Soccer for Good? Sports and Development in Concept and in Africa

A "Football for Hope" Center Illustration from

We like soccer.  They like soccer.  There are huge, life-threatening socio-economic inequalities in the world—occasionally highlighted by the playing of soccer in places such as Angola and South Africa.  Put it all together and you’ve got the basic logic driving the exponential worldwide growth of hundreds of sports and development organizations trying to do some good during this year of African soccer.

Of course these organizations do not only care about soccer, nor only about Africa (the International Platform on Sport and Development lists around 200 organizations ranging from the “Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation And Recreation” to the “Zambian Chess Foundation”).  But the global popularity of soccer combined with the unfortunate image of Africa as the continent most in need of “development work” makes for a potent combination.  And while the sports and development endeavor is founded on an alluring logic and is full of good intentions, it also turns out to be much more complicated—and interesting—that it first appears.

My own familiarity with the good intentions and complicated reality of trying to use sports for good comes from personal experience.  Starting with a youth soccer program in the hollowed out inner-city of Detroit, to a Peace Corps stint facilitating school sports in Malawi, to youth soccer in Chicago public housing developments, to sports programs for refugees in Angola, to coaching soccer teams of immigrants in both Seattle and Portland, I’ve tried my hand and found it worthwhile despite many frustrations and disappointments.

But lately I’ve shifted my efforts away from practicing sports and development towards analyzing it—evidenced by a recently published academic article about the history and diffusion of development through sports in Africa.  As is the cruel and glacial pace of academia, however, it took nearly two years for that article to go from submission to publication, several previous years of work getting it all together, and now (presumably) I can look forward to years of it wallowing in total obscurity.  But then there is this blog, along with this year where soccer in Africa is on the world’s radar, and hopefully a few thinking fans wondering about whether the game can do any good.

Anecdotes and Parables

One of the ‘ethnographic anecdotes’ I describe in my article comes from arriving in Angola to find a classic example of good intentions gone wrong: the NGO I worked with had tried to start a football league in a refugee camp.  It seemed like such a simple concept, such a simple way to do good: the community loved football, and organizing a league would offer a space for healthy competition and community building.  Right?  So the previous program coordinators, like me imports from North America, had spent considerable time and effort organizing a training course for coaches and a soccer league for young adults.

The not-so-simple things about that concept arose almost immediately.  Most basically, the organization coordinating the sports programs was based on a philosophy of volunteerism.  But the local residents expected to be paid.  The locals could and did, after all, play soccer all they wanted—albeit informally—without the help of an international NGO.  So if the organization wanted the resident to play by their rules, then they should pay.

Much negotiation and frustration ensued.  The message from the program – ‘this is not for profit, it’s for the life skills’ – didn’t work for the resident.  The locals felt they needed jobs more than what seemed like an arbitrary list of ‘life skills,’ things like teamwork, self-esteem, discipline, and determination that either didn’t translate or were redundant to the daily reality of refugee life.

As something of a compromise, the program coordinators agreed to buy new high-quality uniforms for the teams in the league.  The organization had initially resisted the expense as frivolous, but the participants were insistent, so the coordinators relented on the condition that the uniforms be kept in a central location.  The program had a large metal shipping crate that served as a make-shift field office, the participants agreed to store the uniforms in the crate/office, and the league began.

But it didn’t take long before the participants again clamored for compensation that the coordinators didn’t have.  Neither side could understand the other’s ungratefulness.  In protest, a group of the participants broke into the shipping crate late one night and took the prized uniforms hostage.  The league folded—useful for little other than illustrating the complications of trying to actually do development through sports work.

The locals had essentially sabotaged a league intended for their own good, which in many ways seems like a futile gesture.  But in other ways, including those of academic jargon, the sabotage could be construed as an act of ‘agency’ and ‘resistance.’  Rather than just passively accepting a league format in service of ‘life-skills,’ the residents were asserting their priorities—most of which were founded on the idea that international organizations should provide jobs and opportunities rather than dictates about how to recreate.

In my analysis stories like this are parables about the whole international sports and development endeavor—a simple idea and good intentions get waylaid by the complicated realities of socio-economic inequality and cultural diffusion.  In fact, though the modern proliferation of sports and development programs is a relatively recent phenomenon, that basic parable seems to have replayed itself through fairly regular historic cycles.

The example I use in my article is of Olympic Movement efforts to export their philosophy of “Olympism’ to Africa as early as the 1920’s—part of the Olympic charter is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man [sic].”  But early efforts to create an African Games mostly failed until the 1960’s when television money started to make international outreach a more substantial proposition—timing that coincided serendipitously with the rise of ‘international development,’ in place of colonialism, as the modus operandi of global statesmanship.

And while the international outreach in recent decades by groups such as the Olympic Movement has likely done some good, that good is hard to convincingly document.  There are many anecdotes about the power of sport, but also some criticism that large international organizations are better at hosting conferences and promoting their particular values than they are at tangible grass-roots development work.  Sports may indeed facilitate education, health, peace, etc. when done well—but so far those outcomes have proven much easier to promote than to measure.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon touts the ‘juwala’ ball (from

And now the whole international development game has also begun to shift from large scale nation building to targeted programming and the increasingly popular concept of ‘social entrepreneurship.’  The corresponding explosion of NGO’s and personality driven international charities is a perfect fit for soccer lovers, allowing small groups of committed socially conscious individuals to scheme ways of sharing the love (it is worth noting, however, that even older and bigger organizations have jumped on board—as with the United Nations program on “Sport for Development and Peace” whose head made his name as the General Manger of Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga).  Now the question is whether good intentions and a passion for the game are enough to succeed in the tricky world of international development?

