What can international aid learn from sport?

With this year’s upcoming Australian federal election, the Australian Government’s recently released Sports Diplomacy Strategy – Sports Diplomacy 2030 – will no doubt very soon fade into the background.

The Strategy, released in February 2019, received a modest but commendable amount of public attention, positively highlighting the contribution of sport to aid and diplomacy. It builds on a 2015 document – a “pioneer in the field” according to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne – that used sport to maximise Australia’s linkages with the region, enhance economic opportunities and strengthen the communities of near neighbours.

As a former Australian Youth Ambassador for Development (AYAD) to Fiji, I hold a strong place for sport and development. At a time when many young foreign policy and aid practitioners were thinking about Geneva or New York, spending a year with Fiji Swimming offered not just a solid ‘ground level’ understanding of Australia’s aid program in the South Pacific, but also how sport could build people to people links, cultivate a sense of pride in the community and modestly enhance livelihoods.

Sport, I noted at the time, had never really been taken too seriously in aid and development circles. “Development work ministers to the vision of sweaty brows, reconstruction teams and board meetings,” I then wrote in the AYAD Exchange Magazine, “rarely nurturing the ambiguous category of ‘sport’.” Ten years later, and with two Australian Government strategies firmly in place, things have clearly changed.

During my time with Fiji Swimming I helped double the amount of accredited swim coaches in the country, streamlined a new governance structure for the organisation, sent swimmers to the world championships, and continued an important water safety program for Fijian teachers with swimming legend Shane Gould.

Each day, morning and night, as young Fijians cut laps up and down the pool, you could see live examples of the values that sport demands – respect for rules, fair play, discipline and, of course, learning from failure. The swimming community – the parents, volunteers, teachers, administrators, and facility staff – were also hugely important, and I used television and the newspapers to constantly highlight the importance of these efforts. You could also see people ‘lift’ knowing their efforts were being captured with wide public recognition.

While competitive swimming has always enjoyed a surprising level of profile in Fiji, these efforts were made possible not only by my position – funded by the Australian aid program – but through a small and highly effective grant from the Australian Sports Outreach Program. Funded by the Australian Sports Commission, and administered by the Australian High Commission in Suva, such assistance became the perfect illustration of achieving the very things aid and diplomacy set out to achieve – build links, enhance bilateral opportunities and strengthen the communities of near neighbours.

With modest funding, we re-certified and skilled up 20 new swim coaches, who in turn passed these skills on, set themselves up with part time income, and left the program with an appreciation for Australian Government efforts in Fiji at a difficult time politically (Fiji was in the fourth year of a military-led coup). Modest achievements, yes, but achievements in aid and diplomacy none the less.

And, indeed, it is this theme of ‘modesty’ but perhaps also ‘humility’ where sport has an advantage over the more ambitious elements of aid – infrastructure, law and justice, health and education. It has been interesting to read, for example, English rugby coach Ben Ryan’s recent Seventh Heaven: The Beautiful Chaos of Fiji’s Olympic Dream. Ryan, very much an outsider to Fiji, reveals some sobering insights into creating a world-beating performance from athletes with comparatively slim resources and virtually zero access to the benefits of modern sports science.

There are three broad takeaways for the delivery of aid. First is avoiding the principle of generating activity at the expense of proper outcomes. “I’m doing my job – must be, look at the hours of scrutiny I’m putting my players under,” mocks Ryan of other coaches who have made this mistake. “It makes your boss feel better about himself: look at all this money we’re spending on analysts and laptops and cameras on drones. Less can never mean more.”

Second is being totally embedded in the outcome, which is a forgotten practice that past aid and development administrators in the Pacific Islands embraced. “With Fiji it was total immersion,” he writes. “I was coach, I was politician, I was anthropologist, I was agony aunt. It wasn’t unusual for a girlfriend that a player had broken up with to come into camp and ask to see me.”

And third, Ryan recognises something that I have always wanted young people in the South Pacific, and in Australia, to embrace – not to disqualify themselves. “Too often in Fiji I had seen young men and women who felt their lives had a ceiling, who felt it was not possible for them to achieve any more,” he writes. “They were restricted by a stereotype, no one to help them out, to show them it could be another way.”

Besides these lessons for aid and development, sport is also making a breakthrough in Australian diplomacy that should be carefully watched in the coming years. As former Cronulla Sharks General Manager Jonathan Prosser’s work as part of the Pacific Engagement and Sports Diplomacy Forum highlights, sport can be leveraged to bring leaders together in a format that is both unique and refreshing. As Prosser notes on the feedback he received from one recent Forum participant, “due to the humility that underpinned proceedings and the genuine heart for Pacific people, this was the start of something very special.” Again, here is that important word – humility.

While sport can teach a great deal to aid and diplomacy it can, like many other activities, only go so far. “Some of the worst examples of corruption, thuggishness, ultra-nationalism, sexism and racism are found in sport – on and off the field,” recently noted three development academics. “Sport can also exclude and marginalise some groups, make a virtue out of aggressive competition, and deify elite achievers.” And intractable issues between nations, where diplomatic outcomes cannot be reached, are not likely to be solved by sport alone.

Yet this is not to say that the lessons from sport cannot still be applied to an aid and development sector that, in itself, has not achieved desired outcomes and requires fresh and new ideas. Sport now has a steady platform to show its worth and the outcomes it can present. We will do well to watch these in the coming years.

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