Female boxer practicing punching in front of wall.

Strong Girls – Strong Communities

Sport for development projects call into existence, nurture and network important civil society eco-systems, which increase the resilience of communities in some of the most deprived, war-torn and under-developed communities on earth.

Sports clubs are the engines of social engagement and integration for migrants. In Germany, for example, more than 1 in 3 migrants is a member of a sports club, in contrast to only 15 percent who engage in cultural, music or other leisure time clubs. And membership potentials are not exhausted yet, because the participation rates of migrants are still visibly below the rates of people without a migration background. This is only one small example of how sport can be a driver for social change, in particular the increasing participation of marginalised groups in civil society organisations. This challenge is being taken up by sports for development projects in a wide range of countries and at a number of institutional levels.

And yes, sport has a potential impact on development projects that aim to build civil society, particularly in foreign policy. The United Nations characterise sport for development projects as ‘the intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific development and peace objectives, including, most notably, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ’While many of the sustainable development goals can certainly be reached through civil society sporting organisations, I will discuss in more detail the goals of quality education (goal no. 4), gender equality (no. 5) and reduced inequalities (no. 10) as well as health (no. 3) and peace (no. 16) as globally accepted goals.

According to the World Bank, civil society refers to ‘the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organisations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.’ Non-governmental and non-profit organisations work to grow and strengthen civil society at different levels.

Wheel with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) of the United Nations.
Especially through the increasing participation of marginalized groups in civil society organizations, sport can serve as a driver for social change, photo: Robert B. Fishman via picture alliance

First of all, they work at the grassroots level, which happens in the form of local activism and programmes that directly support the individual.

The second level is the foreign policy level of states such as Germany, including its federal level institutions such as the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) or the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ). Gerd Müller, German Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, argues: ‘I see sport as a priority of development cooperation – one which we seek to develop in collaboration with our partners in sport, civil society, business and academia, and with ordinary committed people.’

The third level includes global United Nations programmes such as the UN Office for Sport for Development and Peace.

I'd like to discuss the contribution of sport to civil society through the perspective of sport for development programmes that I have built over the past twenty years or worked on as a consultant.

A GIZ paper states that it aims to ‘use sport as an innovative instrument to support the achievement of development objectives: we do not promote sport in order to train better and more successful athletes, rather we use sport as a transmitter for reaching development policy objectives.’

The decisive difference between sports development and sport for development is the expected outcome. Sport for development projects use sport as a means to reach development goals like the Sustainable Development Goals. Sports development, on the other hand, means the development of sport infrastructure, organisations and the achievement of national or regional sporting success.

While boxing has been a focus of the organisation, the curriculum has always included elements of democratic education, leadership development as well as instruction on health and personal safety topics.

We will apply the term development goals to the context of Germany, even though Germany itself is not the focus of ‘development programmes’ in the traditional sense. Sport for development projects are used in Germany to improve social cohesion and integration, recently and importantly within the context of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’.

My experience of using sport to achieve social or political development began at a grassroots level with my development of boxing training for women in the Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in 2001, together with the local sports club Seitenwechsel e.V. Our cooperation later grew into Boxgirls Berlin e.V. It was the first boxing club of its kind, with a female board, trainers and athletes and is to date the largest women’s boxing club in Europe.

While boxing has been a focus of the organisation, the curriculum has always included elements of democratic education, leadership development as well as instruction on health and personal safety topics. For its vigorous advocacy regarding women’s leadership and organisational capacity building, Boxgirls e.V. was awarded the title ‘Model Project of the UN Year of Physical Activity and Sport’ in the category of social integration and urban peacemaking in Germany. With its boxing and leadership programmes, Boxgirls Berlin e.V. attracted not only white, German-speaking women, but also girls and women from ethnic minorities and migrant communities in Berlin, groups that are otherwise severely under-represented in civil society organisations.

Boxgirls is thus a civil society organisation that provides many people with their first opportunities for leadership. In Boxgirls’ case, these people are likely to never have been considered as candidates for leadership in their lives.

