Ever watched the World Cup or the Olympics? Ever cheered for a team or an athlete other than the one coming from your own country?
If so, isn’t it amazing how suddenly the world has no geographical boundaries and people are united by the love for sport? How race, gender or sexual orientation suddenly doesn’t matter?
Many of us sport enthusiasts have idols and role models who are different nationalities to our own and when it comes to international events, we are not afraid to show our support. So how can we capitalize on these euphoric positive feelings in order to create greater societal benefits and use the power of sport for peace building and reconciliation in conflict countries?
In the run up to the International Peace Day (21 September) celebrations, we look at the links between sport and peace and what UN-Habitat is doing in that regard.
The value of sport beyond the glory, fame and money has been officially recognized by international development community since 2001, when the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan introduced the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace and appointed the first Special Advisor on that matter. Since then, the field and the supporting community of sport and development enthusiasts has grown in strength and numbers, trying to prove that sport can make a positive difference when combined with professional and socially responsible intervention tailored to the respective social and cultural context.
Sport is an essential element of society, be it in a form of competitive sport, physical activity or play. It appeals to collective identity which helps to create and maintain healthy community spirit as well as nurture social cohesion. However, whilst it serves as a universal bridge between conflicting groups, we need to make sure that the supporting pillars are built on solid foundations.
Staging a football match between two clashing parties without any further intervention will not solve the problem; on the contrary, it can exacerbate the problem as sport is, by nature, a contest. The projects need to embody the best values of sport while upholding the quality and integrity of the sport experience and must be delivered in an integrated manner with other local, regional and national efforts so that they are mutually reinforcing.
Social cohesion and connectivity in diverse neighborhoods can also be supported by provision of public structures such as sports centers and accessible public spaces. These are essential, especially for young people in need for ways to fill their time which help them to avoid the dangerous spell of drugs, crime and violent behavior patterns. Thus the access to high quality public spaces for sports and recreation is crucial to maintain good health, strong social networks and necessary psychological balance to endure trials off growing up in unstable and challenging environments.
One of UN-Habitat’s flagship programmes, the One Stop Youth Center (OSYC) currently operating in five cities across East Africa, including Mogadishu (Somalia) and Kigali (Rwanda), provide such safe spaces for young people to come and play, learn and interact with others. The sport component is critical to the success of the center as the possibility to play sports attracts more young people than opportunity to learn something new.
Acknowledging the power of sport in education, UN-Habitat often facilitates workshops for young people using sport to convey a message and engage them in participatory urban planning. These interactive sessions often focus on addressing the urban challenges young people face particularly in marginalized communities, where issues of violence, crime and conflict are in the forefront. Supporting young people to become self-confident change-makers with appropriate communications and leadership skills so they can actively participate in their community building and development, is our priority.
UN-Habitat recognizes the immense potential of using sport as a tool to shape up strong and cohesive communities, which are absolutely essential in order to build safer, more sustainable and resilient cities. While we are yet to find the recipe for translating the mega sport – events euphoria onto the grounds, we strongly believe that sport is the right tool to attract, mobilize, inspire and most importantly, engage young people so that they can take peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts firmly in their hands.