01/24/2013 08:38 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Mega sporting events: In whose interest?

Due to the global attention that mega sporting events can bring to a city or country, they are promoted as a huge opportunity for economic returns - through tourism revenues, creation of jobs, infrastructural development and so on. In fact, there is very little evidence of such benefits, and organisers are frequently confronted with controversy surrounding cost overruns, public debt, 'white elephants', tax increases and social problems. The tangible benefits are largely restricted to the celebratory nature of the event as well as an increased sense of national pride and image abroad; see for example the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany or the 2012 London Olympics.

It is therefore valid to ask: whose interest do these events actually serve? This question becomes even more pertinent when the event is taking place against a backdrop of extreme social inequalities - such as in South Africa, the host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and Brazil, the 2014 host. Host cities and nations have a unique opportunity to create a long-lasting social legacy which goes far beyond short-term profits, but it seems that this is always bottom of the priority list.

In 2010, streetfootballworld teamed up with FIFA to make social change an integral part of the World Cup - which we see as a step in the right direction. With the construction of 20 community health, education and sport centres as part of the "20 Centres for 2010" campaign, the World Cup environment was leveraged with the goal of creating a lasting legacy for communities across the African continent.

The Football for Hope Centres are hosted by community-based organisations, in this case mainly streetfootballworld network members, thus reaching out to existing target groups and building upon effective programmes. The centres allow host organisations to develop new local and global partnerships, while also providing access to training opportunities, consultancies and additional investments which significantly increase their capacity to act as community hubs.

With this in mind, the centres can function as hubs for social enterprise: Lesotho centre host Kick4Life for example runs a series of income generation activities including a recycling project and a social tourism scheme. As well as contributing to the centre's financial sustainability, such initiatives also provide significant employment opportunities for local young people - with 32 participants receiving job placements in the centre's first year.

The centres are firmly rooted in their communities, with local involvement in the building process as well as locally sourced materials and regionally specific designs contributing to a strong sense of ownership. The host organisations are given technical and financial support for three years after the centre opening, but their long-term impact rests upon successful integration into the local communities.

Although we believe in this initiative and actively implement it, there is still a long way to go to really leverage the opportunity of a mega event for social development. We have succeeded in making social legacy a required part of every World Cup bid, but so far it doesn't appear to carry much weight in the decision-making process.

The social legacy of a mega event should be part of a long-term strategic development plan, the main reason for a city or country to enter a bidding process and the main factor for a bid's success. Mega events have the potential to drive critical agendas by serving as an accelerator for social development. A true sign of progress would therefore be the award of a future event to the bidder with the strongest social legacy proposal.