Football match in Favela Moinho São Paulo, Brazil
Residents of the Favela Moinho in São Paulo dispute a football match Ninja Midia/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Can sport really change the world?

Sport: not a word that often comes up in discussions about the changing landscape of aid and development. But Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) deserves serious consideration.

Sport has been largely absent from discussions about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It’s not that there’s opposition to SDP, it just doesn’t really register on the aid and development radar. The general feeling seems to be that it’s a lovely idea if you have the time and/or interest, but that it doesn’t really count as “proper development”.

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Perhaps I’m being unfair? Sport is recognised as a fundraising tool: celebrities admirably sweat away at awe-inspiring feats of sporting endurance and raise huge sums of money for excellent causes; charity race places have long been a staple of many fundraising strategies; sports stars are embraced as charity ambassadors; and at a project level sport delivers photos of smiling children, beautifully capturing “hope amid uncertainty” and “lives transformed”.

But by limiting our consideration of sport to fundraising targets, celebrity endorsements and marketing material, we’re missing an opportunity to approach SDP in a more informed, strategic and integrated way.

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.

– Nelson Mandela

It’s not just about using sport to enhance aid and development programmes, it’s also about exploring how we can encourage the global sports industry to back development efforts, and how major sporting events can protect and promote the rights of vulnerable groups. It’s about how we use the “universal appeal” of sport to engage the billions who watch, play or work in it to better understand their role as global citizens.

A serious consideration of sport could allow for joined-up, innovative, creative, cost-effective approaches to engaging disenfranchised young people in some of the world’s toughest contexts; forging new multi-stakeholder partnership and allowing us to learn more about when and how sport can contribute to the new development goals.

Of course, sport is already having an impact. Across the world SDP programmes are sharing health messages, enhancing education initiatives, promoting inclusion, building cohesion, strengthening resilience and raising awareness of universal rights. Donors, corporates and sports bodies are actively funding SDP and there are ground-breaking advocacy campaigns around rights respecting major sporting events.

But we are just scratching the surface. Imagine what could be achieved with a more joined-up approach.

The 2030 Agenda recognises sport as an important enabler of sustainable development, but we will fail to realise the potential of SDP unless we work together to better integrate it with other areas of aid and development.

The scale of the issues facing the global community – the largest youth population in the history of the world, the growing escalations in conflict and unrest, the increasing inequity, and the promise to leave no one behind – means that we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to explore new ways of working and that includes a serious consideration of SDP. Nelson Mandela saw the potential in sport, let’s not ignore it.

The Bond Sport for Development and Peace group is meeting for the first time on Thursday 24 March 2016. Bond members who would like to attend can sign up on My Bond.