The Development Factor: The Challenge of Sport in the 21st Century

10/21/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Sport occupies a peculiar place in world dynamics in that it surpasses the limitations of geographical boundaries and social classes.

Still, a gap remains between developed and developing nations when it comes to sport. In the industrialized world, sport as an economic sector represents approximately 2% of GDP. For developing economies, though, the challenge remains making sport a factor of economic development, and a driver for social change, so it benefits all citizens in the long term.

UNESCO's 1978 International Charter of Physical Education and Sport classified sport as "a fundamental right for all." But the low place sport occupies in the developing world's priorities shows that its importance as an educational and social tool is not yet universal.

Everyone agrees that sport contributes to economic development by creating jobs and stimulating business activity. The organization of a major sporting event, for example, is a great opportunity for the local economy. The thousands of people who attend will spend money on food, lodging, transportation and other, related tourist activities.

However, in recent years, we see these economic benefits are obvious only the short term. If we take the example of South Africa in 2010, the positive impact of the World Cup was, in terms of job creation and reduced crime, only temporary and fell far short of pre-tournament projections. For example, the 309,000 tourists who came to the World Cup spent about $400 million, based on studies of the tourism department. The estimates prior to the tournament were three times higher. While the World Cup saw FIFA profit more than $2 billion, it cost South Africa $4.3 billion -- including nearly a billion dollars to build massive, rarely-used stadiums in Cape Town and Durban.

The Brazilian riots early in 2014 can be attributed mainly to the huge federal investment for this summer's World Cup, despite the persistence of rampant poverty in the country. Many Brazilians think the billions could have been better spent on infrastructure development, poverty eradication, and so on. This debate is not new. At the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, stadium graffiti read "No queremos goles, queremos frijoles" (We not want goals, we want beans.)

We see from these examples that sporting events are really beneficial to the host nations only when they encourage the local citizens to get out and play, and when the local professional teams can subsequently make use the facilities built for the event. As IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin said, "For every ten who are capable of amazing feats, we need one hundred playing sports intensively and one thousand actively participating."

One of the great challenges of the 21st century is ensuring that sport contributes greatly to the development of countries, particularly those currently least developed. According to Golda El Khoury, chief of the UNESCO Sector for Social and Human Sciences,

"If we are looking for evidence of a development path ... sport has again not demonstrated its real benefits for a country and its people," said Golda El Khoury, chief of the UNESCO Sector for Social and Human Sciences.

This is true but it's often because too often the sport has benefited government and business elites and not the citizenry. In many of the least industrialized nations, especially on the African continent, sport is rare because there is a shortage of knowledgeable coaches and a lack of sport equipment. In an attempt to remedy this, the French NGO Sport Without Borders operates in places like Afghanistan, southeast Asia and Bolivia, enacting projects that aim to allow everyone to access sport.

We can also commend Morocco's efforts to create localized social sports clubs. Women make up 25% of the attendees at these clubs, all of whom are taking part in a sport on a daily basis for likely the first time in their lives. This is proof of the effectiveness of real sports outreach in these nations.

A few years ago, Hugh Robertson, UK Minister for Sport and the Olympics, launched the "International Inspiration" initiative aimed at promoting physical education and sport among youth. The program includes everything from swimming lessons in Bangladesh, to reduce the number of children who drown, to teaching young Zambians about societal issues like HIV/AIDS prevention through sport.

Of course, the sport itself cannot lift a country out of poverty. But it can help as a tool to kick start social change. This is what the United Nations has been aware of ever since its first proclamation in 1978. By October 2002, the Secretary General mandated an inter-agency review of sport-related activities. The team produced a report entitled "Sport for Development and Peace: Towards Achieving the Millenium Development Goals." In it, the team concludes that sport is a relatively inexpensive and effective way to promote the achievement of the Millenium Development Goals, the common program adopted by world leaders at the U.N. Millenium Summit.

We must now follow this path that has long been abandoned by states focused solely on reducing spending. Out of global solidarity, we must allow developing countries to build sports facilities for their populations. Sport is not an industry, or an economy; it is and must be a significant driver of development for countries across the globe.

This challenge will be one of many issues at the heart of discussions at the next edition of Doha GOALS (Gathering of all Leaders in Sport), the world's leading forum on the social impact of sport, to be held November 3-5 in the presence of many athletes, politicians, business and civil society leaders.