Boxgirls South Africa NPC works on a similar model to its sister project in Berlin. BGSA is a civil society organisation that strengthens girls’ agency in the township Khayelitsha in a sport and leadership programme. It started off as a local grassroots organisation and was able to secure funding from a Swiss foundation in 2015 to train girls at 20 schools.

Creating spaces for public discussion

In the Boxgirls After-School Club, participants not only learn self-defence and presentation skills, but also improve their academic skills and build their social capital. Ndvile, a 15-year-old alumna of the Boxgirls programme, describes the personal effects of the programme she has experienced: ‘Boxgirls has helped me to be more focused on my school work and know the importance of education… [Boxgirls] teaches you to have self-respect and responsibility.’

On a collective level, Boxgirls contributes to social change by engaging in debates about public space and public goods or bringing topics like gender-based violence onto the national agenda. Public events, such as the celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March, not only engage the participants’ families and the wider community in a fun and interactive way, but also create a space to discuss women’s rights and peace-building. Another prominent issue in the communities in which we work is the health of mothers and babies, which is also an integral part of the sustainable development goals.

As a grassroots civil society organisation, the BGSA staff and peer-educators are members of the very communities they serve. This builds social capital and stronger networks of practice in these impoverished areas.

We used our knowledge of youth engagement and development gained from sport clubs, to create programmes for the German school setting. Overcoming social inequalities in the German educational system by targeting school children and educators has been a focal area of the activities of the CamP Group social enterprise. Our program RespAct uses sport to raise children’s awareness of neighbourhood challenges and violence prevention in Berlin’s most impoverished and densely populated areas. Our participants gain knowledge about democratic processes at the local level through a range of different formats and attain the skills required to become active members of civil society.

Here, sport functions as a tool for team-building and increasing the self-confidence of children who are otherwise severely marginalised because of their socio-economic status and cultural backgrounds. In school development programmes and workshops we also train teachers and youth workers in child-centred and participative sports games to improve the classroom learning environments. We measure the social impact of our work rigorously through participant surveys, qualitative interviews and focus groups in order to continuously improve our pedagogical methods, and support our advocacy on the communal level.

CamP Group’s newest initiative involves ‘welcome classes’ ('Willkommensklassen') where young migrants, including many refugees, learn about German language and culture before entering the regular educational system. Our sport programmes JumpIn and RespAct for welcome classes foster integration and exchange between language learners and other children at school to overcome language and cultural barriers.

Sport and movement provide a way to create better social cohesion and improved learning outcomes for the most challenged and challenging young people in the school system.

Sport for development methods prove critical here where there is no shared language or culture; sport and movement provide a way to create better social cohesion and improved learning outcomes for the most challenged and challenging young people in the school system.

In comparison with a grassroots organisation like Boxgirls, which develops emerging youth leaders, Camp Group gGmbH provides training and leadership development for people who are already professionals and working inside educational and other institutions.

The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development created the Sport for Development sector programme in 2013 to develop innovative approaches using sport for development in order to contribute to the achievement of global goals in education, health and HIV prevention, gender equality, violence prevention and conflict solution, good governance, inclusion and environment.

I worked as a consultant for the Sport for Development sector programme in Afghanistan with staff from the Afghan Ministry of Education to develop a culturally appropriate, child-centred sports curriculum for girls at school, which demonstrates the principles applied for successful sport for development projects.The school environment, a closed gymnasium, is often the only place girls have to play, run or do sports due to the cultural context of modesty, and pubic space as a male realm. By supporting the Ministry of Education in Afghanistan to develop further teaching tools for this marginalised target group, the BMZ is furthering goals towards the wider inclusion of girls and women in society, their right to education and to physical and mental health, which we know are developed through school sport programmes.

Sharing Strategies for Social Change

Other GIZ Sport for Development sector programmes use sport to improve themes as diverse as vocational training, HIV prevention and violence prevention. Future programmes will support programmes for refugees abroad. The German BMZ and GIZ Sport for Development sector programme works with government partners to provide funding and technical support for civil society or government institutions to achieve development goals through sport.

