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DPI/NGO Briefing
12 March 2009

“Sports for Development”

Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, Information Officer in the NGO Relations Cluster, introduced the topic noting the increasing importance of the role sport played in helping the United Nations achieve its objectives, particularly meeting the Millennium Development Goals She explained that sports had been invaluable in a variety of ways including bringing about personal development of individuals, promoting gender equality, achieving education and social mobility, combating diseases, supporting disaster and trauma relief, and encouraging economic development, and conflict prevention. She stressed the importance of exploring the role of sports in development and more specifically how NGOs can support UN efforts particularly with regards to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Johann Aeschlimann, Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations, spoke on behalf of Ambassador Peter Maurer [the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN]. He began by explaining the role played by Ambassador Peter Maurer, in helping to promote the UN Office of Sport for Development and Peace, and giving a brief overview of how the Office was established. He stated that Kofi Annan’s appointment of former Swiss President Adolph Ogi as Special Advisor on Sport for Development and Peace was an effort to harness both the ‘soft power’ of sport and its universal appeal, in order to achieve UN goals. Led by the insight that both the UN and sports share the same fundamental values, Mr. Annan, he explained, hoped to link the UN system and the world of sport. These shared values included competition within rules, fair play, equal respect for all, team spirit, and a will to excel by giving of one’s best. Out of this effort, the UN Office of Sport for Development and Peace was established in Geneva headed by Under-Secretary General Wilfred Lemke, who succeeded Mr. Ogi as the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Sport for Development and Peace.

Mr. Aeschlimann then turned his attention to how Member States of the United Nations could help the Office of Sport for Development and Peace continued to flourish, which he said could be done in three ways. First, through the work of the General Assembly, which regularly put the issue on its agenda by producing a report of the Secretary General on the subject of Sport for Development and Peace. This report in turn provided the substance for debate among Member States resulting in a resolution that gave guidance to governments and legitimacy to the work of the Office of Sport for Development and Peace. Secondly, in 2005, the International Year for Sport and Physical Education, the Swiss Permanent Mission, working with the Permanent Mission of Tunisia –established the Group of Friends of Sport for Peace and Development.

The Group of Friends was made up of representatives from about three-dozen Member States, which met four or five times a year to discuss the objectives and activities of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace. While the Group was not a UN organ and had no decision-making power, UN organizations did participate in their meetings, which served as a platform for Member States to share information and ideas. Thirdly, Mr. Aeschlimann pointed to the work of the International Working Group of the Office for Sport for Development and Peace, formed during the 2004 Olympics in Athens by Member States, UN entities and NGOs, the Working Group’s goal was to identify best practices, share policy approaches on the national level, and to make recommendations to governments as to how to implement Sport for Development activities. While the Working Group’s task came to an end after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Group continues its activities using the Office of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General as its Secretariat. Mr. Aeschliman concluded by stating that a lot of work remained to be done, but numerous entry points into the world of sport were available. He encouraged those interested in actively using the tool of sport to promote their cause to contact Mr. Lemke’s Office in Geneva or in New York.

Mutsumi Shirai, Sports Manager, UNICEF Civil Society Partnerships, began her presentation with the showing of a short video on UNICEF efforts in Uganda, primarily demonstrating how sport was utilized for development among the youth in a war-torn region in northern Uganda.  Northern Uganda had been plagued by civil conflict. After a ‘fragile peace’ had been achieved, many returned to the region, yet, complete freedom from strife had not been accomplished.  The video explained that many children had been traumatized by the war and that complete recovery seemed almost impossible. Sport, however, addressed the psycho-social challenges of this post-war society and was used to assist in the rehabilitation of many of the children and people in this region. 

Ms. Shirai asserted that. “Sport is a children’s right,” and further, that this right was protected under Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by the General Assembly in November of 1989.  Ms. Shirai stated that Sport for Development was a fairly new movement within UNICEF.  However, as a result of programming, fundraising, advocacy, and communications, Sport for Development had risen in popularity.  Initially, she said, sport was viewed as too “luxurious” to be utilized as a tool for development, by governments in developing nations. Sport interests were seen as not equivalent to food, health, and hygiene concerns. 

Ms. Shirai noted however that despite these preconceptions, through the efforts of UNICEF, sport actually had become an incredibly useful instrument in advancing these goals.  Ms. Shirai called attention to a number of UNICEF’s projects on Sport for Development.  She gave the example of a 4-year project called Sports for Peace in the Ivory Coast.  Children from the Northern and Southern parts of the Ivory Coast, who had never coexisted, through the Sports for Peace project were able to “come together, play together, and learn together.” In addition, UNICEF contributed to projects using sports such as Cricket, to advocate for disease prevention.