Development and Good Intentions in Africa

Aside from sports, the perplexing reality is that many smart, passionate people (along with billions of dollars) have been devoted to the development of Africa for decades, yet in many ways the overall standards of living on the continent have declined.  And there are ways in which sports people may be particularly ill-suited to confront that reality—as Canadian scholar Bruce Kidd notes in an otherwise sympathetic analysis of international development-through-sports efforts:

“Sadly, the single-minded purpose and confidence that sport instills in champions, a commendable attribute when transferred to many other settings, militates against inter-cultural sensitivity and needs-based programming in development…at every single international conference I have attended, I have heard LMIC [low and middle income countries] representatives, in both coded and explicit language, publicly complain about First World programmes that were highly popular with donors but made little sense to the recipient communities.”

These kinds of constructive and critical analyses have been slowly catching up to the popularity of using sports such as soccer for international development—the academic journal Sports and Society, for example, recently had a special issue devoted to the topic, and the International Platform on Sports and Development recently had an engaging on-line debate about the broader endeavor (in the early days of that web-site I also wrote an analysis for their bulletin—but it seems to no longer be available).  So while there has been a ‘ready, fire, aim’ quality to many entrepreneurial development-through-sports programs, there are smart and motivated people trying hard to figure it out.

But there are also ongoing challenges worth highlighting in the midst of publicity around events such as the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup.  The key point here for soccer fans is that good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition for using sport for good, and here’s just a few examples:

Let’s give away our used equipment: Most of us who’ve been involved with the game for any length of time have storage closets full of old cleats, socks, shin pads, jerseys, balls, running shoes, and whatever else sporting goods companies have designed for obsolescence.  So when we see inspirational pictures of barefoot street soccer it’s natural to start collecting for a shipment.  And while used equipment often is much appreciated in communities that can’t afford sporting goods, the complication I’ve run into in several different African countries is that sovereign nations have these pesky things called customs duties.  Paying import taxes on shipments of goods often ends up being more expensive than the goods themselves, and a significant burden to the recipients.  Which is frustrating—but also based on a reasonable rationale: importing large quantities of sporting goods, or goods of any sort, is bad for local industry.  Many African countries are awash in second hand stuff from North America and Europe (it was always amusing to travel through rural Malawi and see village elders wearing t-shirts with messages such as “I had a blast at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah”), and while that stuff may help some in the short term there are ways in which it is actually counter-productive to long term development.

Let’s make sure mega-event monies trickle down to development projects: Most major FIFA competitions now include gestures towards the grass-roots game as part of international development, and that imperative is overall a good thing.  FIFA actually has an entire slate of initiatives in considers part of “social responsibility” including the somewhat vague “Win in Africa with Africa” (one of the three major undertakings they list is simply “Touch the world”) and the effort to build “20 Football for Hope Centres for public health, education and football across Africa.”  In concept these endeavors have much potential—I actually prefer when big development through sports programs focus on infrastructure—but in practice the concern is that they become political chits for the rich and powerful.  As Andrew Jennings noted last week, one of Sepp Blatter’s levers of power seems to be the way he “‘looks after’ his voters in the national associations so generously with millions of dollars for unaudited ‘development.’” (a point also noted and discussed by Tom here on Pitch Invasion)

Let’s use sports to teach ‘life skills’: The latest version of “sports builds character,” the basic idea here goes back to the famous, probably apocryphal, quote from the Duke of Wellington claiming that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”  Those of us who’ve invested much of ourselves in the game like to imagine that it has all been worth it—that success in sports somehow equates to success in life outside of sports.  Unfortunately the evidence here is decidedly equivocal.  In fact, in measures of moral development athletes seem to score significantly lower than non-athletes.  Further, in the world of international development , the assumption that ‘life skills’ translate from what would be valued in settings such as an American corporation to what would be valued in settings such as an Angolan refugee camp seems naive at best and imperialistic at worst.  My favorite example here is ‘self-esteem’—which American organizations in particular love to trumpet as a crucial benefit of sports participation.  But the notion that one’s abstract self-image should be prioritized over tangible achievement is actually a relatively odd modern invention (as is the idea the unsubstantiated idea that poverty will lead people to low self-esteem, rather than anger towards the world).  When I asked people in Angolan refugee camps about self-esteem they mostly hadn’t heard of it—one coach thought maybe it was “when people spend a lot of time thinking about themselves.”  And when I mentioned to one Angolan parent that many Americans think of self-esteem as a foundation for success in school, relationships, etc. he found the thought bizarre—isn’t it success that crafts self-image, and not the other way around?  He loved his children, but found the idea of promoting self-esteem itself quite pointless: “Where is the fruit?  Where is the future?”

Photo by Michael Mistretta at

I could go on (and may indeed do so in future posts if there seems to be any interest in these topics), but the point here is development-through-sports programs are rife with ways for good intentions to go wrong.  Of course, they are also rife with opportunities for things to go right—and whatever analyses I have are ultimately directed towards that end.  So I should be sure to emphasize that there are plenty of development-through-sports organizations doing great work, using the game well.  Two of several examples that come to mind immediately include a Ugandan program called the Kampala Kids League that I had a chance to visit in the summer of 2008, and Grassroots Soccer—which, starting in Zimbabwe, uses the popularity of the game in the service of HIV education.  One thing these types of programs have in common is deep relationships with local partners and a focus on realistic goals that are attentive to local contexts.

So the ultimate challenge, I’ve come to think, is to not be deceived by a love for the game into thinking that international development is simple: you can roll out a soccer ball almost anywhere in Africa and guarantee that smiling children will follow.  But it seems to me that too often those smiles are perceived to be enough—as if children don’t play or experience joy without the intervention of benevolent outsiders.  The problem is not that children in places such as Angola and South Africa don’t play or smile, the problem is that global inequalities too often prohibit opportunities to do much more.

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