Sport can reach places where other aid and development programmes struggle. So why are we ignoring it?

MParamasivan headshotMel Paramasivan (@melparamasivan) says she was ‘that kid who was always picked last’. But now she is the Communications and Fundraising Manager at the Sport for Development charity International Inspiration, who are credited for all the pics in this piece.

“Oh, that’s nice” was the patronising response from another delegate at an international women’s rights conference when I explained how sport is being used to engage out of school girls in Kenya in financial literacy programmes. ‘Nice’ is how I would describe the canapé I was eating at the time, not the life-changing experiences of young women now in education, employment or training and finding alternatives to early marriage and motherhood.

The Sport for Development (S4D) sector remains a backwater within international development yet playing sport can overcome almost every discriminatory label and engage and sustain the attention of children and young people in settings less formal and intimidating than a four-walled classroom. Where other interventions fail, sport provides a platform for interactive learning – as when football was used as a way to teach young boys about the importance of girls’ rights and to teach young girls about their own rights. And that’s without mentioning the obvious direct benefits in healthy lives and well-being.

Inclusion sport_BangladeshSport does not leave people behind and as people with disabilities face the challenge of being included in mainstream development, sport can break cycles of exclusion and segregation. In the Bahir Dar region of Ethiopia, sport has enabled people with disabilities to take on responsibilities and leadership roles. Eighteen year old Taye Asfaw went from ‘observer to player’ when the Sport for Inclusive Development Programme was launched and is now managing the local youth centre. The partnership between S4D charity, International Inspiration (IN) and local community organisation the Leonard Cheshire Foundation is a trailblazing integration of sport into community-based programmes, so successful that the model is ready to be scaled up across the country.

Sport is a second chance for those who have slipped through the cracks because of circumstances beyond their control and brings marginalised groups together to tackle the inequalities and injustices they face. Sport creates a special culture of unity and is omnipresent – you may not yet find clean water in every community in the world, but there will probably be a football match going on. So why has sport gone missing in development?

My colleagues have debated the issue extensively: how can sport become recognised in the SDGs? How can we get sport into the mainstream development agenda? What is the role of sport post-2015? My view is that sport will remain on the side-lines until the international development sector recognises the importance of culture and diversity.

Development culture’s stiff upper lip

Sport is a dramatic break from development tradition because it challenges conventional thinking that has largely excluded Girls in sport_Kenyaculture. International development has been shaped by great minds, but so far, they have all come from the fields of economics and politics. There is more to life (and the lives of poor people) than that, which is where sport comes in. Sport symbolizes the kinds of power shift we need both within communities and in development. The scale of work undertaken by S4D organisations does not rival even the smallest UN body or INGO; instead organisations work autonomously and independently, understanding and addressing local challenges. In Kilifi, Kenya (the canapé story) sport has shifted power from local chiefs and community elders to young coaches and girls.

Is sport just a middle-class distraction from the serious business of raising income levels and fighting for civil rights? To borrow from Bill Easterly – we need a little cynicism, sometimes – is S4D just a bunch of planners pursuing a grand vision of thousands of smiling children kicking around footballs? Absolutely not – it didn’t start with a UN bureaucrat with Development for All in one hand and a whistle in the other. The sector rose from the ground and has shifted, split and changed direction in twenty years of great contestation, of trial and error to develop models to work within existing structures that use sport and achieve development. Organisations like IN now look to move sport from an isolated intervention to being accepted as a mainstream development approach.

Sport is not the answer to everything (of course); sport is a means not an end. It is not a farming programme that directly produces food to address hunger, or an energy initiative to provide fuel, but it isn’t an afterthought either. There are, after all, lots of other development interventions that are more means- than ends- based.

Sport can also play a role in the bigger ‘grown-up’ stuff like political reconciliation and social cohesion – Lord Seb Coe argues it could help heal the wounds of the Paris attacks.

We’re all in this together

Sport has the potential to bring a strong and significant shift not only in development culture but how we talk about development and culture. The SDGs, like sport, come with a lot of jargon but at the heart of both are game changers and goals. To turn a blind eye and not offer a hand to sport is to ignore the kid on the side line, who could be a champion and inspire others. But we’ll never know unless we give them a chance.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


8 Responses to “Sport can reach places where other aid and development programmes struggle. So why are we ignoring it?”
  1. David Hudson

    Great post, Mel. I dare say that sport is one of those blind spots because (as you said) of the serious intellectual credentials of most development people. Too many nerds. But also it probably bumps up against cultural values of many on the liberal left: suspicious of competition. The same type of problems mean we miss other important (to everyone else) things such as faith. I’m sure we can add a whole list of other unusual suspects. Great post, thank you.

  2. Jo Kelly

    Well said!!! Great piece and great to hear about the activities of International Inspiration in this field. Skillshare International also doing amazing work through sport in South Africa, Burkina Faso and Mali – empowering the most marginalised and tackling issues such as exclusion of people with disabilities and tacking HIV. Equally moving this approach into mainstream development in other countries – brilliant to hear about these projects.

  3. Tess Newton Cain

    Maybe it doesn’t need to be ‘mainstream’ (not sure I really know what that means) – if it’s doing all the things that we think are important in development – promoting inclusiveness, enhancing community cohesion, improving health and wellbeing, building confidence and (not mentioned here) assisting state building then what does ‘mainstreaming’ really add? People aren’t going to stop playing football just because there isn’t an SDG about it.

