06/11/2010 05:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

South Africa's World Cup: Is Anyone Really the Winner?

As I type this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Pretoria, South Africa. I have been here since early May, evaluating an HIV/AIDS orphans and vulnerable children program that is being implemented throughout the country. Each day since I've arrived, one can feel the level of excitement in Pretoria and Johannesburg escalate 100% more than the day before.

But all that enthusiasm cannot stop me from thinking about the opening match which began thirty-five minutes ago. I can hear the vuvuzelas (1 meter long plastic horns that are a staple of showing one's excitement at South African sporting events) blaring on the streets, and I can feel the excitement at the hotel and surrounding areas, for sure. But I know that the people I've met during my almost two months here will have little to no positive impact from this monstrous global sporting event. Tonight, as urban middle class South Africa is glued to its televisions to watch the match, children will still be going hungry, many of them left to fend for themselves in child-headed households. They live in all manner of shacks, huts and makeshift housing, most of which is not safe or sufficient to keep out the cold winter air these nights. And to think about the fact that the country's initial estimates of refurbishing and/or building the 9 World Cup stadiums was initially R1.6 billon, and ended up costing the nation a whopping R16.5 billon, a 98% increase in cost (source: National Treasury, Sunday Times). And that's just for the 9 stadiums alone! A fraction of that money could have changed the lives of the hundreds of thousands of orphans struggling to survive across this nation.

As I've been moving around the country, in both urban townships and remote villages, I am gobsmacked that the World Cup and FIFA have done nothing of any significance to highlight or assist the issues related to South Africa: poverty, gender violence and gender inequity, all of which combine in a toxic mix that fuels the HIV/AIDS epidemic here into an almost unmanageable situation due to the numbers of already-infected people. FIFA and the Government of South Africa seem to think football clinics in poor villages and townships are enough. They are not. In fact, there was a consortium of local NGOs that requested permission to set up HIV/AIDS information booths near or inside the stadiums and fan parks, but FIFA ignored their request - not even a reply to them according to a recent newspaper article. And I saw nor read of any signs of support from the host government. And as of last weekend I started seeing an SABC advert on TV that says "...on June 11th, South Africans across the nation will gather in their lounges, and watch history being made on TV..." I can tell you that the child-headed households I've been working with, and the impoverished households trying to cope with caring for HIV-positive family members - these "homes" barely have a roof if that, and they certainly don't have "lounges" nor televisions or even electricity to watch "history being made". In my opinion, true history would be the South African government holding FIFA to the fire, insisting that they do something - anything really - to at least help highlight the issues that need to be addressed here. True history would be a South Africa that put its own most vulnerable citizens first, before even a World Cup bid.

The media power that FIFA wields is enormous - it makes the Superbowl media look like child's play. It is inexcusable that FIFA has not offered, let alone supported the host country in bringing these critical issues to a global stage. The fact that the host country has not put pressure on FIFA to do so is just as unforgivable. The hypocrisy boggles the mind. Last week while on a site visit we learned that one of the newer clinics in a fairly remote location has been closed indefinitely because funding was diverted to the Cup sites to be used for roads upgrading, etc. The only people really benefiting from the Cup are those who were already wealthy to begin with, those who had connections to make a buck off this event, and perhaps some small amount of hotels and restaurants, and only those in the surrounding areas of each of the stadiums. The majority of South Africans living in poverty, struggling not only with HIV/AIDS but also food security issues, access to education, domestic violence and rape, will not benefit from the Cup. I have asked every person I've met in every province and village and township, and without exception, everyone living outside the major cities has said they have yet to feel any positive impact from Cup madness, nor do they expect to. One lady in a village summed up the overall disconnect when she told me, "...that soccer thing is for city people, not for us out here in real Africa. We are not part of that..."

The issue of getting AIDS orphans issued with birth certificates and ID cards is one of the most challenging issues facing orphans because without a birth certificate one cannot get an ID card and without an ID card one cannot be enrolled in vital social services such as food supplements, health care, education, etc. One would think that perhaps someone in the South African government and someone in FIFA might have figured out a way to create and support a national campaign to ensure that between the awarding of the Cup to South Africa in 2004, and today's 2010 kick off, the country would strive toward achieving 100% enrollment of every orphan and vulnerable child in the country into the appropriate social services system. But no, nothing like that has even been attempted. And the result is children are going without food, access to health services, social services support, etc. Yet if you go to any truck stop bathroom within an hour's drive of any Cup city site, you will find black granite post-modern sinks and faucets, because, you know, it's really really important that World Cup tourists know they can wash their hands in granite sink troughs while in South Africa. I could go on, but I think you get the point. If South Africa wants to be seen as an equal on the world stage, it's not granite truck stop sinks that are needed, it is 100% coverage of the country's most vulnerable populations, it's orphaned children.

As a development worker, it begs the question, what else can we be doing? And sometimes you know the solution must come from within, not from you, but it is very difficult to walk away from people - good people, kind people, desperate people - knowing that they will have nothing to eat tonight and that perhaps their home consists of nothing more than a piece of plastic tarp. That a child of ten years of age is living alone in a run down mud hut with barely a roof and no food, and is expected to care for his/her younger siblings because the parents are either dead or so ill they cannot care for the children anymore, all while a nation celebrates an excessive and obscenely expensive global sporting event is almost too much to really contemplate.

When I think about the media opportunities that a World Cup stage provides, to say it's already a missed opportunity is a gross understatement. It is a crime. Shame on FIFA for not supporting the host country in at least shining a light on urgent social issues. And shame on the South African government for not pushing FIFA to do so.