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Agence Française de Développement (AFD) is supporting an increasing number of projects that use sports as a tool for development. Here, Maxime Terrieux, economist and sports expert at AFD's Research Department, talks about both the benefits of sports and some still unanswered questions concerning its relationship with development.
Maxime Terrieux pour l'AFD

What benefits can sports provide for a country's development?

Everyone intuitively thinks of sports as having positive effects on health, social cohesion, and the economy. But how do we know if this is fact? In a study published last November, we reviewed more than 90 publications on the subject and identified seven channels through which sports can have an impact on development. These are the economy, education, health care, inclusion, migrations, the environment, and social cohesion.

Our conclusion was that sports does indeed have a certain number of positive impacts in developing countries. Economically, for example, holding a soccer World Cup or Olympic Games generally provides surplus growth, business opportunities, and new jobs in the host country. As for social cohesion, a study on soccer shows that it's an effective means for reducing ethnic rivalries in Africa.

And there are other positive effects: sports furthers women's empowerment, helps raise young people's awareness about public health, and increases financial flows toward African countries thanks to high-level athletes who live abroad.

Some benefits seem more limited…

That's true. The benefits from the holding of major sports events, for example, generally do not go beyond the short term. A study has shown that the jobs created during big construction projects are often filled by foreign workers and do not last after the sports event.

Environmentally as well, the construction projects related with big competitive events can lead to population displacements and degradation of ecosystems. Not to mention that environmental and social impact studies are not carried out systematically. These are moreover problems that are often in common with developed and developing countries.

We can nevertheless see that awareness about this subject is growing. International federations such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) supervise the organization of their events with standards that are increasingly binding in environmental terms.

With regard to health, while grassroots sports can encourage the adoption of good health practices thanks to competent trainers, intensive sports can lead to problems such as doping and psychological imbalances among children when they are trained too early.

Nonetheless, the main observation we made from this study is that there is a lack of both qualitative and quantitative data on this topic. Research publications are often based on small sample sizes that are unique to a context or a geographical area, and thus difficult to apply more widely. It's therefore difficult to make a firm conclusion about each positive and negative impact from sports on developing countries. Long-term data collection work is thus necessary.

What other questions are researchers raising on this new topic?

A number of points remain to be explored: How can we bring sustainability to the jobs and businesses created on the occasion of big sports events? How can we limit environmental degradation? What are the repercussions of holding a competition such as the Africa Cup of Nations?

It also might be interesting to know the extent to which practicing sports influences academic results. We know that sports improves students' concentration and cognitive capacities in the developed countries, but is it the same in developing countries?

We should recall that AFD is one of the pioneers in the use of sports as a development tool. Partnerships have been made with the NBA and FIFA. A call for projects has been launched with European Guild (Guilde Européenne du Raid), and a platform for actors to meet one another will be launched in the first half of 2020. In late June, AFD also presented its methodological approach to development via sports to the IDFC, a club of 24 national development banks around the world. Interest in sports exists, and we hope that its popularity, as well as better knowledge of the issues surrounding it, will grow.

For further details : AFD and Sport: A Vehicle for Social Cohesion and Equity