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Tsutomu Kobayashi

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Can Sport Rescue People from Poverty?

Tsutomu Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International Cooperation, Sports Science

The emergence of sport as a means of rescuing people from poverty

Can sports rescue people from poverty? This is a new approach to aid and assistance that has been launched in recent years by the UN (United Nations) and other international organizations. In fact, development organizations such as the UNDP (UN Development Programme) have begun to experiment with linking development projects with sport to promote harmony among different ethnic groups and raise awareness of the importance of education and health. This trend can be traced back to November 2003, when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution stating that sports should be emphasized as a means of expanding education, promoting health, and establishing peace, and that national governments should actively exploit such possibilities from sport. This resolution provided the impetus for so-called sport for development strategies which focus on the various benefits offered by sport and aim to employ sport in the development process to reduce poverty.

Sport rescues people from poverty in Africa: soccer brings hope to a slum

In Kenya, for example, a major problem is a loss of connections, which poses risks for the structure of society. As a result, a program is being implemented to overcome this problem through soccer. In a slum in a suburb of the capital, Nairobi, a grand project began in 1987. It started when a Canadian working with the UN Environment Programme noticed that soccer had become popular there and organized the local youths into teams. The living environments of the young people there were unstable, and they were used to playing with balls that were all but worn out, so the approach to soccer that this foreigner brought in was extremely fresh for them. In league games, teams were awarded points not only for winning, but also for keeping their communities clean. These points were reflected in their league standings. Players receiving red cards, meanwhile, could not play again until they had refereed at least six games for younger players. In addition, players recognized as demonstrating outstanding sportsmanship were awarded green cards, in contrast to red cards. These green cards carried points, which were added to the scores awarded during the screening process for obtaining scholarships. This represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young people who wished to go on to higher education to gain funding for their further studies. This program has since grown into one of Africa's most important youth sports organizations, with more than 14,000 members playing for over 1,000 teams. It has also produced numerous players for the Kenyan national team. By employing sport to foster a spirit of compliance with rules and enabling young people in the grip of poverty to participate in society, the program forged new relationships among local people. Later, as the Mathare Youth Sports Association, it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aiming to build connections

This trend of utilizing the power of sport to help the poor has also spread beyond developing countries such as Kenya to developed nations, which are faced with the problem of social minorities such as immigrants and the homeless. In the Netherlands, for example, African immigrants have become increasingly isolated, which has prompted efforts, in the form of sports programs, to be made to proactively build connections between them and the rest of society. Similar programs are also being implemented in countries like Britain and Australia. Even though regional characteristics and social backgrounds may differ, the common hope is that sports can serve as a basis for building new connections for addressing the problem of social exclusion, which is characterized by a serious loss of opportunities to participate in society, including the denial of access to social services such as education and rising youth unemployment.

"Sport is not a luxury"

"Sport is not a luxury." This was the title of a section at the beginning of the report, Sport for Development, issued by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in 2005. In the past, sport had been seen as a luxury because those who engaged in it were the so-called leisure classes, who possessed both the social and economic means to do so. Nowadays, however, efforts are being made to position sport as a means of social participation for those who lack both economic resources and a stable social situation. What is being attempted is to build a relationship between development and sports that differs from that based on justifying massive development and authorizing investment in public works projects that would normally be delayed with the aim of bringing events like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics to the city in the future.

Aiming to shed light on the power of sport

Even in the South Pacific, the region on which my research focuses, a new aspect of the power of sport is gradually being identified. With the employment situation posing a risk to the social structure due to a rise in the rate of structural youth unemployment, young people have been robbed of the chance to make choices and decisions in relation to employment. Recent research, however, has shown that a safety net unique to the region exists. This safety net involves young people making clever use of sports networks to obtain employment opportunities.

It is not easy to rescue people from poverty. The economic development provided by developed countries to developing countries reinforce a feeling of dependence, as people wait for supplies of aid from outside organizations. In some cases, people in developing countries may lose the will to try to improve their lives on their own. Government organizations function poorly in developing countries, so various social development programs, in areas such as citizen participation, health, and education, have been implemented with the aim of helping citizens themselves to create organizations to serve as a system for filling the gap left by the government. Nevertheless, such initiatives rarely result in active participation in government. In light of this situation, the power of sport, through which it may be possible to somehow connect individuals with each other and with society, is beginning to be revealed.

Tsutomu Kobayashi
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International Cooperation, Sports Science
Born in 1969. After graduating from Tsukuba University, gained a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University in 2001.
Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University in 2001.
Between 1995 and 1997, coached the national soccer team of the Republic of Vanuatu, and was involved in various international tournaments and local FIFA aid projects for the developing world. Served as a full-time lecturer on the Faculty of Education, Shinshu University, before assuming his current position in 2004. Since 2010, has served as a special researcher at the Centre for Sport and Social Impact, La Trobe University (Melbourne), Australia's first university organization to specialize in the social impact of sport. His research is currently focused on social development through sport.
Recent research papers include Kobayashi Tsutomu et al (2011), "Football 'wantok': sport and social capital in Vanuatu," International Review for the Sociology of Sport 46(4):1-16, which demonstratively interprets the living strategies of young people who try to overcome poverty by skillfully utilizing their sports network.