticketed for Brazil, a legacy component for the developing world is the new normal for major global events.

But Kidd is among many students of the movement who sound cautionary notes. "It's woefully underfunded and highly uncoordinated," he tells me. "And it's completely unregulated and largely isolated from mainstream development efforts." At international conferences dedicated to SDP, delegates from the developing world complain about Westerners who parachute in with things that aren't wanted or needed. As Right To Play spearheads the handoff of responsibility to locals, such as a 500-person team in Liberia led by a former refugee who first encountered SDP in a displacement camp, Kidd credits Koss with leading a move away from "a top-down, we-know-what-you-need approach with First World volunteers."

Before the Brazilian national soccer team visited Port-au-Prince in 2004 to play its Haitian counterparts, organizers proposed offering free tickets to those who turned in a firearm, only to cancel the plan at the last minute out of security fears. Even so, without a long-term violence-reduction campaign, such an event would have been a one-off with limited impact. "More attention has to be paid to context," Kidd tells me. "It's got to be sport plus. Sport plus education, sport plus health, sport plus peace-building." For all its networking and digital platforms, SDP's biggest challenge may be coordination. "In Zambia, I saw kids in slums who'd been trained five or more times by different NGOs, while just outside the city there was nothing," Kidd says. "NGOs aren't just fighting for donors, they're fighting for kids."

Or as Eli Wolff of Brown University's Sport and Development Project, who also coordinates the International Sport for Development and Peace Association, puts it, "There's been this boom, lots of networks and groups, but not really a professionalization of the field. There's no credentialing process or quality control, the way there is for teachers or lawyers. And there's the question, Is it effective?"

It's a familiar demand in sports: Show me the numbers. Is a program actually creating a positive outcome or just coinciding with it? "Because there's so much evidence that participation is a good thing, it's easy to assume that programs work," says Amy Farkas, a former sport-for-development specialist with UNICEF. "It's a lot easier to simply justify your program's existence than to do the hard work of justifying the impact of the intervention. That's why all sport-for-development programs need rigorous monitoring and evaluation."

Kidd believes the clamor for M & E, as it's known, can be taken too far. "People who have personal trainers, who choose schools for their kids based on athletic opportunities, tell us, 'Prove it! Prove that sport has benefits!' " he says. "That's where Johann has made a huge contribution. He continues to argue on the rights-based front."

But practitioners of all types recognize that funders are increasingly insisting on proof of results. "You're tempted to do sport for sport's sake, because it's fun," says Miles, the Grassroot Soccer executive. "We like it. But you have to show donors the outcomes."


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