By Mark Clark, CEO, Jadranka Stikovac Clark, Director, Generations For Peace Institute, and Julia Kent, Director, Donor & Partner Communications

The Sport For Peace approach to conflict transformation used by Generations For Peace (GFP) volunteers in their communities is one of five vehicles for peace building: Sport; Arts; Advocacy; Dialogue; and Empowerment For Peace. We will be sharing other blog posts on each of the other vehicles for peace building soon.

Sport is part of our “DNA”!

GFP was founded in 2007 as a pilot initiative of the Jordan Olympic Committee to use sport for peace building in communities. The Olympic and Sport Movement is therefore part of our “DNA”: in fact, our original name was “Peace Through Sport”! GFP is the only peace-through-sport organisation officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee. Over time we have expanded our range of activities to include arts, advocacy, dialogue, and empowerment, but sport-based activities remain the most popular and are often the first entry point for our volunteers to engage with youth in their communities.

Grass-roots activities to address local issues

The field of Sport for Peace and Development (SPD) is growing fast with many organisations and different types of activities at different levels. GFP’s focus is on grass roots sport activities in communities, to address local issues of conflict and violence. Think of weekly activities in a village or neighbourhood setting, rather than mega tournaments in a stadium!

Focused on peace building, not sporting excellence

Rather than pure sport activities following an official sport code, we use specifically-designed sport-based activities, games and drills which integrate peer-group peace-building education, because our objectives are peace-building outcomes rather than development of sporting skills or competitions. GFP Sport For Peace activities therefore harness the same energy of sport play, and the power of team dynamics and joint effort towards achieving a goal, but with the aim of changing attitudes, behaviour and relationships of the participants. Click here for more detail on how GFP’s Sport For Peace approach is positioned in the field.

Facilitators, not coaches

Sport For Peace requires a change of mind-set from normal sport activities. No prior sport experience is required. Instead of being sport coaches, focused on developing sport skills and excellence, our volunteers play the role of facilitators, carefully constructing a “safe space” to ensure the participation and learning of all, and the achievement of the desired peace-building outcomes. The activities are carefully adapted to the local context and culture, the local priorities and the chosen target group participating.

Sport for Peace activity

Addressing local issues of conflict and violence

Different Sport For Peace programmes may focus on different dimensions of conflict. In the personal dimension, sport activities may help restore self-esteem and rehabilitation of those who have been vulnerable to trauma and violence – whether as victims or perpetrators – including those disabled or marginalised by violence. In the relational dimension, sport team games can help build new relationships of trust and acceptance, breaking stereotypes and bridging conflict divides. In the structural dimension, sport activities can promote greater inclusiveness of those facing discrimination or exclusion in the community (including ethnic minorities, displaced people, refugees, people with a disability). In the cultural dimension, sport activities can foster changes in cultural norms over time, finding common ground between different groups and enabling communities to embrace diversity, and fostering greater equality of opportunities for women and men, and for the marginalised and excluded.

Our GFP Programming Framework ensures that all our programmes have a clear theory of change, a precise focus on a particular dimension of conflict, a specifically-identified target group, and carefully-chosen activities with clear indicators to measure the impact.

Sport for Peace activity

Why sport for peace?

So, what is it about sport that can make it an effective entry point and vehicle for peace building?

Sport’s universal popularity: In every culture there is some sort of sport activity. This does not mean that a particular sport code may be popular everywhere or with everyone, so there are limitations, but with a good understanding of the local community it should be possible to identify a popular sport that can serve as a great entry point to engage youth.

Sport as a universal language: When people play sport together, it doesn’t matter too much whether they speak the same language or have other common interests – they can all understand the rules of the game, share the excitement and energy of play, and cooperate together in teamwork to achieve their objective.

Sport’s ability to empower, motivate and inspire people: Sport has an energy that gives people new opportunities and experiences to become empowered, motivated and inspired.

Sport as a safe space for interaction: Sport attracts people to come together to play, to spectate, to meet and interact and connect with each other. A carefully facilitated sport activity can provide a controlled “neutral” space for people to meet across conflict divides, to interact safely and to experience new types of exchanges and relationships together that may not be usual outside the sport situation. This allows breaking of old stereotypes and forming new perspectives and new relationships founded on shared experiences, deeper understanding, tolerance and trust.

