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Guest Columnist: Can A Ball Change the world? Yes… it can

Sports today are nearly everyone’s global obsession, but did you also know that they are also a new trend in international development? Donor agencies from Sweden and Norway along with the United Nations and sports outfitting companies like Nike and Adidas, have all joined the “Sports for Social Change” movement. Sadly, most donors – like most sports fans around the world – haven’t taken advantage of the excitement this new phenomenon is generating. However, this game is just beginning…

In addition to the millions of dollars we spend on bags of rice and cooking oil to throw at the world’s poorest communities, why not throw them millions in soccer balls and sports programs as well? In the service of economic development, why don’t we make a serious effort to harness the power of sports?

To make this point, allow me to introduce Jeremy’s Top 6 Reasons why donor agencies – and sporting types everywhere – should add “Sports for Social Change” to their development (and charitable) playbooks:

1. Sports are empowering: Most sports begin with chasing a ball “Sports for Social Change” projects encourage youth to also chase their dreams and PLAY, like in Rules of the Red Rubber Ball. Sports enable youth to think positively about their futures, and encourage teamwork as a way to accomplish big things. Whether as an individual and as a team member, sports are empowering.

2. Sports programs are pro-health: In addition to obvious fitness benefits, sports also increase psychological health. Research has shown that impoverished youth who play soccer feel they have an opportunity to rise above crime and delinquent behavior. Don’t just take my word for it – check out an increasing array of scientific evidence from groups like the International Platform for Sport and Development. Sports are good for body and spirit.

3. Sports programs are intuitive and fun: Young people around the world may not be able to discuss the intricacies of development economics, but give them a soccer ball and they know what to do. People can relate to sports, and through the platform of sports, they can be exposed easily, naturally to important messages that can make their lives better. After all, would most kids go voluntarily to a lecture on nutrition? Of course not. But if they got nutrition information was part of their team training and if messages were repeated during league games, well…

4. Sports make sense to funders: Many development schemes seem unusually complicated. Terms like “sustainable development” just don’t resonate with people outside the development biz. However, nearly everyone PARTICIPATES in sports. That makes it easy to understand how young girls in Africa are learning about HIV/AIDS prevention on the soccer pitch.

5. There are sports funders out there: From the Mia Hamm Foundation to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, sports come with the star-power and the financial resources that can take an initially small project to large scale. In fact, nearly every big-name sports star in the US or Europe has some sort of charitable presence these days. Moreover, there are big-name, big earning sports stars from the developing world who can – and are – willing to put in some of their money. For a sports star, what could be more natural?

6. Sports are unifying: Long term development depends on working together. Especially in the many communities rebounding from conflict, sports – limited, rule-based, for-the-fun-of-it competition – provides a new, positive alternative model to conflict and violence. Sports can bring old enemies together. Successful basketball programs for youth in South Africa and sports teams comprised of Palestinians and Israelis show that the language of sports is universal. As they say, there’s no I in team… and as it turns out, no I in development either.

So by now I am sure you are convinced. But if there are such clear benefits to Sports for Social Change, why have donor agencies been so slow to encourage and fund these programs?

Probably the most commonly expressed concern is how to effectively monitor and measure the impacts of these programs. Donors want to know “How does a community playing soccer stack up against a group that doesn’t?” Fortunately, there are new advances in programming that are addressing just these issues.

Last month in Nairobi, Care USA and Nike launched a public-private sports for development partnership, establishing a network for East African sport organizations to share and document the best practices of Sports for Social Change. The partnership will collect data to show in specific terms how and where sports help further the cause of development. As part of the plan, the partnership is using the proliferation of new media, the Internet marketplace and ePhilanthropy to support its work and share results.

And, at the grassroots level, monitoring and evaluation is, if anything, easier. Going to the field and talking with young people and communities about their sport experiences provides a wealth of information. As the Global Youth Partnership for Africa (GYPA) has seen in Uganda, youth will tell you that they are more likely to attend programs because sports are now a part of the curriculum. Improved attendance rates directly indicate a measure of success. Groups like GYPA, Grassroots Soccer and Playing for Peace are working together to add real-life stories to the broader data picture.

So there you have it. The game is on. Are you ready to get on the team?

Well, if you’re wondering where to start, the Internet is a good first stop. Check out the Homeless World Cup (HWC), which this year celebrates its 5th anniversary of bringing together the world’s homeless for a week of soccer for social change. Look at the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, which uses soccer as the vehicle for education and leadership development for young Afghani girls and women. The program received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s 2006 ESPY Awards. But, it doesn’t end there…

Thanks to new media tools like blogs and YouTube, sports for social change have gone beyond the old organization-to-organization setup, and can now be a real person-to-person experience. I can tell you firsthand that blogs helped us bring a team of young Ugandan men and women to the Homeless World Cup. In the six months leading up to the HWC, the Ugandan players and coaches posted diaries and streaming video on the Katalyst Consultancy blog, building a network of supporters that played (and continues to play) a significant role in the success of the Uganda program.

Sports work.And through today’s new technology every fan can get involved.The time has come to recognize Sports for Social Change as a legitimate development tool, and provide the funding to take this to scale.Starting with the donor community and reaching down to every one of us that laces up a pair of sneakers or picks up a bat or racket.

All it takes is a little funding and we will see. It’s time for all of us to get in the game. A ball can change the world…

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