An Unconventional Tactic for the Fight Against Poverty


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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.”

(c) Reuters

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.”




Photos courtesy of of Reuters and Asmamirza under the Creative Commons License


Ben Safran

Junior Professional Associate

Join the Conversation

October 02, 2009

Thinking on a most basic level: considering the deep and universal grip sport has on people across our globe, to harness and re-channel that energy would be quite powerful.

Great article Ben!

October 02, 2009

Thanks for this positive perspective on ways to promote development. For the past several years I have worked as a researcher for Special Olympics International, which provides sports opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities around the world. Through our work we have been able to see how sports can really be a platform for personal and community development. Perhaps the benefits of sports are most salient for persons with disabilities, who in many countries remain on the margins. Some images come to mind: a coach talking with a group of family members at a Special Olympics World Games event about how the athletes from Uganda are finally being recognized by their country as being persons of worth because their relay team won a gold medal; a Serbian youth Unified (inclusive) football team competing in Rome against other youth Unified teams from Romania, Poland, Italy, Austria and Slovakia; female athletes with intellectual disabilities from all around the world competing on the world stage during the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai China. Sport is powerful; in the case of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families, I strongly believe that participation in sports presents opportunities to realize capability and potential, which is a critical step to pushing for change.

Medellin Colombia
October 20, 2009

While the Mayor of Bogota deserves credit for the changes he implemented in the country´s capital, the real transformation in Colombia was made by Medellin´s former mayor. He turned what was once the most violent city in the World into a modern and beautiful city that has used the inclusion of the poor a way to implement this transformation.

Beyond Sport
November 03, 2009


This is a very interesting article and linked closely with Beyond Sport's values. We were also unaware of Peñalosa Londoño's efforts in Bogota. Along with Love.Futbol, another very interesting project that fights crime and poverty in South and Central America is called Project Alcatraz. Project Alcatraz tackles gang crime in Venezuela. With a mission to peacefully eradicate crime and transform violent leadership of youth offenders into virtuous leadership, this project caught the judges’ eye with its ambitious and ground-breaking method to recruit full gangs – not solely gang members – to participate in the project. During the two-year initiative, the former gangs participate in community service, civil values training, vocational training, psychological assistance, and rugby training. Once participants have completed a three-month training programme, graduates choose from a job within Project Alcatraz’s organisation or continue their training with El Taller del Constructor – a collection of community service programmes in the area. Under a zero-crime motto, the project has fully disarmed five major gangs in the area since 2003, resulting in a 65 percent decrease in crime and close to 88 percent decrease in homicide, showing how vital it is to give attention to this specific population.
It's a very interesting project.

Ben, please check out Beyond Sport World (, so find out more obut this movement - the network would be interested in your insights as well.

Beyond Sport
November 03, 2009

Hi there,

I would be interested to know more about what Medellin's former mayor did specifically concerning sport that helped to transform the country.

five a side soccer league
July 23, 2010

Sports is truly the most important and heart warming way to fight against poverty all over the globe. Cricket, soccer, Tennis are the most reputable and crowd pulling game all over the world and these can be utilized to fight against sheer poorness, bankruptcy and all corruptions. Very nice and constructive post..... i truly admire it.

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