The 2007 Cricket World Cup was an example as cricketers were used as messengers to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS through a series of public service announcements. She further explained that in the case of sports and emergencies, UNICEF had created a recreational kit based on their “School in a Box” program. Instead of “School in a Box”, [a box of school materials sent to countries where schools have been damaged and are in need of school supplies,] UNICEF’s new recreational kit provided similar boxes filled with sports supplies to ‘emergency countries’, which have lost their sporting facilities. Additionally, UNICEF was working in partnership with the Olympic Committee to reach 12 million children within 20 countries by 2012 in an effort to promote quality physical education in school and community sports.

Todd Jacobson, Vice President of Community Relations for the National Basketball Association, [NBA]began his presentation by stating that the NBA had made a great effort to work “sports for development” into their mission statement. He stated that the NBA wanted to use its unique position and the strength of its brand to bring awareness to important social issues – a goal that the NBA set for all branches of its association.

He described the NBA Cares program, launched in 2005 as a way of consolidating the growing number of charitable efforts with which the organization was involved around the world. With over 120 foundations formed by current and former players, as well as organizations founded by team owners and teams themselves, a greater effort was needed to form a single organization in order to capture all of the NBA’s work. He elaborated on the three specific long-term commitments the NBA had made to the communities in which it was involved. First, the NBA wanted to contribute and raise one-hundred million dollars for charity by 2010, which the organization, league, and players had already achieved. Secondly, the organization wanted its players to donate one million hours of hands-on community service. Thirdly, he said, the NBA was committed to leaving lasting legacies of its work.

With this in mind the Organization had set a goal to create 250 facilities around the globe for children to live, learn and play and to date had established over 365 of these locations. He suggested that the NBA needed to develop greater partnerships with local NGOs to ensure that the programs put in place by NBA Cares were as effective as possible in order to empower these communities and the organizations with which they worked and bring attention to the important issues they confronted. Mr. Jacobson also mentioned the importance of the UN Millennium Development Goals and ‘Sports for Development and Peace’ in promoting social change.

Many people, he argued, considered sport as merely entertainment, however, he emphasized that sport was a common language, which could be used in both conflict resolution and diplomacy. Mr. Jacobson cited several examples of how collaboration with partners through sports brought people together in important ways. He gave the example of as the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” between the US and China and the Peace Treaty signed in the Ivory Coast in honor of their team making the finals of the World Cup competition. Mr. Jacobson asserted that sports had the natural ability to bridge gaps among divided peoples, but he noted, its benefits were rarely promoted as much as they should.

He pointed to one area in which he noted that the NBA had had success, and that was in spreading social awareness through the platform of sports for development, of epidemic diseases, such as HIV/AIDS. He observed that there was a natural connection between sports and health and wellness, which created a useful platform to bring together children to share important messages or provide important health services.

Mr. Jacobson concluded his presentation by stating that sports had the important ability to bring together kids from all around the world regardless of race, religion, or sex, through multi-sector partnerships between governments, NGOs, and the private sector. As an example of a multi-sector partnership, he noted the NBA’s involvement in the malaria-prevention program “Nothing but Nets,” through which the NBA cooperated with the UN Foundation, the Measles Initiative, VIACOM, ESPN and faith-based organizations to distribute nets throughout 15 African countries. Finally, Mr. Jacobson showed a short video on the NBA program Basketball without Borders. This program brought together kids in conflict situations in some 30 countries including Greece and Turkey, and in several regions of the world including the Americas, Africa and Asia around the sport of basketball. For a week NBA players and coaches serve as camp coaches and mentors, teaching the children basketball. The NBA also teams up with UNICEF or local organizations to run leadership and life skills as part of their week long camp activities. To date, more than 100 countries have taken part in this program and it continues to expand.

Vanessa Chakour, professional Boxer and Athlete Ambassador for the global organization Right to Play, discussed her experiences with the many benefits of sports at an individual level both as an athlete and as a coach, and at a global level with her involvement in the work of Right to Play. She asserted that sport was a critical tool for social change and awareness. Unlike many other things in life, where one is judged by their resume or appearance, she suggested, sport focused on capabilities and forced the individual to challenge him or herself. She argued that especially for women, learning to confront the power within oneself was both transformative and empowering. She put forward the view that from the athlete in New York to the former child soldier in Uganda, the ability to tap into one’s inner self and find strength through sport, affected every aspect of life.

She noted that particularly in the western world, women tended to put a great deal of value on outward appearance. Ms. Chakour argued that through sports, women could go beyond this and find self-confidence and respect for their bodies, and what they were capable of. Referring to her work with Right to Play, which works with some 23 countries using sport as a tool for conflict resolution, she explained that the Organization worked mostly with former child soldiers, refugees, and AIDS orphans in twenty-three countries around the world, and used local organizations to bridge the gap between communities in divided regions of the world through teamwork. Off the field, she stated, children have a much clearer perspective on conflict and were more understanding of each other.