So it is not aimed at creating leaders like Boxgirls, or training existing leaders like Camp Group, but funding and providing technical expertise for fellow governments to further grow the capacity of their own civil society organisations to solve development challenges.

For the United Nations, building civil society through sports for development projects has been a priority for almost fifteen years, since resolution 58/5 of the United Nations was adopted in 2003.

Girls of the project "Boxgirls" stand in the Chancellery in Berlin on Friday (23.04.2010).
In the Boxgirls After-School Club, participants not only learn self-defence and presentation skills, but also improve their academic skills and build their social capital, photo: Hannibal Hanschke / dpa via picture alliance

It underscores the importance of ‘sport as a means to promote education, health, development and peace’. As a political entity at the highest, global level, the United Nations Office for Sport, Development and Peace (UNOSDP) runs different activities including the UNOSDP Youth Leadership Camps on all continents to enhance social awareness and civil society engagement.

A UN paper states that ‘Most of these youth have only very basic education levels, limited resources with which to carry out their projects and do not have a proper forum where they can learn best practices or develop their leadership skills.’ So the idea of a Youth Leadership Programme was conceived in order to support such young people by giving them access to the theoretical and practical training they need to improve their projects and their own professional progress, and to support them once they go back to their communities.

The UNOSDP convene youth leadership camps to achieve this mission, bringing civil society leaders together (volunteers, leaders of sports clubs, coaches and directors) in a donor country to help develop and accelerate their programmes.

The school environment, a closed gymnasium, is often the only place girls have to play, run or do sports due to the cultural context of modesty, and public space as a male realm.

The current United Nations Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, Wilfried Lemke, also has a long history in sport and politics. Before he was appointed to his current position at the UNOSDP, he was Senator for the Interior and Sport and the Senator for Education and Science in the German State of Bremen and the manager of German second division football club Werder Bremen for almost two decades. Due to his career as a German policy-maker, Lemke is familiar with Germany’s foreign policy goals and its rights-based framework.

It is not just the UNOSDP that is leveraging the power of sport for development to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Others in the UN system are also using sport: UNESCO, UNAIDS, and UN Women to name but a few.

Sport falls under the remit of UNESCO within the organisational structure of the United Nations. Furthermore, on matters concerning development through sport, the agency responsible is the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP). ‘UNOSDP acts as a mediator between the United Nations, its member states, individual (sports) organisations, civil society, the private sector, academia and the media’, states a BMZ paper.

It becomes clear that Sustainable Development Goals can be successfully and efficiently pursued through sport for development projects aimed at the individual and communal (grassroots organisations), international (programmes by BMZ and GIZ) and the supranational global level (UNOSDP), and should thus play a vital role in national foreign and development policy.

Sport for development projects do not only aim to achieve the specific development goals laid out in their conception and planning, but they also call into existence, nurture and network important civil society eco-systems which increase the resilience of communities in some of the most deprived, war-torn and under-developed communities on earth. Now we need to increase the visibility of these projects and the impact that they have, in order to create stronger networks and share best practices, scaling their successes quickly and efficiently in communities internationally in order to achieve the SDGs.

This has already begun, with the GIZ in partnership with the UNOSDP taking a leading role in finding and sharing best practices in sport for development in Germany at an international level. In order to support the achievement of the SDGs this process must continue and expand throughout countries in Europe and internationally.

About the Author
Heather Cameron
Professor for Practice in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Heather Cameron is a British social theorist and social entrepreneur. She is the Michael B. Kaufman Professor of Practice in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. From 2008 to 2016 she was a Junior Professor of Physical Activity, Inclusion and Sport at the department of Education and Psychology at the Free University of Berlin and Professor Extraordinarius at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. She is the founder of Boxgirls International, an organisation that has received many awards, including the Sonderpreis der Bundeskanzlerin as part of the startsocial competition. In 2010 the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers named her University Lecturer of the Year for her ‘professional and extra-curricular engagement’, and its exceptional impact on increasing public awareness and appreciation of her profession.