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Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development


Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development

1. What is “sport”?

In the field of Sport for Development and Peace, “sport” is generally acknowledged as being not exclusively limited to the notion of competitive sport, but it is extended to all forms of physical activity. As defined in the report from the United Nations Inter-Agency Taskforce on Sport for Development and Peace

(2003), sport is:

all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction. These include: play; recreation; organized, casual or competitive sport; and indigenous sports or games.

2. Sport as a meaningful tool for development

Sport is widely recognized as contributing to individual development, health promotion and disease prevention, promotion of gender equality, social inclusion, peace building and conflict resolution, post-disaster relief, and economic development.

According to the report “Harnessing the Power of Sport for Development and Peace” (2008) from the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG), sport brings particular value to developmental processes due to its five unique and inherent attributes. Sport’s five attributes are listed below:

1. Sport has a universal popularity. The set of rules embodied in sport or any form of physical activity virtually transcends any kind of cultural, social, or political boundaries. The popularity of sport is closely related to the fact that physical activities possess an enjoyable and entertaining aspect for participants, spectators, or organizers.

2. Sport has a connecting dimension. It has the ability to connect people and communities. As being an inherently social activity, which brings a wide set of different actors together (participants, players, spectators, organizers, among others), the practice of sport and physical activity generate extensive social networks at organizational, community, and national levels. These networks can help participants acquire valuable skills, such as teamwork, cooperation, fair-play, and respect for the opponent, which can in turn foster positive, inclusive, and collaborative action. Inclusive physical activities can also stimulate social cohesion and unity across society, particularly for marginalized and disadvantaged populations.

3. Sport as a powerful and extensive communication platform. Over the years, sport has flourished as a true global mass entertainment, reaching millions of spectators in the world. Due to its ability to reach and attract masses, sport has the potential to provide effective platforms for public education and social mobilization. From this perspective, professional athletes, who enjoy an increasing and significant presence in the media, have the opportunity to act as role-models and ambassadors for developmental causes.

4. Sport’s versatility. Sport is one of the most versatile tools for development and peace. Sport and physical activities are commonly associated with having the capacity to address a broad range of social and economic issues. Over the past decades, sport has increasingly been used to promote health, stimulate youth development, foster social inclusion, help peace-building, foster gender equality, and encourage economic development. Sport is an effective, affordable, and accessible developmental tool.

5. Sport and physical activity have the potential to empower, motivate and inspire. Physical and sport activities are by their nature primarily about developing one’s abilities and capacities, as well as showcasing one’s achievements and accomplishments. By placing emphasis on the capacities and abilities, sport and any form of physical activity serve as powerful agents of motivation, inspiration, and empowerment among societies. These elements appear as necessary conditions for positive and inclusive developmental actions.

3. The United Nations persepctive on Sport for Development and Peace

3.1. The Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on Sport for Development and Peace

As the Special Adviser my mandate is to:

Advocate: Lead and coordinate the efforts of the UN system to promote understanding and support among Member States and other actors.

Facilitate: Encourage dialogue, collaboration and partnerships around Sport for Development and Peace between the UN and Member States, international and national sports organizations, civil society, the private sector, academia and the media.

Represent: The Secretary-General and the UN system at important global sports events and other key meetings.

My main priorities are: Development of Sub-Saharan Africa, encouraging dialogue, gender equality, inclusion of persons with disabilities, and community youth role models.


Established in 2001 and based in Geneva, UNOSDP is the entry point to the UN system with regard to the use of sport in development and peace-building efforts. It supports the Special Adviser in his mandate and different missions.

3.3. UN’s SDP initiatives

The UN system uses sport as an innovative tool in advancing its development and peace-building goals. Some of UN’s main initiatives in the field of Sport for Development and Peace include: General Assembly Resolutions (e.g. UN GA Resolution (2015): Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic Ideal; HRC Resolution (2016): Promoting Human Rights through Sport and the Olympic Ideal; or UNESCO Charter (2015): International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport), Conventions (e.g. Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities), the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, the UNOSDP’s Youth Leadership Programme, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

3.4. Sport and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by the United Nations in 2015, defining the UN’s new set of objectives following the Millennium Development Goals. In the declaration of the 2030 Agenda, Sport is acknowledged as being “an important enabler of sustainable development”.

4. Contribution of Sport to the sustainable development goals

Sports can be used in various ways as a meaningful tool for development and peace in relation to the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I would like to highlight sport’s contribution with regard to the advancement of five SDGs emphasized by relevant examples in the following:

4.1. Goal 3: Good health and well-being

According to the report from the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport and Development and Peace (2003), regular participation in physical or sport activities provides various physical, social, and health benefits. Physical activity and sport can play a significant role in the prevention of chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes as well as providing cures for certain illnesses.

A number of studies (Bailey, 2006; WHO, 2003) have also highlighted that physical exercise can stimulate positive mental health and cognitive development. In fact, exercise has been linked with improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence, as well positive influences on people suffering from depression and anxiety.