Sport creates perfect “peer groups”: Sport situations automatically create perfect “peer groups” – people of similar age, sharing a passion and experience together, and having a unique relationship with the facilitator of the activity. That can be a different relationship than that with their parents, or schoolteachers, or community elders or faith-based leaders, so can provide space for different type of discussion. These peer groups are a powerful structure for discussion, learning, reflection and mutual support through a process of attitude and behaviour change.

Sport can teach life skills: Through participation in sport, young people can learn about health and fitness, goal setting and personal development, punctuality and time management, respect for rules and structure, respect for others, responsibility to teammates, commitment and pride, resilience and dealing with setbacks and defeats as well as successes.

Sport as a communications platform: Sport activity – even a grass-roots activity in a community – attracts youth participants and spectators and therefore provides a platform for communications.

Sport is cost-effective: Grass-roots sport activity is extremely cost-effective. It can support significant positive sustainable change in a community, at relatively low cost. Most resources needed (a simple space or venue, basic sport equipment, refreshments) are cheap and can be provided by local stakeholders as value-in-kind support.

Sport for Peace activity

Success Factors, Limitations and Risks

Apart from good programming using the GFP Programming Framework, what else must we remember to avoid risks and ensure successful Sport For Peace activities?

Activities must be fun, regular and sustained over time: One-off events do not lead to sustained impact. To secure lasting positive changes in attitudes and behaviour, Sport For Peace activities must attract and retain the participation of a target group in regular (weekly) sessions that build progressively on each other over a sustained period. GFP programmes typically engage participants in 44 hours of activity over 6 months. This is where real lasting impact comes from. But it means the activities must be fun, so that participants keep coming back!

Adaptation, improvisation, and inclusion: Ensure that activities are appropriate for the local culture, the context and issues of violence being addressed, and the age group of the target group. Consider what will maximise fun and inclusive participation by everyone taking into account conflict divides, age, gender, physical abilities, sporting skill levels. Be creative and modify sport code rules, improvise equipment and add modifications to games as you go along to make them progressively more complex.

Empower girls and women: In some communities, girls and women may be reluctant to participate in, or prohibited from participating in, traditional sports activities. GFP addresses this in different ways according to the specific context, such as separating boys’ and girls’ activities to different locations to reduce feelings of self-consciousness; ensuring girls activities are facilitated by female volunteers; introducing girls to sports that are new in the community (such as softball in a community that is unfamiliar with it) to avoid male-dominated sport structures. In mixed-gender sport-based games, rules can be adapted to require the ball to be passed to all team members before the team is eligible to score, or to make a girl’s goal count for two points instead of one.

Activity combinations: Sport alone will not achieve peace, but carefully-designed Sport For Peace activities can make an important contribution, and their impact can be reinforced and multiplied if used in combination with other activities in parallel in the community, such as Arts, Advocacy, Dialogue, or Empowerment For Peace.

Safe space: Poorly controlled sport situations can lead to violent rivalry, cheating, and negative outcomes. The sport situation must be carefully designed and well facilitated; only then can it provide the “safe space” and enabling environment for positive behaviour change.

Competiveness: The competitive nature of sport provides a powerful dynamic focused on teamwork and interdependence to achieve a superordinate objective, which should not be removed, but must be carefully applied. Jumping straight to a sport game between community A and community B who have been in conflict with each other is likely to lead to very negative outcome and do more harm. The power of the competitiveness should instead be used to foster interaction and teamwork between players form community A and community B, by forming mixed teams.

Pay attention to “readiness”: Before starting inter-group activities with participants from different sides of a conflict together, first spend time on intra-group activities with each group separately. Only attempt inter-group activities after a sufficient degree of inter-group trust and openness and respect for the GFP activities has been developed.

Sports star role models: Short fly-in/fly-out visits by elite global sports superstars are not conducive to measurable positive impact (indeed some negative unintended consequences often arise). But sports star role models at the grass roots level – think of the girl captain of a village basketball team – are very influential in their local community and available to support a sustained programme.

GFP participants

Want to learn more about our work? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates, or check out our latest videos with stories from the field.

We will be sharing other blog posts on each of the other four vehicles for peace building soon.