  4. One Goal

    At the One Goal campaign, we, too, believe Sport can and should play a vital and critical role in Development. As you’ve stated so well, “sport provides a platform for interactive learning” and has “obvious direct benefits in healthy lives and well-being.” One Goal’s global partnership of sporting bodies, NGO’s and organizations representing child health, Sport for Development, and improved nutrition worldwide seeks to combine those two concepts to drastically improve child malnutrition in the Asian region–through the power of football and its 1.4 billion fans worldwide. We are encouraged by International Inspiration’s work and other’s who are pressing forward in the Sport for Development sector. Thank you for this post. (

  5. Steve Fleming

    Hi Mel. Thanks for this interesting and thought-provoking post. I think the biggest thing holding back Sport for Development is a belief among those both outside and within the sector that it is a nice, fluffy activity that exists somewhere on the fringes of the sports industry, detached from its copious influence and wealth. The farming and energy examples you give – in these instances they are part of their wider industries – structured for social good, but a part of the system, which is essential for them to succeed. Sport for Development, however, may be affiliated with the sports industry, but is kept at arms length, by those in the industry such as clubs and federations who often have high quality programmes, but for whom it is nowhere near a core business, and by those within S4D who don’t do enough to challenge the status quo and push for systemic change. So many times we see NGOs gushing when a famous sportsperson donates a shirt or a club pays a visit to our projects – of course this is part of the game we have to play, but really is that all we expect? On the flip side we are frightened to venture into the sports industry ourselves or to embrace anything which might be seen as compromising our social goals, when actually this will enable us to leverage far more social change than we can do by floating around the edges. I believe we need to disrupt the system by showing there are different models for running competitive and financially viable sporting clubs and organisations, where social change sits alongside or even above owner profit or shareholder value. Then I think sport actually can be a means to an end. We are trying to make this happen at Kick4Life F.C. in Lesotho where we are a Premier League football club, but exclusively dedicated to social change –

    • Mel Paramasivan

      Hi Steve,

      I want to respond to your comment directly, as I think you raise very interesting points (thank you also for taking the time to share them).

      I think the term ‘sport for development’ is widely used to describe activities that support both sport development and development outcomes through sport, despite producing different outcomes. This interchangeability means that S4D sits both outside of sport, as you point out, and international development. It is here S4D has a unique opportunity to become better recognized and supported within both spheres.

      You’re right in stating that there are no defined structures in the field and this is where organisations really have to define WHY it is what they do, work back from there and push for definition within either space and for partnerships that value the outcomes. I shared that International Inspiration seeks space within the development sector because it moves to support non-sport organisations deliver their development programmes by using sport, thus raising the profile of sport as a tool that can bring about sustainable change. I am interested to see how the Kick4Life model works at occupying space in both.

      Ambassadors is a wider conversation but yes, there should be more to it than this, otherwise S4D will stay on the fringes of both sport and development and that will be the only takeaway for anyone outside of the field!

      I remain skeptical that sport can be a means to an end, but this is outside of the S4D sector too. I wonder if M&E systems capture the right data to support the why of our work and if we shouldn’t be looking more towards the long-term impact of sport and school attendance or employment opportunities.

      Thanks again for sharing your views.



  6. Mel Paramasivan

    Hi all,

    Thanks for your comments!

    David, thank you for flying the academic flag. When I studied Intl Dev (as has become best practice), I felt that there was very little focus on culture and the issues I saw in the field had no voice when learning of neo-liberal theories and intl agendas. The reaction I got at uni around S4D was similar to the conference, which is perhaps also a reflection of how S4D orgs talks about themselves too.

    Tess, the idea of mainstreaming sport is to see sport employed as an integrated approach to dev and build upon the work of S4D orgs have done thus far. S4D work needs greater recognition outside of the S4D field to support partnerships with bigger actors to increase impact. No work in the dev sector should be motivated simply because there is a UN call for it and sport can continue, but integrated, it has the power to forge great partnerships to bring about the global change we all want to see.

    Jo and Steve, thank you for adding your experiences. I know of both Skillshare and Kick4Life as I worked for SCORE in South Africa (2010-2012) and shared an office with Coaching for Hope! Thank you also One Goal, all great orgs doing great work!


  7. Karine Teow

    Dear Mel,
    Thanks for making this point. There is definitely so much potential in the SDP (or S4D) field and studies asserting and researching why it may be a positive tool with of course as every tool its limitations.
    I think one of the main issues with sport however is exactly what you mention the fact that you had negative first experience and that in school we learn sport skills which are important for motor skills and movement however the emphasis on competition and performance looses a lot of supporters. I know a lot of people who tell me they do not like sport however, they are happy to go on a bike ride, swim or just play a new game.
    In implementing SDP and in order to be respected we have to go beyond speech or statements that sport is a positive tool and show our impact concretely on the ground and convince people through experience. Too many people have heard Nelson mandela or Koffi annan’s quote and may agree but are left with limited competencies to implement it in the field. In working in the SDP field we have to learn to distinguish ourselves from solely performance and incorporate the educational aspects of SDP, making sport and its rules accessible and emphasizing the social educational dimension. With Peace and Sport we have developed a tool for this reason which can be downloaded for free on our website ( in the hope it can be of use and support this initiative further.