Sport and the Sustainable Development Goals



Sport as a Means of Advancing International Development

Sport and the Sustainable Development Goals

This specific recognition of sport followed an increase over the past 25 years in efforts to organize and mobilize sport towards achieving the goals of development and peace. Hundreds of organizations of various types—governmental, non-governmental, corporate, charitable, sport-based, international and local—have looked to sport, as well as to physical activity and play, to make a positive contribution towards overcoming the most enduring development challenges. The issues to which these efforts have been regularly directed include gender equality and the empowerment of women; HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention; recognition and inclusion of persons with disabilities; economic growth; environmental clean-up; peace and conflict resolution; and education. The majority of programmes have been developed for and targeted towards youth, particularly those living in the most disadvantaged nations and communities of the global South.

This uptake in “sport for development and peace” (SDP) has been accompanied by related research in the social sciences, including sociology, anthropology, history, social psychology and management. A critical mass of SDP research has emerged, pointing to the possibilities of achieving positive and sustainable development through sport. At the same time, this body of scholarly work shows the limitations of the SDP concept in both its perception and implementation, and foregrounds significant challenges in mobilizing sport in the service of sustainable development.

Possibilities of advancing international development through sport

A major goal of social science research related to SDP in recent years has been to assess the positive outcomes experienced by participants in SDP programmes. A significant amount of this research suggests that such outcomes do accrue. Providing sport-based programmes and opportunities for physical activity can therefore make a considerable difference in the lives of the world’s most marginalized people, particularly youth.

For example, sport has been found to make a positive contribution to raising awareness and helping to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. Research conducted in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, found that children who participated in HIV/AIDS education programming through sport-focused peer coaching demonstrated better knowledge of, and intentions towards, safe behaviour when compared to children who had taken part only in the school-based national curriculum. As the researchers concluded, “the sport-based approach is an effective means of communicating desirable information about safe sex behaviors to a population of at-risk adolescents.”2 Particularly in the context of insufficient public health-care infrastructure or lack of national policies regarding HIV/AIDS, sport-based programming can positively impact the fight against the pandemic.

Sport has also been shown to support gender empowerment, particularly for girls and young women who are marginalized or constrained in social, economic or physical ways. In these kinds of programmes, the novelty and even transgressive nature of girls’ participation in sport may challenge patriarchy and contribute to gender-based empowerment and greater equality between men and women.3 For example, a study in Delhi, India, found that amid deeply patriarchal social structures, sport-based programming provided an opportunity for girls and young women to acquire important knowledge related to reproductive health and to improve their confidence, social standing and relationships.4

Sport has further been mobilized as a force for peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In this approach, sport is used as a convening tool to bring together disparate groups, rebuild communities in post-conflict situations or integrate former combatants, including child soldiers. Football for Peace is a good example of such an initiative. Operated by staff and researchers from the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, the programme has used football as a convening activity to support cross-cultural interaction and reconciliation in Israel. While recognizing that the peace mandate of the project is not automatically embraced by its participants, the initiative has operated on the premise that well-managed interventions can “make a modest contribution to wider efforts to promote conflict resolution and peaceful co-existence”.5

Limitations of advancing international development through sport

In addition to the opportunities outlined above, social science research also highlights a number of limitations to the current organization and implementation of sport in the service of international development. Some of these limitations are largely self-evident. For example, if sport is to be used as a “hook” that brings young people to development programmes, so that they can subsequently be taught life skills or messages of peace,6 what happens when young people do not like sport or their interests lie elsewhere? While the promotion of the SDP sector sometimes relies on the notion that sport is universally popular, it may be the case that young people would rather engage in cultural or recreational activities other than sport. An effective SDP programme, therefore, may need to remain open to the possibility of offering diverse programming in the service of development, including dance, theatre, music or the creative arts.

Other limitations in understanding and assessing sport’s contributions to international development are more methodologically oriented. While standard, positivist research methods, such as pre- and post-tests, have demonstrated that young people’s self-efficacy, self-esteem and overall resilience and sense of empowerment often improve after participating in sport programmes, it is still notoriously difficult to assess the precise role that sport plays in such processes.7 Young people, particularly those in poor and marginalized communities, lead complex lives. Given the many influences on their social development (e.g. family, school, geography, peers, culture, etc.), stating with certainty that sport has a particular impact is challenging to say the least. This does not mean that sport does not or cannot make a positive contribution, but does remind us that measuring these results requires accounting for sport’s place within a constellation of social influences.

