Sport-for-Development and Social Capital – Where’s my t-shirt?

From my previous posts I think it is obvious that, in my own mind, I am still trying to articulate how, or if, sport can be used to address various issues. I think that the predominant dogma within sport for development and peace (SDP) is focused on life skills and behaviour change.

(Image from Right to Play Website)

I have a hard time with these concepts. Trying to identify why people do what they do is already difficult, if not impossible, so I am slightly skeptical of organizations that believe their programmes can change behaviour.

As an alternative I am interested in a concept called social capital. I have been reading a book called ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ by Robert Putnam, which focuses on social capital. Putnam describes it as the following:

'Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.

I may be accused of being a hypocrite as I am dismissing one debatable social theory for another debatable social theory. However, I see sport as having the potential to bring people together and form connections. Sports programmes, if organized appropriately, can provide safe social spaces for people to bond. According to Putnam these social connections will ultimately benefit society. Others within development are also aligned with this. The World Bank has stated that ‘social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustained.’ However, similar to behaviour change, it is difficult to prove if sport can contribute positively to building social capital.

Until recently I did feel that SDP could play a role in building or maintaining social cohesion. I still believe that sport can accomplish this, but I fear that many SDP projects may actually hinder this process. The distinction that I should make clear is that when I say 'sport', I am referring to the common conception of locally developed community-based sports structures. By SDP, I am referring to external organizations, such as Right to Play, that target specific groups, offer resources and support, and possibly implement programmes.

Social capital requires interpersonal trust and reciprocity. It is difficult for externally driven SDP programmes to accomplish this. If anything, programmes risk creating resentment and suspicions. A recent conversation with one of the coaches I am working with highlighted the challenge. The conversation took place at a youth tournament. The coach was watching the matches, but I had anticipated that his team would be participating. He informed me that his team had collapsed and he was in the process of finding more players. I asked him what happened to his team and he explained that the problem was the result of an earlier tournament we hosted.

In July we held a small event to celebrate the World Cup. As with most events here, we had planned on distributing t-shirts to participants. As an aside, I should just say that the t-shirt culture connected to events is interesting. As an example, the English Football Association hosted a workshop here in July. They did not give out any shirts. The participants did not react well and blamed the Lesotho Football Association for taking the shirts. It became a major issue at the workshop and escalated to the point where the Lesotho Times reported on it. Anyways, through a combination of my poor planning and the last-minute involvement of a number of teams we did not have enough t-shirts for everyone at the July event. As a result we decided that the shirts would be divided up equally and given to the teams; after which, the coaches and their players would decide what to do with the shirts. The coach I am referring to decided to use the shirts to reward those players who had been the most committed and were attending sessions on a regular basis. This rationale didn’t seem to placate the parents of the children who did not receive any shirts. The parents pulled their children off of the team. They accused the coach of using the team as a means to attend these events and benefit personally. Even some of the children who did receive shirts were pulled from the team as parents believed that at the next event maybe their child will be the one who does not receive anything. I think that the collapse of the team may have also involved some other issues, but our involvement contributed to the mistrust that resulted in the team dissolving.

The fact is, SDP programmes introduce resources and opportunities into communities that may lack both. When I meet people and explain what I am doing many people will ask if they can be involved; even if they have never been involved in football and are not interested in sport they still want to participate. It is seen as an opportunity. They might receive a certificate that they can mention on their resume, they might believe that the project will expand to include jobs for which they can apply, or there might be some other way they can leverage their involvement. The problem that results is that everyone wants to participate, so in the process of including and excluding people you are creating ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This may actually foster resentment within the community.

This situation is exacerbated through the process in which SDP programmes target specific groups. Because of the size of NGOs, as well as the requirements of donors, many projects will have a narrow focus. This narrow focus is also encouraged by funding organizations and is supported by individual donor behaviour. A programme that targets orphaned and vulnerable children, children with disabilities, former child soldiers, children living on the street, or girls is more likely to get funding. This narrow focus, with particular attention to marginalized groups may be derived from our own (Western) drive for inclusion and providing marginalized groups with access to services. It is not my intention to argue against providing services to traditionally excluded groups. However, I wonder why it is necessary to target specific marginalized groups with services that are lacking for nearly everyone. Why would an organization introduce a sports programme targeting street children when almost all children lack access to similar programmes? There may be a social agenda tied to targeting the specific group, but again, this process will exclude people and create ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Will this have a positive impact on social cohesion?

