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Could Professional Sports Boost Economic Development in Africa?

4 min read

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:

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.

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:

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:

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.

This article was initially published at globalvoices

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