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Enable the youth who are not only the future, but also the present - says Sports Development expert

Highlighting how sports can be used as a tool to empower the youth and usher in change, Dr. Ben Sanders stresses on the positive impact sports can have.

Dr. Ben Sanders was a part of the webinar on Olympism and values by the Abhinav Bindra Foundation

Dr. Ben Sanders was a part of the webinar on Olympism and values by the Abhinav Bindra Foundation


The Bridge Desk

Published: 30 Nov 2021 3:59 PM GMT

Identifying sports as the most potent tool and the values of Olympism to be integral, the Abhinav Bindra Foundation (ABF) through their webinar, the fourth one in the ongoing series of 'Olympism and its values' deliberated on how sports can be used as a tool to promote youth development.

One of the panelists of this webinar was Dr. Ben Sanders, a senior consultant at the International Platform on Sport and Development. Dr. Sanders is also experienced in designing, delivering, and evaluating policies and programmes that use sport for sustainable living. He has worked with the United Nations, Commonwealth, FIFA, Laureus among others.

In the ABF webinar, Dr. Sanders said that when people say young people are the future, one shouldn't forget they are also the present of sports development. He also insisted on the need to address the disparities in grassroots sports for development initiatives. In an exclusive interview with The Bridge, Dr. Ben Sanders has explained about sports and sustainable development.

The Bridge (TB): What is the idea of Olympism according to you in the present world - your own personal definition?

Dr. Sanders: Olympism represents key values and principles that can provide a foundation for sport to make a more meaningful contribution to society. These values and principles are not reserved for Olympians and elite athletes but can be adopted by all members of society. They highlight the need for sport to contribute to other goals outside of the playing arena and can be harnessed for positive change.

TB: How can sports and the Olympic movement be used to bring about sustainable development? How would you define it?

Dr. Sanders: Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) refers to the use of sport to promote varied outcomes beyond the playing field and encompasses a range of initiatives seeking to harness the power of sport for social change. Sport has recognised as an 'enabler of development' in Agenda 2030 and can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other important objectives.

It is important to note that sport is not automatically positive, as many people tend to assume. Sport is not a magic bullet or secret ingredient that turns interventions into outcomes. It is neither positive nor negative in itself and needs to be implemented in a deliberate manner with utmost care to ensure benefit, not harm. And even then there are no guarantees of positive results.

This does not mean that sport cannot contribute to positive outcomes. We know that it can and there is evidence of sport contributing to a wide range of development goals, linked to health, education, youth development, crime prevention, peacebuilding, conflict resolution and so on.

However, it has proven difficult to identify the common factors that enable sport for development initiatives to be successful. This makes it hard to scale these initiatives, meaning much of the success we see in sport for development is rooted in specific organisations or projects. In short, we know that some sport for development programmes work for some people in some places, sometimes.

Nonetheless, Olympism and sport programmes and policies can provide a means to enable sustainable development and play a critical role in contributing to a more equitable planet.

TB: Do elaborate on the role sports can play in changing lives, according to you, as you've encountered during your stints with the UN, the Commonwealth, FIFA and Laureus organizations.

Dr. Sanders: There is a long history of using sport for social change and the sport for development sector has grown rapidly in recent times, with a range of actors using sport to achieve outcomes beyond the playing field. However, we need to be intentional in the way we design, deliver and evaluate sport for development projects. We need to be conscious that sport does not automatically produce positive outcomes, and we need to think critically about how sport can best contribute to society. I do still believe that sport can do a lot of good, but we need to recognise that it can also do harm, so again it is the way sport is used that is key in determining whether positive outcomes are possible.

