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Sport and the sustainable development goals are a heavenly match

By James Rose - posted Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals were announced recently in New York. Numerous suited personages extolled the virtues of the list of 17 global targets and talked up the benefits they believe will be delivered to the world's needy. It's a long way from those powered halls and formal dress codes to a small, scrappy municipal football ground on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, where I was when the SDGs were launched. But, bridging that gap may well be more important than even those who parented the SDGs might know.

I was in KL to talk to community leaders from among the Rohingya refugee population in Malaysia, on behalf of the football for development not for profit I have founded. The Rohingya Football Club, who I was running around with, has been set up by community leaders to act as a kind of peace ambassador. Games are arranged with local teams, Rohingya and non-Rohingya, to help the much maligned Rohingya refugees – who have no official status in Malaysia and are thus denied formal employment, education and health services – connect with their non-Rohingya neighbours and with their own Rohingya community.

The initiative of Rohingya refugees in KL captures the spirit of the SDGs, perhaps as well as, if not better, than most hasty, headline-based government policies. It addresses many of the issues covered in the SDGs in a way that ensures the program is appropriate at the grass-roots level and is likely to have both a quantifiable and qualifiable outcome.


To their credit, the framers of the SDGs have acknowledged the role sport plays in meeting core objectives. Paragraph 37 of the SDG agenda declaration confirms, "the growing contribution of sport to the realisation of development and peace in its promotion of tolerance and respect." It also recognises the positive influence sport has in regard to "the empowerment of women and young people, individuals and communities, as well to health, education and social inclusion objectives."

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee told the gathered Grandees at the UN as the SDGs were launched that, "sport is a natural partner when it comes to realising the ambitious agenda that will guide global development over the next 15 years."

Nelson Mandela was onto the power of sport long ago. As anyone has seen the Hollywood movie "Invictus" would recall, Mandela successfully built a part of the structure of post-Apartheid reconciliation around the national rugby team, the Springboks, during the Rugby World Cup in that country 20 years ago. As he put it "Sport has the power to change the world."

[op para] To implement the SDGs, something with sport's force is needed. While valuable, the SDGs lack detail and they certainly have no plan or road map. The respected journal Foreign Affairs called them "Senseless, Dreamy and Garbled." That's unfair as it is the common approach of such instruments to leave the details up to state actors to work out. That means that often, there is no co-ordination, no initiative and no real drive. Government decision-making atrophies in such a vacuum. The onus is often on the civil sector to promote the best intentions of these grand ideas and to flesh out an action plan. And, there are few more powerful forces in the civil space than organised sport. [op para]

A game like football/soccer is one that can readily be employed to help reach SDG-related outcomes. Consider the shape of the game itself. It is conducted on a limited yet shared space, with both competitors and team-mates more or less co-mingling. The game is played under a known set of rules that the participants agree upon. Each understands the consequences of breaking them. While individual flair is, or should be, applauded, and can be valuable in terms of the game's outcome, it is a team game, demanding a focus on unity and an ability to maintain cohesion.

The spirit of the game also demands that participants in both victory and defeat comport themselves sportingly. Respectfully shaking the hands of, or even hugging, one's opponents at game's end is a reflexive part of the culture, an unwritten rule.


It would be easy to glibly extrapolate from this a model for the world. Sure, a game of football might be a microcosm. But, that's all it is. It shouldn't be downgraded to the murky world of geo-politics. The legendary Liverpool coach Bill Shankly was on to something when he famously said he was disappointed that people see football as a life and death issue; "It's more important than that," he huffed.

If we return to the Rohingya in KL and the SDGs, we can see that the latter seeks solutions that the former would certainly welcome. How does the RFC initiative really work to the SDGs values? Goal 3, referring to to healthy lifestyles, for one. Also, Goal 4 (Education), Goal 16 (Peace-Building) and Goal 17 (Global Partnerships in Sustainable Development).

But, for all the potential, sports like football/soccer are rarely seen as harbingers of global solutions. Perhaps that's because its grass-roots energy remains largely untapped. Certainly, the IOC and FIFA talk up the wonder of sport and orbit the sentiments around the two biggest – and richest - sporting events on the planet. Corporations too have not ignored the seam of wealth sport provides, pumping up sport-related betting and advertising, scrambling over broadcast rights and buying up clubs like never before.

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About the Author

James Rose is founder of the The Kick Project, an Australian football and development-based not-for-profit.

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