Why sports and development go hand in hand

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Young boys playing soccer in Namibia. Photo: © John Hogg/World Bank

People often ask me how I became the person I am today. More often than not, my answer surprises them. Sports has a lot to do with it. In many countries across the globe, soccer is a way of life. As a kid, growing up in Senegal, sport was part of my daily life. I practiced all kinds of sports but track and field and karate were my two passions. Martial arts taught me the importance of not giving up, while running kept me focused.  My coaches in Senegal were true educators.

Our track and field coach, Mansour Dia, a three-time Olympic finalist, didn't let us join his team unless we had good grades. My high school track and field teammates went on to have great professional careers:  some made it big on Wall Street; others became prominent politicians, engineers, or medical doctors. The same holds true for Karate. Our sensei, Fernand Nunes, taught us an important life lesson: win with respect, lose with dignity.

As we celebrate the UN-designated International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, simply acknowledging the fundamental role played by sports in economic and social development is not enough. We must also make a concrete commitment by investing in school sports.

In countries such as Senegal, school and university sports have long occupied a prominent position in the community.  This is no longer the case, as a result of insufficient human, financial, and material resources; and the lack of a legal framework regulating sports, school, and university activities. In the developing world, and particularly in Africa, policymakers tend to focus on so-called “elite” sports (such as soccer and basketball at a professional level) and devote very little interest or budget to the development of basic physical education. Although the majority of African countries recognize that physical education and sports should be incorporated into the education system, investment in this area has been neglected. This needs to change. 

In the field of international development, sports can be a powerful tool.  Given the inherent values of teamwork and fair play, building self-esteem, and equal opportunities for boys and girls, sports can also be a means of promoting peace. There are myriad campaigns showcasing the unifying power of sports. In 2012, the World Bank organized the Great Lakes Peace Cup in Africa, a region mired in conflict, with the aim of helping former youth combatants rebuild relationships with their communities and neighboring countries through football.  In South Africa, UNICEF noted a dramatic decline in school violence in communities where schools participated in the “sport for development” program.  A number of schools registered an 80-percent drop in violent incidents. 

In the area of health, international organizations often rely on athletes to raise awareness through public interest campaigns. In November 2014, the World Bank partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to organize an awareness-building campaign in the fight against Ebola in West Africa. The campaign brought together the world’s top football players (including Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo) to promote preventive measures in the communities affected by the epidemic. Football was also an effective vehicle for raising awareness of the ravages of AIDS, with FIFA establishing HIV/AIDS prevention and control programs as part of its “football for hope” initiative. Countries such as Germany capitalized on football to improve the process of social integration of descendants of immigrants.

In September 2015, Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, signed a US$50-million agreement with the foundation of tennis champion Novak Djokovic to support social inclusion and early childhood development programs in Serbia, to more effectively combat the inequality affecting young children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. The early years of life are crucial; it’s the critical period during which most cognitive and social development occurs. Sports and play can have an impact on motor skills development and educational potential.

To promote human development, we must bet on sports. Reviving school sports in elementary schools —particularly in the most impoverished areas where children do not have access to sports infrastructure or physical education programs— is an investment for life.  Beyond the athletic activities, coaches can be instructors for good hygiene habits such as hand-washing and nutrition, which can have significant public health benefits.

What will it take? It will take partnerships with institutions such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) which is using basketball in Africa as a development tool for social inclusion; and federations of other sports, which are making a difference in the lives of young people around the world. It will take commitment from development organizations, governments as well as the private sector. Linkages can be made with development projects in the health, education, and social protection spheres to create synergies beyond the fun of competition in sports.  Together, we can do it.

Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.



Makhtar Diop

IFC’s Managing Director and Executive Vice President

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