In recent years, the potential benefits of sport have been loudly proclaimed and even over-exaggerated in some cases. But if used in the appropriate manner and in the right context, there is no doubt that sport can stimulate development in many ways. These may include:

- Improving health, well-being and reducing the likelihood of major diseases (WHO, 2014),

- Social mobilisation, bridging divides and bringing communities together (Sanders, 2012),

- Playing a major role in the education system, instilling core values (United Nations, 2003),

- Adding economic value through employment, improved productivity (De Coning, 2014),

- Increasing awareness of the human body and respect for the environment (CABOS, 2010),

- Offering healthy alternatives contributing to holistic youth development (UNOSDP, 2013),

- Promoting cross cultural dialogue, tolerance, conflict transformation and peace (Keim, 2006),

- Offering an accessible form of communication for sensitive issues (e.g. HIV/AIDS),

- Subverting gender stereotypes and empowering women and girls (Grassroot Soccer, 2014),

- Uplifting people with disabilities and other marginalised groups (United Nations, 2003),

- Providing volunteer opportunities and increased employability (Grassroot Soccer, 2014).

However, these benefits do not accrue automatically and are more likely to occur when a deliberate and targeted approach is used. Sport cannot solve all society's ills, but it can make a contribution.

TB: Since the youth is the future of any nation - how would you suggest making the idea of sustainable development available and executable to them? What is it that a country should do to ensure that the youth contribute towards this development in their own way?

Dr. Sanders: For young people, we know and there is evidence supporting this, that sport can positively impact their development. This can be in developing life skills – intrapersonal skills such as self-esteem and awareness and interpersonal skills such as communication and relationship skills. We know that well designed initiatives can enable young people to adopt healthier, more productive lifestyles and become agents of change in their communities, not only benefitting themselves but also others.

However, we also know that the Covid pandemic has profoundly affected young people, in many cases limiting their life choices and affecting their mental and physical health. Similarly, we know that the pandemic has severely affected many sport for development organisations, as in-person programmes were halted, resources have been scarce and many actors are struggling to survive.

Yet there are still many young people, across continents, cultures and contexts that are working tirelessly every day, often with little reward, using sport to empower themselves and others around them. They are true heroes and deserve our recognition for forging ahead on the frontlines.

As sport for development programmes often target young people, and often involve young people as coaches or peer educators, they have a critical role to play. Young people need to be meaningfully involved, not only as beneficiaries or implementers, but throughout the project cycle. People often say that youth are the future (which is true) but they are not only the future of sport and development. They are the present too and we need to do more to enable young people to lead and ensure that sport for development initiatives better serve their needs and those of all within society.

TB: Finally, in a country like India - where the population is bustling, and human resources are in abundance, how would you suggest the country make the most of it and move towards a healthier future?

Dr. Sanders: Given that India has a growing youth population, it is important to create opportunities for young people to engage in sport and physical activity, not just as participants but also as administrators, managers and leaders. It is important to do so with an equity lens, ensuring marginalised groups (e.g. women and girls; migrants) are afforded equal opportunity and access to engage in sport.

India has a well-developed elite sport system but can do more to harness the use of sport for development outcomes, taking into account the leading work of many civil society organisations in this regard such as the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, Magic Bus and Pro Sport Development.

There is increasing evidence that sport provides an entry point for young people into education, employment and training, even more important given that the population of young people is growing rapidly across the developing world, yet youth unemployment remains a huge challenge. Recent findings from a global project on developing a set of model indicators to measure the contribution of sport to the SDGs led by the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNESCO shows that sport is more effective than other employment sectors in bringing young people into employment.

We need more research on the impact of sport on young people – and we cannot move forward without robust evidence. And we need to advocate for increased capacity and resourcing of sport for development initiatives that have shown effectiveness in delivering outcomes for young people.

For this to happen, we need to reshape the sport and development sector, providing mechanisms and opportunities for young people to play a greater role in shaping the way sport serves society.

To conclude, young people, are critical to sport and development. Not only are they the future leaders of this emerging sector but they have an important role to play right here, right now. Not only as beneficiaries or implementers of initiatives but also in leadership and management roles.

The change was needed before Covid, it is needed more than now given Covid. And young people will ultimately be responsible for leading and driving this change – if indeed it is to be realised.

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