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The power of sports for local community development

October 2016

George Kennedy

Whether you enjoy watching from the armchair, or playing on the field, sport has the incredible capacity to unify and inspire both individuals and communities. On the field, pitch, paddock, skate-park, mountain, pool and even sea, sport fosters community identity and engagement. Whilst professional players and national teams generally dominate the headlines, it is participation at the grassroots level where the power of sport can be most strongly felt. In developing communities, where children and adults alike experience the daily stresses of poverty, sport is being used by local organisations to bring communities together, inspire hope and foster collaboration. Here we’ll take a quick look at some case studies that demonstrate the power of sports in development and its capacity to support vulnerable communities



Founded by a former professional Zimbabwean soccer player in 2002, Grassroots soccer now has over 400 training centres throughout Africa. The program leverages the power of soccer to engage local children and adolescents, combining games and regular training with a health curriculum developed to help children better understand infectious diseases and sexual health. The program focuses upon the prevention of HIV, malaria and other diseases prevalent throughout Africa. They also offer support services to assist adolescents who live in families where siblings or parents suffer infectious diseases, helping them develop coping strategies and support networks.


They also focus upon engaging young women who often miss out on sporting activities due to entrenched gender norms throughout Africa. Skillz Girls Naija, is a program run by Grassroots Soccer in Nigeria. This women’s-only space offers adolescent girls the opportunity to play soccer and learn about reproductive health in a safe, supported and inclusive environment. By combining sports programs with an important healthcare initiative, Grassroots Soccer has been able to educate young Africans regarding sexual, reproductive and infectious health in a fun and engaging environment.



This is one of my favourite NGOs in the world. The organisation has grown off the back of strong support from international skating professionals, including Tony Hawk, and now operates in Afghanistan, South Africa and Cambodia. There will be many more articles exploring Skateistan on Project Eudaimonia into the future, however today we’ll focus on their engagement with local children through skateboarding.

Skateistan began in 2007 where founder, Oliver Percovich, built a warehouse skatepark in Kabul. Since then, they have used skateboarding to engage with local at-risk youth, offering after-school education, health and nutrition training and youth leadership programs in combination with skateboarding lessons. Lets face it, skateboarding is cool everywhere, and when introduced to local youth who were weary form protracted conflict, the program enjoyed immediate success. Their strategy to engage young girls in particular is flawless. In Afghanistan, cultural norms prevent women from driving and riding bicycles. However, there was no cultural precedence for skateboarding, leaving the door wide open for Skateistan to engage with young girls in a (relatively) culturally acceptable fashion. Madina Saidy, a former student and now youth leader at Skateistan, exemplifies the capacity for organisations who utilise sport in development to peomote sustainable change. Aside from her many other success, in 2012 she lead a presentation on the issues facing Afghan you to over 100 members of government at Kabuls national Parliament. What a feat!



In many developing countries, the sea is primarily seen as a resource for fishing. It is essential to the survival of millions of people world wide, offering access to income, as well as sufficient protein for survival. However, Waves for Change are broadening that perspective, using surfing to engage with local youth. They follow a similar strategy to Skateistan, combining education and leadership training with the opportunity to engage in sport. For 250 disadvantaged and disenfranchised youth in Johannesburg, this program is a welcome relief from the challenges of their day-to-day lives.


Waves for Change have been particularly effective at involving local community leaders to run the program. Whilst first implemented by a visiting Brit in 2011, the focus is now upon training local community leaders to run the education programs and surfing workshops. Into the future, the hope is that the program will become entirely self sufficient, with locals training locals to run programs and engage with local youth. This is what truly sustainable development looks like.



Mentioning a program in a highly developed country makes a deliberate point. All too often we forget that marginalisation and poverty exist right under our noses. Within remote rural Australian communities, indigenous populations suffer from perpetual vulnerabilities that see them live shorter, suffer more chronic health conditions and engage less in education. Community leaders at Arathusa College in Barambah Creek, Central Queensland, are seeking to change this. They are using rodeo to engage with local indigenous children, combining the exciting and engaging sport of bull riding with education.

They use similar strategies to the organisations above, with a specific focus upon creating a space for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to share in the excitement of bull riding. Every year they have a rodeo at the local showgrounds where youth form the program have the opportunity to ride in front of their families and friends in a supportive community environment.


Sport is thus a key tool for local development, particularly when engaging with disadvantaged and disenfranchised youth. Recognition of this is growing with the World Development Banking now hosting an International Sport in Development Forum every year where different organisations from around the world can come together and share their stories. Lets hope that this will lead to further organisations like these above being created in vulnerable communities around the world.

About the Author

George is the founder of Grassroots Collective and has worked with local development organisations all over the world, from Cambodia to Patagonia. He is currently riding his motorcycle through South America, visiting local community nonprofits to support their work, share their stories and help foster sustainable and responsible development practice.

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