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The Role of Sport in Transnational Peacemaking

The Role of Sport in Transnational Peacemaking

Sport has been used as a tool to actively promote peace, reconciliation and development in the past few years. Several projects have been set up in the Balkans, the Middle East, West and Central Africa, Sri Lanka and South America in order to improve social relationships between divided peoples. The UN also jumped on board a decade ago, when Kofi Annan introduced the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) in 2001. This perception of sport as an instrument to encourage mutual understanding in conflict-ridden regions may cover two areas of sport diplomacy identified in our report (see our report here):

  • Firstly, promoting closer dialogue and integration in multicultural societies;
  • Secondly, fostering peaceful relations at the international level.

Regarding peace and development issues, sport programs launched in developing countries are a significant component of global civil society. They are committed to objectives which pursue social justice, including the respect of human rights, gender equality and the fight against racism, discrimination and homophobia. An organization involved in improving relationships within a divided society will not always teach the individuals how to play better, but rather how conflicts on the field can be sorted out in a non-violent way. Starting from there, they will probably hope for spill-over effects from what is done in sport into the broader community (on this matter, see James Taylor’s interview here). Sport may be used in this context to promote microconnectivity. For instance, a project in South Africa tries to cut down armed gang violence through physical activity and games. The latter were designed to work as a peaceful communication platform. As this example shows, most cases are cross-national rather than transnational, as they seek to bring together specific groups.

However, sports do not escape reality and cannot change any context by themselves. The political environment strongly matters. A cricket tournament held monthly or annually between Tamils and Sinhalese will not heal their wounds, but will somehow contribute to the overall peace architecture. According to many people working in the sector of sport, peace and development (SPD), numerous obstacles remain. A technical one is related to cooperation: how can local organizations, international NGOs, national federations and other institutions work together in a coordinated and efficient manner? Another problem lies in the very nature of the projects themselves. Indeed, one should not consider that relationships between communities have to be reinvented. Indigenous people have lived with each other for centuries. Therefore, it is not about explaining how they should live together, but which ways can be found to reduce the tensions. Unfortunately, some projects try to sell a “conflict-resolution story”, which fail and contribute to draw criticism on the organizers, sometimes accusing them of neocolonialism. A last issue that we want to mention here is related to gender. One has to be particularly careful when it comes to girls’ participation in sport activities, depending on where the project is based.

In conclusion, the SPD sector remains a small part of all development programs and as such can only play a minor role in helping to achieve peace. It also faces the same challenges in terms of sponsorship, coordination and implementation. Many NGOs and officials do not question the “good” intentions of most projects, but remain cautious with regard to the concept of ethical universality. The latter is sometimes understood as an imperialistic value and may harm relationships between organizations and key stakeholders, notably donors.

For more information: Giulianotti, R. (2011), “Sport, Transnational Peacemaking, and Global Civil Society: Exploring the Reflective Discourses of ‘Sport, Development, and Peace’ Project Officials”, Journal of Sport & Social Issues, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 50-71

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