Example: “Table Tennis for NepALL”

Sport’s health benefits can be illustrated through the “Table Tennis for NepALL” project. This project, inaugurated in Kathmandu in April 2016, uses table tennis to advocate for and raise awareness towards persons with disabilities by involving them in sport programs and activities that will develop their confidence, enhance their well-being and foster their sense of community.

4.2. Goal 4: Quality Education

Combined with a school’s curriculum, physical and sport activities are necessary conditions to provide comprehensive and quality education. Sport is regarded as providing life-long learning and alternative education for children who cannot attend school. By taking part in sport and physical activities alongside school, students acquire an exposure to sport’s key values (unique attributes), such as teamwork, respect of the rules and others, cooperation, discipline, and tolerance, among others. These skills are essential for future participation in social activities, such as employment, and stimulate social cohesion within communities and societies.

Equally, the integration of physical activities at school greatly contributes to the comprehensive development of students, whose physical, mental, emotional, and social qualities can be enhanced. In some cases, participation in sport activities provides an alternative path to delinquency and crime.

Studies have also highlighted a correlation between the participation in physical activity and improved academic performance, as well as increased school enrollment, attendance, and motivation. They underline a higher capacity to assimilate information in children who spent more time participating in physical activity.

Example: Youth Leadership Programme

An excellent example is set by the UNOSDP Youth Leadership Programme (YLP), which develops young leaders from disadvantaged backgrounds through two-week capacity enhancement sessions, providing them with a toolkit touse sport as a tool for development back in their communities. The YLP was launched in 2012 with 20 different Youth Leadership Camps having been organized so far. More than 700 youth will have participated by the end of 2016, thus creating a sustainable multiplier effect all over the world. At the YLP held in Hamburg in February 2016, six refugees were welcomed and integrated well into the group, which further highlights sports capacity to bring people together and foster inclusion.

4.3. Goal 5: Gender Equality

Sport can be an effective tool to promote and achieve gender equality within societies. Through sport and physical activity, women can be empowered, as well as benefit from the positive impact sport has on health and psychosocial conditions. In this regard, positive experiences in the realm of sport can motivate and encourage women to succeed in other domains and areas of society (Saavedra, 2008).

Girls’ participation in sport also challenges stereotypes and social roles commonly associated with women. In fact, by emphasizing capacities and abilities, sport helps women and girls demonstrate their abilities and achievements. This in turn develops higher self-esteem and self-confidence in women participants. Sport offers opportunities for social interaction and friendship, which can raise awareness of gendered roles among male counterparts and convey social and psychological benefits to individuals and groups.

Example: Diyar Consortium project (funded by UNOSDP)

The Diyar Consortium project implemented in Palestine illustrates particularly well sport’s ability to promote gender equality. The project established a sports centre for women in Palestine to provide a space and opportunity for women to participate in sport and learn transferable skills and knowledge for employment. In the Palestinian Territories, traditionally there has been extremely high unemployment among women (over 40%) and extremely low participation in sport, again particularly for women (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 2010).

The Diyar Women Sports Unit was founded in 2008, and a great example of the success of this unit was represented by the Diyar Women Soccer Team becoming one of the top national soccer teams in Palestine. In fact, the team won the first ever Palestinian Women Football League Championship in 2011. The former captain of the Diyar Women Soccer Team, Honey Thaljieh, became the first Arab woman to be enrolled in FIFA’s prestigious Masters Program and is now employed at FIFA headquarters. Additionally, the second captain of the team, Jackline Jazrawi, is a manager at the Right to Play organization. Members of the Diyar Women Soccer Team are now involved in the academy, which opened in 2012, by training and passing on their knowledge to younger girls. Furthermore, Diyar has developed a strong network and partnerships with Palestinian and international organizations, allowing the project to gain momentum and support to become sustainable.

4.4. Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Sport has a positive impact on national economies. This impact is explained by sport’s enormous economic aspect. Sport’s (or physical activity’s) economy is so vast and so diversified, including many sectors (e.g. sport infrastructure development, sport events, sport-related services, etc.), that it can effectively contribute to economic development. The sports industry can create many jobs and develop new activities, which in turn stimulate the economy of a community, region, or even nation.

As stipulated earlier, participation in physical activity or sport in general is associated with health benefits. Improving the health of one’s society has direct and positive impact on economic growth, reducing costs related to health care and improving public health. For example, an American study estimated that in 2000 around $3 US dollars were saved for each dollar spent on physical activities in the US. This represents significant savings for any society (Pratt et al., 2000).

Example: Waves for Development (Endorsed by UNOSDP)

The economic benefits associated with sport or physical activity in general are exemplified with the WAVES project. Waves (Water, Adventure, Volunteerism, Education, Sustainability) for development project offers volunteering opportunities to surfers, students and travelers from all around the world to go to Peru, specifically to Lobitos, in order to support local communities and businesses and to empower youth, by involving them in English language teaching, environmental education, surfing classes, social entrepreneurship and community outreach activities. WAVES aims to catalyze education and economic development through: cultural exchange and understanding; life skills and healthy living; a conservation ethic; social entrepreneurship; and sustainable tourism.