In saying that I still believe sport can contribute to social capital I am referring to locally conceived, developed, and implemented programmes. If international SDP programmes want to have a positive impact I believe their mission should focus on supporting locally developed programmes and sporting structures.

Oa Hao Lipapaling (Yours in Sports)

September 25, 2010

Minibuses and Tuberculosis

I already posted some general experiences with the minibuses, but I have begun to realize that I could probably have an entire blog dedicated to my minibus experiences.

I have wanted to write about a public health campaign that seems to involve the minibuses, but am just getting around to it now. I was going to wait until I could take a picture of the slogan that is used, but have decided to just write about it anyway. A few minibuses that I have been on, including my most recent trip, have had stickers posted inside that state: Bula Lifenstere – moea o potolohe, ho thibela ho ata hoa lefu la lefuba. I think it translates to open the windows to stop the spread of Tuberculosis (‘bula lifenstere’ is open the windows. ‘Ho thibela’ is to hinder, ‘ho ata’ is to multiply and ‘lefu la lefuba’ is TB. I just don’t know what potolohe means. Moea is wind, so maybe ‘moea o potolohe’ is fresh air). TB is a pretty big deal here. I believe Lesotho is estimated to have the fourth highest prevalence rate in the world.

From my experience so far the stickers have been a waste of paper- or whatever it is you use to make stickers; paper and the sticky ingredients I suppose. People don’t open the windows, even when it is 30 degrees outside and you have 20 people crammed into a 13 person bus. I am not sure what the reason is, but when I first arrived I was told that there is a common perception that opening the windows in vehicles actually allows bad air to enter and increases your chances of getting sick. I don’t know how true this is, but from my experiences so far I do know that Basotho people do not like to open the windows in moving vehicles. Hopefully the TB people are rethinking their sticker strategy.

September 25, 2010

Good Morning Mr. John

Good Morning Mr. John

Good morning is a very popular English greeting in Lesotho. In fact it is so popular that it is used all day long. When I first arrived and people greeted me by saying good morning at five o’clock in the evening I would usually respond by saying good afternoon or good evening. Now I just go with it. Last week a Basotho guy that I was talking with finally offered an explanation. He said that it is meant to be used when you greet someone for the first time during a day. I am still not sure how this works as there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent Sesotho greeting.

Because I work with local soccer coaches, many kids in town know who I am. However, most people seem to have trouble with pronouncing Shawn. It was the same in China. John is much easier and seems to make more sense. So, on my way home from work in the evenings I am inevitably greeted by groups of children saying ‘Good Morning Mr. John’. I don’t mean to be patronizing. I am sure that when I take the Sesotho words I know and try to arrange them into a coherent message I probably produce some interesting phrases.

I think that because I was born into an English speaking family and lived in an English speaking community I took communication and language for granted. Now that I have lived in a couple of countries where English is not the medium of communication I have a slightly different perspective. I frequently delude myself into thinking I am good with languages. However, after living in a place for a few months and studying the language I usually hit a wall; a wall of silence. My problem is that I don’t talk very much. Some people would argue that talking is a fairly integral part of communication. Those same people that are biased towards talking would probably also argue that in order to learn a language, speaking is pretty important.

Even though I am more of an introvert, I think that my experiences with language in China and now Lesotho have been enjoyable. I have come to view communication as a puzzle, or a form of problem solving. Because of this, daily communication can be incredibly frustrating, but also very gratifying. Fortunately, even if I am not able to learn any other languages I will still be able to develop an interesting form of English.

So, to sign off I would like to say Good Morning to everyone.

Yours in Sports – Oa hao lipapaling

September 14, 2010

Oa Hao Lipapaling – Yours in Sport

One of the coaches I am working with came into the office yesterday and asked if I could help him draft a letter of invitation for a tournament he is organizing. Formal letters of invitations are a fairly common occurrence here and I still haven't developed the literary skills to pull off such a letter, so I suggested the coach write a draft of the letter in Sesotho and then I would print it out on my computer.

