Sport and International Development

Levermore, Roger
Beacom, Aaron
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009, ISBN 978-0-230-54256-3, 276 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Engelhardt, Jutta

Have you read a critical book lately? If not, try Sport and International Development, edited by Roger Levermore and Aaron Beacom - an addition to the sparse collection of texts devoted to the topic of 'sport-in-development'.

The objective of Sport and International Development, as stated in the Preface, is '…to put sport-in-development on the map in the development literature, and to position it within the larger international development debates' (p. xiii). This is a necessary task, especially as contributions from the sport-in-development field are often blatantly uncritical, formulated by crusading advocates for sport-in-development and based on incidental proof of social change. To investigate the potential and limitations of sport-in-development objectively is the way to approach the topic.

To those unfamiliar with these issues, Sport and International Development outlines the major thematic areas with which sport-in-development is usually associated: education and child and youth development, peace building, disaster response, disability, health, economic growth, and gender. Some areas are investigated in more detail than others, but at least six of these seven topics are covered.

A number of practitioners and researchers from within the sport-in-development community have examined the practical feasibility of sport as a tool for social change. The existing literature, however, often bases its argument on descriptive case studies and limits itself to the incidental proof generated by projects in the field. It lacks the backing of consistent and reliable monitoring data and does not necessarily interpret the empirical evidence. Compounding this difficulty, many authors, academics or practitioners, stop short of really asking themselves whether sport actually generates social change.

This is not true of most of the contributions to this edited volume. Authors try - some with more success than others - to link the use of sport to social change and development. It is eye-opening to read arguments on the intrinsic relationship of sport-in-development to modernisation and neo-liberal visions, to (neo)-colonialism, and the presumably approved path of development defined by the global North (Levermore). It is an achievement to see it made explicit that Northern sport has been and is still used as a tool of cultural hegemony, distracting communities and policy makers from pressing development realities, and diverting the marginalised from protesting against serious social and political problems. Following these arguments, one is tempted to think of the Roman poet Juvenal, who argued: 'Give [the people] bread and circuses and they will never revolt'. References are also made to Rostow's classical development theory (1960) in which stabilising the current political system - whether dictatorship or democracy - is the prerequisite for development, as only stable political systems facilitate security for external investment, industrialisation, and economic growth. Viewing the use of sport as a development tool from these perspectives, it is not surprising that several contributors to Sport and International Development come to the conclusion that sport-in-development does not necessarily support resistance to dominant political and economic structures, nor does it focus on dismantling unequal power relations. It is rather used as a tool of 'discipline' and control, to avoid subversion and resistance (Saavedra, p.130).

Luckily all contributions to Sport and International Development also stress the value of sport-in-development work. Some focus more on the individual's growth and acquisition of physical and cognitive skills through sport programmes, a surplus value that is easily recognised by advocates and critics of sport-in-development programmes alike. Other contributions focus on the building of and access to community structures through participation in sports programmes, something that is stressed especially by those who highlight the added value of integrated sport structures in any setting, be it in the developed or developing world. Other contributions focus on the establishment of enlightened citizenship through trained leadership and informed decision making - an area where conviction stands against the often-made claim that sport-in-development has not built the necessary evidence base for meaningful comparative analysis.

Defining sport, it is not surprising that Coalter's much-used scheme of 'sport plus' and 'plus sport' is once again a guiding principle. It allows all development programmes that somehow use sport or adapted forms of sport to be placed into the paradigm of sport-in-development, measuring them on a bi-polar scale which emphasises either the sport or the developmental aspect of the programme. Despite the flow of the scheme, which allows a multitude of programmes to be categorised as sport-in-development initiatives, it is questionable whether such programmes can accomplish the desired additional effect of building skills or even causing behavioural change. It is a significant challenge to measure attitudinal or behavioural change, and even more difficult to claim that such change is sustainable, especially concerning taboo themes such as preventing HIV and changing gender perceptions. Thankfully, Coalter openly voices his doubts concerning the linear development from newly developed sporting skills to reduced risk taking in sexual behaviour and mentions the complexity of context and the role of environmental factors in any sport-in-development programme as decisive factors for success or failure of sustainable behavioural change.

Saavedra is equally cautious in her wording when claiming that 'sport can mobilize resources in ways that can create change'. Driven by conviction, she continues that 'female sport continues to be transgressive and potentially “revolutionary”[…] disrupt[ing] received notions about gender roles, and allow[ing] for new possibilities with positive spillovers from women in other social arenas' (p. 136/7). To counterbalance this argument, however, she carefully outlines the necessary conditions for such fundamental change. She correctly points out that sport-in-development projects are 'hard and serious work' which require profound knowledge in at least four areas: local knowledge (including languages, culture, history, and geography); knowledge of the sport; knowledge of the specific development sector in which one aims to cause change (for example, health, gender relations, environment); and knowledge of organisational management. Only if these prerequisites are fulfilled can sport-in-development programmes really cause the desired long-term effects of changing social norms and perceptions supporting the established political and economic structures.

Claiming that the required knowledge exists in local programme coordinators and peer educators, Nicholls stresses the under-representation and disempowerment of local practitioners in relevant policy making as much as in providing the much-needed evidence base in support of the efficacy of sport-in-development programmes. She argues that peer educators have 'vital contributions to make' which would make it possible 'to re-imagine a vision of sport-in-development that is grounded in lived experience and not merely well intentioned but disconnected rhetoric'. In her claim she overlooks, however, the fact that many of the peers enthusiastically introducing programmes on the ground and - in most cases - keen to provide quality information to their peers are young, temporarily involved in sport-in-development, and lacking the visionary impetus to take the undoubtedly challenging daily work to a policy level. Pointing out that sport-in-development programmes are implemented 'on the backs of peer educators', Nicholls stops short of providing the necessary ideas of how to include young people in the policy creation, research development, and programme planning. Outlining these ideas of a genuinely participatory approach would, however, allow for many programmes to contribute to more than just accidental success and would allow for a more participatory approach which gives all stakeholders more influence.

Even if some of the chapters in Sport and International Development lack the visionary ideas for sport-in-development to come of age, the book is interesting in its theory-based analysis of a highly practical development strand. Sport and International Development helps to look at the issue from many different angles and enables the reader to ask whether sport really is an appropriate tool for social change.