Before WAVES was launched in 2008, less than half of the youth in Northern Peru graduated high school. Due to the success of the pilot project and positive response from the local community, an ongoing programme was estab- lished (WAVES for Development, 2015). Once again, this project outlines the existing versatility and variety of sports, and development projects.

4.5. Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

For the UN Inter-agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace’s report, sport can be used as a meaningful tool in the prevention of conflict and in the promotion of long-lasting peace, since sport, thanks to its universality, has the ability to transcend cultures.

In its contribution towards peace, sport is often viewed as providing safe environments at the grassroots and community level in which participants are brought together in the pursuit of common goals and interests, learn values of respect, tolerance, and fair-play, and develop social competencies. In this regard, sport can build bridges between communities regardless of their cultural issues or political divisions. Moreover, sport activities in times of conflict or instability provide participants with a sense of normality that is detached from reality.

Example: North and South Korea’s peace and reconciliation efforts

Sport is a powerful tool to promote mutual understanding and dialogue in conflict areas. I have witnessed the power of sport at the YLP hosted in Gwangju in the Republic of Korea, which brought together participants from the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and provided opportunities for them to have fun and develop skills together.

4.6. Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals

For the realization of the SDGs, the world of sport can provide powerful networks of partners and stakeholders of a diverse nature with a common commitment to the use of sport for sustainable development.

Example: UN – IOC

An outstanding example of a partnership in this context is the one between the UN and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which holds UN Observer status and is a key partner of UNOSDP with several joint initiatives in Sport for Development and Peace. For instance, the Olympic Truce Resolution, adopted in several UNGA’s, is a successful outcome of this partnership, which encourages Member States and other stakeholders to respect a period of truce without conflicts during the celebration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympic values are an important component of sport and have a long tradition in promoting peace.


SDP is a growing and diverse movement. As I have demonstrated, there are many developmental goals that need to be addressed, but there are also many ways in which sport and physical activity can be used as a tool for to the advancement of these objectives. It is therefore absolutely essential that we work together to promote the power of sport and to unite people in the quest for development and peace.


Bailey, R. (2006) ‘Physical Education and Sport in Schools: A Review of Benefits and Outcomes’. Journal of School Health, 76, 8, pp. 397–401.

Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (2010) Labor Force Survey: (July–September, 2010) Round, (Q3/2010). Press Release on the Labour Force Survey Results. Ramallah – Palestine. Available at:

Pratt, M., Macera, C. A. and Wang, G. (2000) ‘Higher Direct Medical Costs Associated with Physical Inactivity’. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 28, 1, CDC: Atlanta

Right to Play (2008) Harnessing the Power of Sport for Development and Peace: Recommendations to Governments. Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group.

Saavedra, M. (2008) ‘Women, Sport and Development’. International Platform on Sport and Development. University of California, Berkeley. Available at: http://

Sportanddev (2016) ‘The Health Benefits of Sport and Physical Activity’. Available at: Accessed on 11 April 2016.

Sportanddev (2016) ‘Healthy development of Children and Young People through Sport’. Available at: and_child_youth_development2/healthy_development_of_children_and_young_people_through_sport/ Accessed on 11 April 2016.

Sportanddev (2016) ‘The Role of Sport in Peace-building’. Available at: http://www. peace_building/ Accessed on 11 April 2016.

Sportanddev (2016) ‘The Role of Sport in Addressing Gender Issues’. Available at: Accessed on 11 April 2016.

Swiss Academy for Development (SAD) (2010) Sport & Development: A Summary of SAD’s Experiences and Good Practices. SAD: Biel. Available at: http://www. on 11 April 2016.

United Nations (UN) (2003) ‘Sport for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the Millennium Development Goals’. Report from the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace.

Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W. and Bredin, S. D. (2006) ‘Health Benefits of Physical Activity: The Evidence’. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174, 6, pp. 801–809.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2003). Health and Development through Physical Activity and Sport. WHO: Geneva. Available at: stream/10665/67796/1/WHO_NMH_NPH_PAH_03.2.pdf/

WAVES for Development (2015) ‘WAVES Peru Info Pack’. Available at: http://www. Accessed on 11 April 2016.

LEMKE Wilfried , "Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development",in:K. Georgiadis (ed.), Olympic values-based learning as an effective tool forenvironmental protection, 56th International Session for Young Participants (AncientOlympia,11-25/6/2016), International Olympic Academy, Athens,2017, pp.173-182.

Article Author(s)

Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development
Mr Wilfried LEMKE
UN Secretary General - Sports
Visit Author Page

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Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development
Mr Wilfried LEMKE
UN Secretary General - Sports
Visit Author Page

Articles & Publications


Article Author(s)

Sport and physical activity as a meaningful tool for development
Mr Wilfried LEMKE
UN Secretary General - Sports
Visit Author Page