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The power of sport in combating poverty

The power of sport in combating poverty

Sport is such a fundamental part of many cultures, and this is certainly true in Australia – backyard cricket, football on the beach, the list is endless. But what if it could be more? What if sport could be used to further international development and alleviate poverty?

I recently attended a forum hosted by One Just Word[1] entitled “Tackling Global Poverty with the Olympic Spirit.” The panel comprised Bernt Aasen, the Regional Director of Latin America and Caribbean for UNICEF; Kylie Bates, a Consultant in Sport for Development; Jackie Lauff, Co-founder and CEO of Sport Matters and a member of the Executive Committee for the Australian Disability and Development Consortium; and Cyrille Ndongo-Keller, Former International Professional Football Player and Founder and CEO of Sports Globo Consulting.

Girls playing football in northern Ghana. Image credit: Brendan Rigby

The theme for the evening, as the name might suggest, was a discussion on the ability of sport to have a positive impact upon the alleviation of poverty around the world. With the assistance of some audience participation, the panel was able to make an insightful contribution towards addressing the topic.

The resounding message was that sport does indeed have the ability to affect positive change and promote international development. Of course, it should not be seen as a silver bullet to the problem of poverty and disadvantage. The power of sport to affect change is as a tool, within a broader toolkit.

One of the most important things we need to ensure when utilising sport for the promotion of international development is that it is inclusive. Without this, sport has the undesirable potential of perpetuating the systemic inequalities that exist within a given society. It is imperative that we implement sporting programs appropriately to avoid adverse impacts such as the marginalisation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. After all, every child has the right to play.

We should see sport as a powerful tool that can help us redress many of these inequalities. Bernt Aasen discussed a situation in Colombia where football was able to educate young boys about gender equality. This was done through an innovative approach where the rules of the game were altered. Not only were football teams required to have a specified quota of girls, but it was also mandated that the first goal scorer be a girl. This changed the dynamics of the game dramatically. No longer were the girls on the team merely there on the fringes to fulfil the quota, but teams were forced to substantially involve girls in the play to ensure that the first goal scorer criterion was fulfilled.

Mr Aasen recalled when a young boy on the team was asked what he had learned from the experience, he responded that he had learned that girls also have the right to score goals. This surely is an invaluable life lesson to teach a young boy about gender equality, and highlights the power of sport.

In this way, sport also has the capacity to foster education. Cyrille Ndongo-Keller, recalling his days as a young boy playing football on the streets of Cameroon, insisted that sport promoted a type of “street education” where children were able to learn valuable life skills. He cited his experiences of learning how to repair a hole in a plastic football using a candle, and then using water to test whether it was airtight. A form of  “Street Science 101” you could say.

Another powerful aspect of using sport as a tool for development is the potential of major sporting events, topical given that the London Olympic Games are upon us and the Gold Coast’s recent success in securing the 2018 Commonwealth Games. This aspect is also of significant contemporary importance as a rising world power in the form of Brasil reaches a critical juncture in its development and economic growth, with both the Brasil 2014 FIFA Football World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games approaching.

We should not just see these global events as an opportunity to generate economic benefits for the respective communities, but also as an opportunity to motivate people around the world to provide children with the opportunity to access sport. It is important that we ensure that these major events are undertaken in a manner that creates a lasting social legacy, through the establishment of community programs and infrastructure. After all, every Olympic champion was once a child. Who knows where the next one will come from?

Whilst these are a few benefits of sport in furthering development and alleviating poverty, there are countless others, and the power of sport to affect change is profound. We must ensure that we harness this power and create the opportunities children all around the world deserve.

As a nation so proud of its sporting culture, we must strive to ensure that every child in our world has the opportunity to play.

Please visit for more information on the forums or to learn more about the Sport for Development program.

[1] One Just World is a national series of free, after-work speakers’ forums aimed at involving the community in conversation and debate on key international development issues facing Australia, the Asia-Pacific and beyond.


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Isuru Devendra

Isuru is currently a Young Ambassador for UNICEF Australia, the Chairperson of the Red Cross Queensland Youth Advisory Committee, and works as a Judge's Associate. He has a strong passion for social justice and has also undertaken internships with the Aurora Native Title Project, the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi and worked with the Refugee and Immigration Law Service in Australia.

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10 thoughts on “The power of sport in combating poverty

  1. Jeff Budaza

    hi can you please provide me with relevant books/references on the topic above

  2. […] in London, Young Ambassador for UNICEF Australia Isuru Devendra blogged on about the power of sport in combating poverty in […]

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    This article is very appealing to thinking people like me. It’s not only thought-provoking, it draws you in from the beginning. This is well-written content. The views here are also appealing to me. Thank you….

  5. Wow really like the idea of requiring girls to score the first goal, its definitely making it gender inclusive.

  6. […] in London, Young Ambassador for UNICEF Australia Isuru Devendra blogged on about the power of sport in combating poverty in […]

  7. As an avid football player, I love Aasen’s story about the role of sport in promoting gender equality. It’s not only true for children in Colombia – I know the men and women on the adult co-ed teams I’ve played on in Canada have also benefited from playing together and seeing each gender contribute to the team.

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