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The Politics Of Sport-for-development: Limited Focus Programmes And Broad Gauge Problems?

Fred Coalter

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This article explores the almost evangelical policy rhetoric of the sports-for-development ‘movement’ and the wide diversity of programmes and organizations included under this vague and weakly theorized banner. It is suggested that, although the rhetoric of sport as a human right has provided some rhetorical and symbolic legitimation for sport-for-development initiatives, the recent dramatic increase in interest reflects broader changes in the aid paradigm, reflecting perceived failures of top-down economic aid and an increased concern with issues of human and social capital, as well as the strengthening of civil society organizations. In this context the presumed ability of sport to offer an economy of solutions to a wide range of development problems led the United Nations, with the encouragement of a vociferous sport-for-development lobby, to turn to the world of sport in an effort to achieve its Millennium Development Goals. While there is a certain theoretical logic to some of the policy assertions about the contribution of sport to aspects of development, it is argued that the new approaches contain a number of dangers: confusing potential micro-level individual outcomes with community and broader macro-level impacts; ignoring wider socio-political contexts within which sport-for-development organizations have to operate; seeking to solve broad gauge problems via limited focus interventions; and encouraging mission drift by sport-for-development organizations wholly dependent on aid from a variety of aid agencies, with often overly ambitious non-sporting agendas. It is argued that if sport-for-development is to make a contribution to wider processes of development there is a need to ‘de-reify’ the rhetoric of sport-for-development and its implicit view of sport, and to view research and evaluation in terms of local programme development rather than the legitimation of international organizations and lobbies.