Earlier this summer, Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka to win the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. Like any triumph in an international competition, there was a great sense of national pride, this time coming in a country with great need for such a unifying force. But, as Tunku Varadarajan wrote, the victory was much more than just a boost to national morale:
“As Pakistan fights for its survival against the barbarian Taliban…its people find themselves possessed of a weapon with which to vanquish the forces of darkness. I speak here not of drones or tanks or helicopter gunships, but of the glorious game of cricket.”
This is a powerful concept: that cricket is a key weapon needed to defeat the “darkness” imposed by extremism in Pakistan. But why limit ourselves to discussing the power cricket possess to fight the Taliban? What about the effects all sports have to instill happiness, empowerment, and hope in people? Could using sports for development be an unconventional tactic for the fight against poverty?
The powers of sports have not gone unnoticed in the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes, “Sport is increasingly recognized as an important tool in helping the United Nations achieve its objectives, in particular the Millennium Development Goals. By including sport in development and peace programmes in a more systematic way, the United Nations can make full use of this cost-efficient tool to help us create a better world.”
Many sports for development organizations exist, and their numbers have been increasing. One notable example is love.fútbol, who develops simple, safe soccer fields for children in impoverished communities worldwide. “The game itself is a catalyst for youth development, hope and inspiration.”
We can envision a theoretical framework for the effect of sports on development, and ultimately poverty reduction. Sports have the power to inspire and unite people. They create happiness. They have the ability to improve educational outcomes (imagine: a new soccer field adjacent to a school would increase enrollment and attendance because of the positive associations created with going to school - not to mention the effect of mid-day exercise on improved classroom attention levels).They empower people and create leaders. In particular, increasing young girl’s participation in sports can lead to great female empowerment, unlocking the full potential of the population.
We can also envision numerous positive externalities sport can have beyond the enjoyment it brings. One such example was proposed in a recent lecture at the World Bank by Bogotá’s former mayor, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño. As mayor, he employed novel tactics in his reform agenda, such as Bogotá’s bike paths network, to create a sense of ownership by the citizens and love for their own city. He hypothesized that the best way of reducing crime and violence in a neighborhood plagued by such issues wouldn’t be to build a new police substation – rather to construct a 24-hour lit soccer field, where youth can positively release their aggression in an arena constructed for that purpose.
In my own education experience, sport, and more specifically soccer, played a key role. Soccer was always something to look forward to at the end of the day. It was always an escape from the stresses and responsiblities, until the match ended and I'd become all too aware of the pile of work awaiting my attention. I never realized that this joy and reprive was a luxury that many across the globe aren't fortunate enough to experience.
Sporting victory can have the effect of lifting a nation’s spirits, and GDP. One study done in advance of the 2006 World Cup states:
“Economic growth among world champions tends to outstrip that in the losing finalist countries during a World Cup year. With a few exceptions, it is a case of winner takes all. A World Cup winner enjoys an average economic bonus of 0.7% additional growth, while the losing finalist suffers an average loss of 0.3% compared to the previous year.”
A theory has been put forward that in a battle where a known underdog faces off against an overwhelming favorite, employing unexpected and unconventional tactics greatly increase the underdog’s probability for victory. When David met Goliath, he didn’t use conventional tactics: swords and armor. He used a rock and a slingshot, and caught the favorite off guard.
In the battle against poverty, we are up against Goliath, with more than one billion people who live on less than one dollar a day. Might sports, and their ability to instill happiness, empowerment and hope, be our rock and sling shot? An unconventional tactic in the fight against poverty?
To quote Mr. Varadarajan once more: “Let the battle begin.”