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Could Professional Sports Boost Economic Development in Africa?

Luol Deng with the Chicago Bulls. Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0

Luol Deng is a rich and famous professional basketball player who has played for some of the most well-known NBA teams, such as the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Miami Heat.

Deng also hails from Wau, South Sudan, a country scarred by poverty and the aftermath of a recent civil war. He has figured prominently in efforts to reduce conflict and advance the peace process in his native country through an NGO called Enough Project. In addition, he has facilitated the construction of 12 basketball courts and locker rooms in South Sudan. He explains:

What I’m most proud of is that my family can look back after my career is over and realize that I was able to make a difference on and off the basketball court. That is something that tells the true story as to who I am as a person, someone who cares about his community and wants to improve the lives of others.

Deng believes that the expansion of his favorite sport may be the key to economic prosperity for his compatriots. However, examples of successful professional high-level athletes are still rare in Africa. So how much impact could professional sports possibly have on the development of the African continent?

The media impact, at least, of high-level sports on African countries is undeniable. Major events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games are watched by a vast majority of the population. Likewise, each win by an African country or athlete is celebrated as an important victory for the entire continent. For example, the performance of Roger Milla and Cameroon's Indomitable Lions at the 1990 World Cup was a real revelation for all Africans.

However, the establishment of high-level sports in Africa has never managed to achieve stability. National competitions do not attract much attention and the best players tend to go abroad. This is especially true in individual sports, like tennis. To this day, the only West African player to have won an ATP tournament is Yahiya Doumbia from Senegal, who won the 1988 Lyon Open and the 1995 Bordeaux Open.

So, for young African athletes, embarking on the path to high-level sports is a risky wager. What role, then, can sports play in African development?

According to the Institut Amadeus, a Moroccan think tank, this role has yet to be defined:

Dans nos états, la dimension éducative du sport n’est pas suffisamment exploitée. Le mouvement sportif international a exploité la dimension monétaire du sport. C’est aux gouvernements d’intervenir pour remplir cette lacune. Par exemple, l’engouement  autour de l’organisation de ‘méga’-évènements sportifs a attiré beaucoup d’attention autour de l’idée selon laquelle le sport constituerait un véritable vecteur de développement. Pourtant, selon le bureau de l’UNESCO pour la Jeunesse, le Sport et l’Education Physique, l’impact développemental de ce genre de manifestations reste à démontrer.

La plupart des bénéfices ne perdurent pas dans la durée. L’effet sur l’emploi, qui revient souvent dans les argumentaires des responsables politiques locaux, n’est que de courte durée, et ne porte que sur des emplois faiblement qualifiés. Accueillir ce genre d’évènements mène à une hausse généralisée des prix, qui affecte en premier lieu les populations les plus défavorisées. De plus, il reste à montrer que les investissements réalisés ne créent pas d’effet d’éviction, en siphonnant des fonds destinés à d’autres secteurs.

Our member states have not sufficiently explored the educational dimension of sports. The international sports movement has exploited the monetary dimension of sports. It is up to governments to intervene and eliminate this gap. For example, the excitement generated by major sporting events has attracted lots of attention to the idea that sports could be a genuine vector for development. However, according to UNESCO's office for youth, sports, and physical education, the developmental impact of such events has yet to be shown.

Most of the benefits do not last. The effects on employment, an issue often cited by local politicians, are short-term and only create low-skilled jobs. Hosting these types of events causes prices to rise, which primarily affects the poorest populations. Plus, such investments may even create a crowding-out effect, siphoning off funds destined for other sectors.

In Burkina Faso, Boukari Ouédraogo, an Ouagadougou blogger, is convinced of the added value of sports for his country's economy.

Le développement du sport au Burkina Faso contribuerait à la création des vastes marchés pour les équipements sportifs (maillots, T-shirts, chaussures, gadgets), la vente des billets, de restauration, de droits télés avec la retransmission des matchs, le sponsoring… Le marché de l’emploi serait plus ouvert, de façon directe et indirecte. Les stades auraient par exemple besoin de personnel pour entretenir et veiller sur eux. Le développement du sport au Burkina Faso pourrait permettre aussi l’essor de la petite unité de construction de ballons de football (et bien d’autres disciplines aussi) situés dans le village de Bourzanga dans la province du Bam.

The development of sports in Burkina Faso will lead to the creation of large markets for athletic equipment (jerseys, T-shirts, shoes, gadgets), ticket sales, restaurants, broadcasting rights, sponsors… The job market would open up, both directly and indirectly. For instance, stadiums will need maintenance and security personnel. The development of sports in Burkina Faso could also encourage growth in the small football manufacturing industry (as well as others) located in the village of Bourzanga in the Bam province.

Richard Attias, Moroccan businessman and former president of Publicis Events Worldwide, also thinks that high-level sports could contribute to development, but only under certain conditions:

La pratique du sport a cette particularité qu'elle surpasse les limites des frontières géographiques et les classes sociales. Le sport est déjà un secteur économique à part entière représentant environ 2% du PIB dans de nombreux pays développés. Néanmoins, le défi est aujourd'hui de faire du sport un facteur du développement économique des pays moins développés afin qu'il profite à tous les citoyens de ces Etats sur le long terme.

Tout le monde est d'accord pour dire que le sport contribue au développement économique en créant des emplois et en dynamisant l'activité commerciale. Cependant, depuis quelques années, on remarque que les effets bénéfiques pour l'économie sont surtout réels sur le court terme. L'organisation d'événements sportifs n'a des effets bénéfiques sur le développement des Etats qui s'il encourage la pratique sportive des citoyens locaux et si ceux-ci peuvent ensuite utiliser les installations construites pour l'événement. Bien sûr, le sport en lui-même ne peut pas sortir un pays de la pauvreté. Par contre, il peut y aider en suscitant un changement social. Le sport n'est pas qu'une industrie, pas qu'une économie. Il doit devenir un formidable vecteur de développement pour tous les Etats du monde.

Sports, in particular, cross geographic borders and social classes. Sports are already a separate economic sector, representing around 2% of the GNP of several developed countries. Nevertheless, the challenge today is to transform sports into an economic development factor in less developed countries so that it may benefit all citizens over the long-term.

Everyone agrees that sports contribute to economic development by creating jobs and energizing commercial activity. However, for the past few years, we have noticed that the economic benefits are short-term. Hosting sporting events could be beneficial if it encourages local citizens to take up sports and if they are given access to the facilities built for the events. Of course, sports alone cannot lift a country out of poverty. But, they can help inspire social change. Sports, after all, are just another industry, another economy. Sports must become a strong vector for development across the globe.

According to François Alla Yoa, the former physical education/sports program director for CONFEJES (the French-speaking World Conference of Ministers for Youth and Sports), a practical solution for reconciling sports and development may lie in taking a bottom-up approach:

Si nous voulons sérieusement faire du sport une partie intégrante du développement social, cela doit démarrer à la base, dans les quartiers. Parmi ses succès, la fréquentation des établissements par 25% de femmes, qui pratiquent le sport de manière quotidienne pour la première fois de leur vie. Avoir un impact sur le quotidien des gens est probablement la manière la plus immédiate, opérationnelle et utile de faire du sport un véritable vecteur de développement social.

If we seriously want to make sports an integral part of social development, we must start at the bottom, at the neighborhood level. Morocco has successfully achieved a participation rate of 25% among women who are practicing a sport on a daily basis for the first time in their lives. Impacting people's daily lives is probably the most immediate, useful, and workable way to make sports a true vector for social development.

It may turn out that Luol Deng's vision of constructing basketball courts and investing locally was an effective way to instigate development through sports after all.

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