Five years ago, Lina, a teenager living in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Cali, Colombia, was unemployed and unmotivated, idling away her time at home. Today, at 22, Lina is assistant to the manager of a local apparel company, earning a steady income with social security and pension benefits. She is also planning to go to night school to study business administration. Was it job training, microfinance, or free trade that caused this transformation? No. It was sports.
In May 2000, Henry Kissinger and Edison Arantes do Nascimento (better known as Pelé) appeared together one morning at the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) headquarters in Washington DC. An unlikely pairing, the world-famous diplomat and world-famous soccer star had something in common: they saw soccer as more than just a game. For both Kissinger—who always carved out time in his schedule to follow a match—and Pelé—the former captain of Brazil’s champion football team—soccer represented a tool for promoting social and economic development. Their arrival at IDB set in motion a number of initiatives that expanded the IDB’s approach to development and, ultimately, benefitted Lina.
Pelé and Kissinger had come together for an IDB seminar called “The Business of Soccer in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Pelé, who rose from extreme poverty to become one of the world’s highest-paid athletes and later Brazil’s sports minister, gave an impressive analysis of the sport’s potential for the Americas to the star-struck economists and international bankers attending the seminar.
“In the United States, the sports industry generates about 4 percent of GDP,” he explained. “In Latin America, it barely represents 1 percent. If we could get sports up to 2 percent, we would create a lot of jobs and opportunities in our region.” Pelé went on to say that, with the help of sports clubs, governments and civil society organizations, sports could also be the best tool for keeping kids out of trouble. Kissinger concurred.
Few in the audience needed to be reminded of the region’s troubling economic statistics—which today remain stark. According to a recent study on child poverty by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 45 percent of children are affected by at least one moderate to severe deprivation, which means that almost 81 million people under the age of 18 suffer from child poverty. Expanding the category to those under the age of 24, the number adds up to more than 83 million people who are victims of violence, poor nutrition, inadequate education, and a scarce job market. Often excluded from greater society, these young people have been virtually unreachable by traditional social-help programs.
As both Pelé and Kissinger made clear, though, sports can provide a path out. Since that meeting in Washington, the Bank has forged an ambitious Sports for Development program that collaborates with government, the private sector, foundations, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to promote youth involvement in sports.
The IDB’s program is grounded in the idea that reaching at-risk youth requires speaking their language—which, in Latin America, often means the language of soccer. The theory is that soccer and other team sports can serve as both a hook and a platform for teaching basic employability skills, including teamwork, discipline, respect, communication, and helping youth focus on results. At the time of the IDB meeting, few comprehensive, tested programs of this sort existed. But in the decade since, a growing body of literature has focused on the correlations between sports and personal development, and sports and social mobility among disadvantaged urban youth.1
One of the IDB’s first Sports for Development initiatives—a pilot project called A Ganar (To Win/To Earn)—was financed with a two-phase, $7.3 million grant. The first phase was planned in three countries—Brazil (where it is called Vencer), Ecuador and Uruguay—and the second would extend it to an additional eight countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Implemented by Partners of the Americas, a network of nonprofit organizations and volunteers in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean, it uses soccer and other team sports to help youth aged 16 to 24 acquire personal and professional skills…
1. Ramón Spaaij, “Sport as a Vehicle for Social Mobility and Regulation of Disadvantaged Urban Youth,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44(2-3): pp. 247-264, 2009.