Another constraint of the SDP model is that the positive outcomes of sport cannot be guaranteed or presumed. While it is true that sport programmes have contributed to peacebuilding and conflict resolution, sport has also exacerbated conflict and violence, both historically and contemporarily. The violence in and around the 2016 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Championship in France is but the latest example. This is not to suggest that sport is inherently connected to violence, but neither does sport automatically lead to peace.

Finally, some of the limitations of sport in contributing to international development are more sociopolitical in their orientation. Chief among these is the criticism levied by some social scientists that, in its current form, SDP programmes teach participants the skills they need to survive amid inequality and oppression but do little to challenge or change the root causes of such marginalization.8 For example, using sport to promote and teach entrepreneurial skills to women in Uganda can support economic independence at an individual or local level, but likely does little to respond to the failure of the State to provide a basic framework for the success and health of its citizens.9 To some degree, then, macrolevel development may be beyond the scope of sport-based programming, which points to the limited reach of such initiatives.


With these possibilities and limitations in mind, SDP faces a number of significant challenges, particularly in relation to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Two of the Goals are worth attending to here.

First, while all of the development issues and goals taken up within the SDP sector are important to people’s lives, SDP has yet to address specifically or forcefully the problems of environmental degradation and global climate change. There are some well-known SDP programmes that have an eco-friendly mandate; for example, the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Nairobi, Kenya, runs youth football leagues in which participants earn points in the league table for collecting garbage and contributing to the clean-up of Mathare. Very few organizations that fall under the SDP banner, however, have taken up climate change as their primary development issue. For the SDP sector to be a relevant and significant contributor to sustainable development, it will have to establish stronger connections to environmental issues and to combating anthropogenic climate change.

Second, while the conceptualization and rhetoric underpinning SDP continues to draw on “the power of sport” as its basis, it is becoming more difficult to ignore the fact that such power is not always used in positive ways. International sport, particularly at the elite level, continues to be marred and tainted by corruption, financial mismanagement, doping scandals, violence and environmental degradation. Clearly, if sport contributes to or exacerbates such problems, it cannot be seen to be making a positive contribution to sustainable international development. This is not to say that all forms of sport are embroiled in such problems. Nevertheless, the world’s premier sport organizations, including the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the International Olympic Committee and the National Basketball Association in North America, now support or organize SDP programmes, suggesting an increasing connection between elite sport and international development. Therefore, rather than believing that sport’s global profile and popularity will necessarily contribute to development, advocates of SDP may need to hold international, elite sport to account by calling for ethical standards or reforms that would better position sport in the service of international development and peace.

In conclusion, the growing and increasingly institutionalized field of Sport for Development and Peace suggests significant opportunities for the world of sport to make positive contributions to overcoming the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. Research in the social sciences, however, shows that positive results are far from guaranteed. Therefore, the time is right to move beyond the question of whether to use sport for international development and think more about how to do so in the most equitable and sustainable manner.


1. A/RES/70/1, para. 37. Available from

2. Glyn C. Roberts, Cyprian N. Maro and Marit Sørensen, “Using sport to promote HIV/AIDS education among at-risk youths in Sub-Saharan Africa”, in Sport for Development, Peace and Social Justice, Robert J. Schinke and Stephanie J. Hanrahan, eds. (Morgantown, West Virginia, Fitness Information Technology, 2012), p. 156.

3. Martha Saavedra, “Dilemmas and opportunities in gender and Sport-in-Development”, in Sport and International Development, Roger Levermore and Aaron Beacom, eds. (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 124-155 (136-137).

4. Tess Kay, “Developing through sport: evidencing sport impacts on young people”, Sport in Society, vol. 12, No. 9 (November 2009), pp. 1177-1191.

5. John Sugden, “Teaching and playing sport for conflict resolution and co-existence in Israel”, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 41, No. 2 (June 2006), pp. 221-240 (221).

6. Oscar Mwaanga, “Sport for addressing HIV/AIDS: explaining our convictions”, LSA Newsletter, No. 85 (March 2010), pp. 61-67.

7. See Fred Coalter, Sport for Development: What Game Are We Playing? (New York, Routledge, 2013).

8. Douglas Hartmann and Christina Kwauk, “Sport and development: an overview, critique, and reconstruction”,  Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol. 35, No. 3, (August 2011), pp. 284-305.

9. Lyndsay M. C. Hayhurst, “The ‘Girl Effect’ and martial arts: social entrepreneurship and sport, gender and development in Uganda”, Gender, Place and Culture: a Journal of Feminist Geography, vol. 21, No. 3 (March 2014), pp. 297-315.

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