Sport is a tool: language in Sport for Development and Peace

I am a bit of a word nerd. I get a kick out of interesting turns of phrase and word play. I also get a bit too involved in word choice and deconstructing terms. Luckily I’m now a graduate student and my thesis will probably involve looking at the language that is used in sport for development curricula.

I am also lucky that sport for development, or development in general I suppose, are both overflowing with interesting uses of language. I wrote about buzzwords in an earlier post. Some development bloggers have already written about language. Aidthoughts has two posts – one onbuzzwords and one on the rhetoric of change. Allana Shaikh has written a few posts about language, including one on words she doesn’t use.

I feel like a dork when I spend time deconstructing something seemingly harmless. I try to console myself with the belief that language plays a role in shaping the world in which we live, so investigating language can be a worthwhile endeavour.

Some of the most common phrases in sport for development derive from the idea of using sport, using the power of sport, or using sport as a tool.

We must use the power of sport as an agent of social change

Kofi Annan

Using the transformative power of sport and play to build essential skills in children and thereby drive social change in communities affected by war, poverty and disease

Right toPlay

‘Sport & Development’ refers to the use of sport as a tool for development and peace

International Platform on Sport and Development

I could have easily included dozens of more examples.

So, what is the problem with this language?

Comparing sport to a tool – or talking about being able to use sport – is misleading. It presumes that sport is a functional object that can produce specific outcomes. It focuses the field on outcomes as opposed to the process. Whether you use a hammer to build a house, or you use a girlfriend to get access to her toy collection (sorry for the Seinfeld reference. Actually, after writing that, ‘toy collection’ sounds quite sexual, but it is very literal in referring to a toy collection. Maybe I should just think of another analogy as I am getting sidetracked…), anyways, when we are using something, the outcome is the focus and the object or person being used is not considered in more than an utilitarian sense.

I can’t get over the idea that when we use an object we are usually degrading, or devaluing, that object. I’ve wondered if it’s the same with sport for development. We are using sport, but what does sport get out of it? I don’t mean to anthropomorphize sport, but only to consider that by focusing on the utility of sport and the outcomes that can be produced we may be neglecting the possibility that sport is a complicated process. It is not a hammer with a defined shape and function, but is more like a mixing bowl – ingredients can be added, but it is the process they undergo in the mixing bowl that will determine the outcome.

Additionally, I believe that in focusing on outcomes and downplaying the complex nature of development there is a risk of perpetuating an ineffective process. The prime example of this is the recent controversy with the Central Asia Institute and Greg Mortensson. The author of Three Cups of Tea was able to sustain somewhat dubious practices by hiding behind the mantra of education saving the world and having people want to believe it. Similar problems are occurring in the microcredit sector as well with hyperbolic rhetoric. I am not implying that education and microcredit are bad or ineffective. My concern is that it can be problematic to only preach about the power of an intervention and neglect the actual complexities involved.

I understand that simplified slogans may be needed to promote and raise money for causes. I also understand that a lot of organizations that use rhetoric are aware of the complexities involved in the sport for development process. However, I worry that when slogans are repeated constantly to promote and justify sport for development that they become taken-for-granted and ingrained in our thought processes. When this occurs I think there is a risk of implementing programs that are as superficial as the rhetoric that accompany them.

June 15, 2011

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