He took a couple of minutes to write the invitation and then passed it over to me. My Sesotho still isn’t that great so as I was typing it up I would only pick up the occasional word or phrase. At the end of the letter, where you have the complimentary close – such as ‘sincerely yours’ (I actually had to do a google search to find the appropriate term for this) the coach had written ‘Oa Hao Lipapaling’. I recognized this pretty quickly as meaning ‘Yours in Sport’. I am not sure if this is a common way to close a letter in other parts of the world, but it resonated with me immediately because of a book I recently read during the World Cup.

While I was travelling around South Africa for the World Cup I used the time to stock up on some books. Fittingly, I ended up purchasing a number of books relating to soccer in Africa. I read two during the World Cup – ‘Feet of the Chameleon’ and ‘Football United’.

Both were quite good. The chapters covered a variety of stories relating to soccer in different African countries. Another book that I bought, but didn’t read until I returned to Lesotho was called ‘More than Just a Game’. It told the story of how the prisoners on Robben Island – the prison that was used during apartheid to hold political prisoners – organized and ran their own soccer league for a number of years. It detailed the struggle that they had to go through to have the ability to play and then how the league itself became a political tool for the prisoners in their negotiations for better living conditions.

The league was very well organized and incredibly formal. The author theorized that the inmates were governing their soccer league the way they expected their country to be governed. All correspondence had to be done through written means, which wasn’t easy since paper was difficult to access. At the end of each letter the sender would finish with the complimentary close ‘Yours in Sport’. Before reading this book I had never come across this expression, but when I read the Sesotho version of it I couldn’t help but smile.

Oa Hao Lipapaling

September 9, 2010

Problem of Proximity - Outsiders and Social Change

The work that I am doing now means that I am cast as the outsider. Through the blogs that I read I recently came across an excellent analysis of being an outsider in international work (click here). In the post itself the author briefly mentions the possibility of local knowledge containing biases. Even before I read that post I was writing my own reflections on being an outsider and questioning the impact of outsiders on social change. In some of my meetings in Lesotho I am often confronted with local experience as rationale for supporting or criticizing an initiative – I don’t mean to imply that this is either all good or all bad. Sometimes this local knowledge is relevant and necessary, but at other times it has come across as biased or fatalistic. I have wondered if proximity to a problem develops this bias.

In 2007 I was able to travel to Tibet while I was living in China. I was there for about a month. What confuses me to this day is how issues around Tibetan-Chinese relations are such a popular cause – I suppose the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere had something to do with it. I guess I was expecting some serious repression by the Chinese, but the amount of cultural and religious practices that seemed to be preserved surprised me. I am not sure how the comparison came into my head and it may be completely inappropriate, but while I was in Tibet I started to think about the situation of First Nations people in Canada (Native Canadians/ Americans). To me, it seems that the Tibetans have been able to retain their cultural and religious practices to the same extent or even more so than First Nations in Canada - This judgement may be slightly biased because I was a tourist in Tibet and may have been exposed to more culturally relevant experiences.

I understand that it is asinine to discuss which of two oppressed groups is ‘better off’. I think this would be about as effective as a school yard argument about whose dad would win in a fight or which super hero is stronger. I am just interested in how people perceive social problems that occur within their society and within external societies.

I believe that many Canadians dismiss issues involving the First Nation population as problems that can be attributed to the First Nations themselves. These same Canadians may decry what the Chinese government has done to the Tibetans and take on Tibetan independence as a social cause.

People may be incredibly interested in issues relating to global poverty, but at the same time dismiss the homeless man situated on the street corner outside their apartment as a drug addict, or alcoholic, who is responsible for his own problems. I think I could be included as an example as well. I am currently working internationally, but I haven’t been as interested in working with similar issues in my own community.

Is it easier to join a cause that addresses an external social problem so that it is simpler to rationalize away your responsibility for, or involvement in, that social problem? If I identify local issues as societal problems then I am being critical of the society that I live in, participate in, and contribute to. Unless I am hypocritical or delusional I would need to examine my role in that society and how I may be contributing to those social problems. However, if I take up an external cause I don’t have to waste my time with any of that introspection and reflection.

If people are less likely to identify problems as societal problems then is an outside perspective necessary?I am not trying to justify or rationalize my involvement in international work, but am also referring to outside influences such as media, education, or travel

September 7, 2010