The Case for Sport Development Cooperation


The development of sport at all levels in Southern Africa is of critical importance to the national and human development agenda of all countries.  The promotion of active and healthy lifestyles through sport is actually a more economical way of improving personal and public health, by reducing incidences of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), thereby lessening the burden on financial budgets of various governments in terms of health provision.

Experts are now projecting that NCDs such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and cardiac complications will soon over-take HIV/AIDS and malaria as the number one killer in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. The promotion of active participation in sport and physical recreation helps to reduce the cases of NCDs. Sport and exercise also contribute to increased productivity at various work places resulting in a healthier and fitter labour force as incidences of illness and absenteeism are drastically reduced.

However, despite scientifically proven benefits of active participation in sport and physical recreation, not a lot of money is being invested in the sport, recreation, leisure industry. In other economies, this sector is one of the fastest growing industries, employing more people than ever before.

The financing of sport development at all levels of society is, therefore, key to promotion of health and productivity programmes in various countries. Some companies have realised this and are opening gym and aerobics facilities at their premises to provide services to their employees. Some companies are now paying for corporate membership to gyms and facilitating the participation of their employees in organised amateur sports leagues during their spare time. They have realised that participation in various extra-mural sports activities helps even with team building, greater co-operation and productivity at the work-place. Notwithstanding these commendable advances in certain companies and organisations, the promotion of sport and recreation still faces somewhat formidable challenges mainly arising out of scarcity of much-needed finances and equipment.

In attempts to bridge this gap, sport development assistance and co-operation programmes between developed and developing countries have greatly assisted in availing funds and equipment to hitherto disadvantaged communities. These are communities where there are no gyms, no rugby or cricket playing fields, no posh country clubs with swimming pools, squash or tennis courts. These are communities where the availability of just a few soccer balls, netballs, basketballs or sound system for aerobics training can be a cause for huge celebrations.

Here, participation in sport and recreation is sometimes deemed a luxury because people are too busy trying to eke out a living, to put food on the table for their children. Living and growing up under such deprived conditions naturally tends to create situations where participation in sport and physical activity is greatly under-valued and even frowned upon. In some cases of extreme deprivation, entire families have to work, even under-age children leading to incidences of exploitation of child labour. Some children end up even dropping out of school and are deprived opportunities to play and discover their talent in education and various other activities.

Despite their varying degrees of economic development, by and large, Southern African countries are in need of sport development assistance and co-operation programmes as part of general socio-economic, cultural and political development. One cannot contest that the region needs more  roads, bridges, and schools, colleges, clinics, hospitals, energy, transport and telecommunications infrastructure. 

However, on the other hand, it should not be forgotten that the region also needs community sports facilities, equipment and other accessories to help the people in various countries lead active and healthy lives.

It is not even about expensive world-class stadiums or sports halls but just basic facilities which are accessible to people in the community regardless of age, gender, physical ability, socio-economic or political background.

There is need for facilities to promote community-based sport and recreation programmes. These facilities can greatly help to improve the well-being of the people   and foster, inclusion, community pride and engagement. The absence of such facilities poses even greater dangers for the community such as alcoholism, drug abuse and other criminal activities.  

All the good work and development projections engineers, economists and planners have done can be quickly undone by juvenile delinquency and petty crime leading to vandalism as well as the destruction of infrastructure installed at great cost to tax-payers. This is simply because people sometimes do not value these infrastructural developments or feel a sense of ownership. Sometimes instead of filling classrooms, sports and recreational clubs, the pubs, bars, night clubs and jails are the ones that have more people due to entertainment models and environments fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

Sport and recreation must be included in development planning as well as bi-lateral co-operation programmes between and among nations. Of course, other issues such as defence, security, business and trade are important but they should not be undertaken to the detriment of social and health development issues such as sport and physical recreation.

Both developed and developing countries can learn a great deal from each other through sport development co-operation.

In line with the spirit of Olympism, sport development co-operation can contribute tremendously to greater understanding, world peace and prosperity. For example, if one were to bring together children from North Korea and South Korea, they would most probably be united by their love, first and foremost for sports and general play. It is the adults that bring divisive doctrines and propaganda.

Who would have thought that Olympic wrestling could bring together the Americans, Iranians, Russians and Bulgarians? 

These are people, who in a normal situation, might never get along on anything but are united in their love for the sport of wrestling. Venezuela and the US might not agree on anything else but their passion of baseball is unparalleled. India and Pakistan have since independence, been, practically, always at each other’s throats but probably the best way to channel the collective energies of the two countries and grab the attention of all levels of society is through a cricket match involving the two countries.

Football has proven to be a useful tool for social therapy for child soldiers in post-conflict situations helping them to respect authority and opponents.  Although sport has great power and influence, it cannot be a panacea for all problems in society but it can greatly assist humanity to deal with a good number of them.

Sport, therefore, can be a very useful a tool for bringing people together. If you can start by playing with each other, better things can surely follow and be achieved.  That is why economists and development planners at SADC, African Union, African Development Bank, European Union and World Bank should take time to think outside the box and focus on other issues which are also critical priorities in their own right. Let’s play!

November 2013
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