Ms. Chakour stressed that sport both at the individual or team sport level was an essential physical outlet for children to express their inner turmoil, pain or aggression in a constructive manner. More generally, she noted, sport brought joy back into children’s lives. She said since local organizations tended to know what is best for the community, Right to Play worked with these local groups to create a sustainable system by training coaches and mentors to utilize sport as a vehicle for self-awareness, and social and economic change. In closing, Ms. Chakour said she never grew up watching boxing, but once she discovered it, boxing became the greatest vehicle of self-discovery and personal growth she had experienced. It helped her to transcend self-imposed limitations since in boxing, “you are your own opponent.” She observed that boxing taught her how to get out of her own way and provided her with a sense of empowerment in a relatively safe environment.. She concluded by stating that sports helped individuals to overcome personal obstacles and work together; and when sports are utilized to build a healthy self image she stressed, the benefits are immeasurable.

During the question and answer session, a number of questions focused on whether sport was an appropriate tool to utilize in confronting internal and external conflict in communities around the world. Mr. Bartmann of the Office of Sport for Development and Peace New York was asked to clarify the terms of reference of the General Assembly Resolution on Sports for Development and Peace. (A-Res-63-135).

The questioner specifically, wanted to know how the International Working Group functioned and whether there was a voluntary trust fund to fund the activities of the Working Group?

Mr. Bartmann responded to the first part of the question by stating that the Working Group was a gathering of governments working to bring sports for development to the attention of national governments, and that the Secretariat of the Working Group was meant represent these governments in the General Assembly.

He was hoping that the Secretariat would be included in the Office of Sport for Development and Peace once it received the proper funds from government contributions.

He explained that there was a voluntary trust fund based in Geneva that was financed by individual governments. An NGO representative working with women and a peace-building network of NGOs in Nigeria and West Africa, asked Ms. Shirai about her work and the connection between sports and creating self-awareness.

She wondered whether sport had the potential to build self-esteem in young girls who suffered from low self esteem, which she observed appeared to be a major factor in young women who contracted the HIV/AIDS virus. Ms. Shirai said that the goal of her office was through sports to empower and educate young women. Learning life skills through the program UNICEF offered, she said, lead to changes in behavior including practicing safer sex and taking ownership of their bodies after abuse. Ms. Chakour added that through both personal experience, and working with many women who had experienced trauma she had found sports an effective vehicle for these women to regain their power and ultimately make better choices in the future..

Another question addressed to Mr. Jacobson enquired as to what programs did the NBA have for young women and girls?

He noted that this past year was the first year that a player from the WNBA was able to participate in the Basketball without Boarders Program. The real challenge, he explained, to having more WNBA players participate in NBA programs was that their playing seasons took place during different times in the year, thus making it difficult to coordinate joint programs. However, the WNBA had a number of its own international programs to engage young women in sports. One audience member pointed out that the Chinese sport culture was very different from that of the United States.

She asked Mr. Jacobson how the growing popularity of basketball in China would reflect the Chinese view that sport is not a right, but rather a privilege of qualified athletes. Mr. Jacobson noted that the Chinese system of athletics trained children with skill from a young age to play at higher levels later in life. He stressed that the NBA programs in China, in partnership with the Chinese Basketball association, attempted to stress the growth of the sport and a broad base of participation. The NBA, he said, wanted to encourage the development of players’ skills despite the traditional Chinese approach to training. Another questioner asked if children coming from coming from different countries and regions of the world to participate in the NBA camps had any problems communicating with each other .

Mr. Jacobson said that local college kids were hired as translators in the countries where the camps were held. However he noted that it was amazing how quickly the children were able to overcome communication barriers once they were on the playing field. While English was a base language, sports provided a vehicle that influenced the kids interaction with each other and their ability to resolving divisive issues both on and off the court regardless of language barriers. One questioner asked the panel to address cases of violence against children as it related to the filed of sport.

Ms. Shirai responded that UNICEF would be launching a Digest entitled, “Violence Against Children in Sports.” In addition, UNICEF was working with a number of sports federations and clubs to combat this negative aspect of sports, which impinged on the education, safety, and rights of children. Mr. Jacobson added that the NBA had noticed one visible aspect of violence against children in sports, namely cases of abusive behaviour of parents towards their children who were athletes. To combat this problem, the NBA had designed literature that addressed this problem through their Junior NBA and WNBA programs. The literature addressed not only parents, but also gave coaches information on how to deal with parents whose behaviour with their children was out of line.

This Briefing was attended by over 170 representatives of NGOs, United Nations and Permanent Mission staff as well as interns from various Departments and NGOs


Prepared by Gail B-T Sainté with assistance from Tatiana Alvarado, Jennifer Basch, and Heather Lee
9 February 2009.

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