On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting this week, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) held a panel discussion about “sports for development:” using sports as a catalyst for social development. Featuring 8-time All-star baseball pitcher Pedro Martínez, NBA defensive star Dikembe Motumbo, and speed-skating Olympian Johann Koss, the panel touched on the ways sports contribute to development. Among them were: facilitating social inclusion, building youth leadership skills, connecting youth to job training programs, and empowering women and girls.
One particularly interesting component of sports for development—especially in light of the discussions this week at the UN General Assembly— is the role sports can play in peace-building. One theme echoed among participants at Tuesday’s event was the universality of sports. Longtime ESPN reporter Jeremy Schapp said sports aren’t just about elite athletes competing at the highest levels, but rather the millions of children “who play in playgrounds and ball fields everywhere [and share] a passion to play.” Johann Koss, CEO of Right to Play, a Canada-based sport-for-development organization, said his organization was founded on the principle that “all children have a fundamental right to play.” Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of USAID, told the story of kids he met at a refugee camp in Ethiopia who so craved the experience of play that they made soccer balls out of rags and used what little energy they had to score goals.
The universal quality of sports lends them a unique power to bridge social, political, economic and cultural divides, and to foster peace between individuals and groups in conflict. Sports promote shared identity and humanization of the “other”; individuals and groups who might otherwise approach one another with a lack of trust, hostility and/or violence learn about what they have in common and build relationships as they work toward a shared goal.
Wilfried Lemke, UN Special Advisor for Sport for Development and Peace, said that one of the UN’s priorities is to more effectively harness the potential of sports to mediate conflict and build peace. Some organizations are already doing this. Seeds of Peace, a U.S.-based organization with programs in the Middle East and South Asia, brings together Arab and Israeli youth, as well as young Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans to bridge ethnic and deeply-rooted political divides through sports at its annual International Camp. PeacePlayers International, based in Washington DC, brings together children from conflicting groups in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus, and South Africa to play basketball, on the belief that “children who play together can live together.” Closer to home, volleyball and soccer games in suburban Long Island are helping diffuse tensions and mistrust between immigrant day laborers and police officers.
Sports also provide an alternative to participation in gangs, especially when combined with programs that promote positive values and empower youth through other means. The IDB’s A Ganar/Vencer program, which operates in 11 countries across the hemisphere, combines soccer and other team sports with education and job training, offering at-risk youth a path to complete their education and enter formal labor markets. (To learn more about the program and the IDB’s history of involvement in sports for development, read Fabian Koss’s article in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly). In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace) uses boxing to attract high-risk youth from two of the city’s rival gangs to an after-school program that offers tutoring and job training in addition to boxing.
Today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his country’s application for full membership status in the UN and international recognition of Palestine as an independent state. At a time when the prospects for peace negotiations at the level of political leaders are dubious, the work of USAID and NGOs remind us of the great potential of sports and other cross-cultural and youth development activities for building the personal connections and grassroots momentum that are equally as critical for peace.
*Nina Agrawal is associate editor of Americas Quarterly and policy associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.