The United Nations values sport as a vehicle to improve lives in disadvantaged communities and promote peace, but it is grass-roots programs rather than mega-events such as the Football World Cup that make the difference.
“With vast sums spent on the month-long World Cup tournament, there is a perception – fostered by FIFA – that it also brings benefit to developing countries, but that is not the case,” says UTS Associate Professor of Sports Management Dr Nico Schulenkorf.
“Hosting the World Cup might lead to better sporting facilities and upgraded infrastructure, but research shows there is no automatic flow-on effect to improved social and economic conditions. It is only when sporting programs are combined with specific social initiatives that benefits are seen,” he says.
Associate Professor Schulenkorf recently attended a United Nations meeting on leveraging sport for development and peace, at the UN headquarters in New York, as part of preparations for the 73rd UN General Assembly in September.
The meeting brought together 10 experts from around the world to examine key research, good practice and policy implications for sport’s role in achieving sustainable development and peace-building at a local, national and international level, for a UN Secretary-General’s report.
The report will include an update on the implementation of the United Nations Action Plan on Sport for Development and Peace, and a review of the contribution of sport to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.
Sport is a key drawcard for young people and while traditional programs focus on skill and talent development, the UN’s aim is to harness sport for its wider sustainable development goals.
These goals include eradicating hunger and extreme poverty, improving health and wellbeing, increasing access to education, fostering peaceful inclusive societies and protecting the planet from degradation.
Associate Professor Schulenkorf’s research focuses on both the design of sport-for-development projects and measuring the effectiveness of those projects in relation to social, economic, cultural and health-related outcomes within and between disadvantaged communities.
He has been involved in sport-for-development and health promotion programs in countries such as the Pacific Islands, Sri Lanka and Israel, working with local and international NGOs, government agencies, sport associations and ministries to implement and evaluate development projects.
“In the Pacific Islands there is a high level of obesity, with related health problems. In this situation sport is used not only to address health problems through physical activity, but also to communicate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and social wellbeing,” says Associate Professor Schulenkorf.
Promoting peace in divided societies is another area where sport has shown impressive results on a community level. Associate Professor Schulenkorf has helped develop peace-building projects in Sri Lanka, with Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities, and in Israel with Jewish and Arab communities.
“In Israel there are neighbouring communities that don’t engage, and in Sri Lanka we have had a quasi civil war situation. Sport provides a common element, and this allows for meaningful contact and engagement, so that social networks can develop,” says Associate Professor Schulenkorf.
“Those partnerships are longer and sustained than those made at a World Cup event – they are not experienced for a few weeks but for years. What makes a difference is targeted programs that aim to achieve specific development outcomes from the outset and not those that magically hope for legacy to arrive.”