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Playing for Peace: Does Everybody Win?

2010 October 26


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The Common Ground Awards are coming up (Thursday, November 11).  If you want to come, get your tickets now!


During the World Cup last June, we highlighted five different organizations that use sports—particularly soccer/football—as a means to achieving development goals and sustainable peace.

One of the amazing things about the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA)—one of our 2010 Common Ground Awardees—is the fact that when it was started in 1987, there was virtually no recognition from international donor organizations that sports was a legitimate way to involve youth.  MYSA proved that by using sports as a starting point, organizations could address a whole host of issues, including HIV/AIDS prevention, inter-ethnic understanding and solidarity, drug and alcohol abuse, and community beautification.

However, as Bob Munro describes in his report “Sport for Development: Policies, Perils, and Partnerships,” funding was not the only challenge faced by MYSA.  It may go against our intuition to think that sports-based programs aimed at youth participants would engender any sort of resistance, but as Mr. Munro explains:

The reality on the frontlines is that community-based organizations like MYSA which constantly try to change the status quo are not always welcomed and appreciated by everyone in the slums. In any organization or community, the status quo always has its own winners and losers…Any changes in the status quo also have winners and losers, but they are not the same winners and losers. Any changes…even when those changes benefit the community as a whole, are still seen as a threat and are resisted by those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.

He goes on to describe various goals and the threats they pose to already-entrenched interests.  While helping young leaders stay in school is without question a laudable goal, local politicians may see young, well-educated community members as future competition—and a threat to their power.  Keeping kids off drugs and alcohol is important, but addiction provides crucial revenue for those who sell such vices.

In underlining the perils organizers face, Mr. Munro acknowledges the darker side of community organizing.  And on the surface, his report is disheartening—how can peacebuilding organizations hope to make lasting changes when something as seemingly uncontroversial as a sports association is undermined at every turn?

Ultimately, though, it is an important conversation for us to have: all too often, the field of peacebuilding and development tends to shine the spotlight exclusively on all that is good about our work; on how much any given community wants “change;” on the achievements that are inspiring.  In being so lopsided, however, we shortchange the hard work that is community organizing, and make it that much harder to achieve lasting, sustainable peace.

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