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

No comments:

Post a Comment