Sport for Development and Peace

Sport for Development and Peace

Sport and HIV/AIDS

I have been avoiding posting this for a while because at this point my thoughts are still not clear. But I just finished my first soccer coaching workshop and thought now is as good a time as any. This post basically describes what I am doing in Lesotho. If you are only interested in reading about travel stuff – food, music, dancing, etc then this post might be a bit boring.

The concept of sport for development basically stems from the idea that sport can have some sort of positive social contribution. The thinking is that we can use sport to achieve a number of social objectives ranging from health and educational objectives, to peace and community building, to human rights and issues of equality, to post-disaster relief - I have not checked, but if you Google ‘sport for development’ and Haiti I am sure you will find a number of organizations using sport for some form of post-disaster relief in Haiti. I know that there were sport NGOs operating in South East Asia immediately after the tsunami. Whether these objectives can be achieved through the use of sport is a topic for another time.

What interests me at this moment is the organizations that are using sport to reach health objectives. It interests me because I am currently involved with such an organization – Coaching for Hope. Coaching for Hope is a training organization that works with local soccer coaches. They are partnered with the English FA and deliver football coaching courses that combine technical football coaching and HIV/AIDS education. The idea is that the local coaches will then go into their community and work with youth on football and on HIV/AIDS prevention. HIV/AIDS and sport seems like an odd combination, but for organizations working in this field it is very common. Right to Play, Kicking Aids Out, Grassroots Soccer, and Coaching for Hope are all examples of this. A cynical person might say that this awkward combination is the result of fishing for funding. A more optimistic person might claim that sport offers a way to reach segments of the population that may not be responsive, or have access to, traditional educational approaches. I am a little bit of both.

Frequently, the use of sports for HIV/AIDS education is often clumped together with the claim that these programmes are teaching life skills through sport. My official title for the project I am involved with is Football and Life Skills Coordinator. It makes me cringe a little bit. For some people it is a given that sport can help develop life skills. However, trying to decide what aspects of sport benefit what people and then applying those aspects to completely different cultures becomes incredibly difficult. Are the life skills I learned playing for the Campbell River Youth Soccer Association equivalent to the life skills that youth in Lesotho will gain? Through sport are the skills gained by a middle class Canadian the same as the skills gained by children who are living in extreme poverty, possibly orphaned because of HIV/AIDS, possibly HIV positive themselves, possibly raising younger siblings, and possibly having to earn an income to support themselves?

Maybe I should back up a bit and try to define life skills. It is a very ambiguous term and I think that is the reason why a lot of people will just naturally assume that sport can help develop life skills. UNICEF categorizes life skills as communication and interpersonal skills, decision making and critical thinking skills, and coping and self-management skills. To teach a skill you need to provide someone with knowledge and then they need to be able to apply that knowledge. This is where I have a huge problem with life skills. I believe that sport can teach these skills, but if it is done so without recognizing the context in which the life skills are used then it is basically useless. I might be complicating things a bit, so I think it is easier if I relate a newspaper article I read during my first week in Lesotho.


The story is about the rape of a 16 year old girl by a man who is HIV positive. The headline itself is probably common, but what struck me was how the man tried to defend or justify what he did.

“I admit that I chased and stabbed her with a knife. She consented to sex because she was scared.”

His defense was that he did not rape her because she consented to sex as a result of him stabbing her.

This is where I feel there is a disconnect between the programmes that teach life skills and the cultures in which they are working. This girl could have received the best life skills training in the world. She could have known everything about HIV, but she is in a culture in which she is not able to implement those life skills. If a girl can be raped, if a wife is not allowed to refuse sex with her husband, if a women does not have the power to demand the use of a condom, if a young man is so poor that he has to focus on earning enough to feed himself, then what can life skills education hope to achieve?

I am not arguing against education. Obviously education is necessary and it has results when targeted at appropriate populations. Whether that education is the responsibility of international sporting NGOs or the responsibility of the government and the educational system could be a topic for another time.

I guess my main point is that the focus on using sports to develop life skills or to change individual behavior is a distraction. If a person is able to change their behavior, but that behavior is not accepted by the community or is not able to be practiced because of differences in power then little good has been done. Is it possible instead for these organizations to focus on the bigger issues?

Can sport be used to challenge traditional gender roles and norms?

Can sport be used to empower marginalized groups to seek equality?

Basically, can sport foster social change within a culture?

April 22nd, 2010

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