A lack of skills and knowledge is not limiting sport’s contribution to sustainable development – but there needs to be more scaled investment and better targeted policies, says Joie Leigh
“The contribution of sport to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is limited by a current skills and knowledge gap.”
That’s the motion I was invited to debate by the Commonwealth Secretariat earlier this month to celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. In the fourth annual debate of its type (designed to further the conversation around sport’s impact on sustainable development) I, alongside my teammates, argued against the motion.
The argument put forward by myself (main image centre), Emma Sherry, associate professor of the Swinburne University of Technology (right), and Florette Blackwood, sports policy advisor to the Jamaican government (left), was that rather than a lack of knowledge and skills being the primary limiting factor, there was a greater need for sports leaders – and leaders in general – to take more strategic action around sport and the SDGs.
Florette, speaking from her work and experience in Jamaica, raised the point that a strategic focus backed up by more standard measurement frameworks was the key driver in making sure sport’s work in the area was not “undervalued”.
Crucially, the point is not about the quantity of data and knowledge, but how that data is valued, used and actioned in order to instigate and inform development policy and agendas.
Using her findings from academic research, Emma presented a strong case to demonstrate that much of the skills and knowledge already exists in sport itself or through strategic partnerships. That’s not to say that there is no knowledge or skills gap whatsoever, but rather there is already significant knowledge already out there, both documented and undocumented – and not to exclude the valuable knowledge present in local and indigenous communities.
Presenting findings from analysis across a wide range of sport policy initiatives, as well as referencing the rapid expansion of sport for development initiatives identified by many of her colleagues, she showed that sport is already making a widespread contribution to the SDGs. It was therefore identified that rather than a knowledge and skills gap “the key need is for scaled investment and better targeted policies, programme and infrastructure development”.
During my segment, I shone a light on sport’s growing contribution to the environmentally-focused SDGs. It was my goal to challenge the lack of attention environmental SDGs currently get in the sport and sustainable development conversation, despite a healthy environment being fundamental to enabling the social development aspirations everyone talks about.
With this, I hoped to make clear the primary gap is not knowledge or skills, but the strong tendency of sports leaders and policy makers to take a human-centric view, rather than a human-environment centric view when it comes to sport and sustainable development.
Furthermore, the growing number of positive examples that are emerging this area are not emerging because of a sudden rise in knowledge or skill, they are emerging because the people at the leadership level have started to acknowledge and embed environmental sustainability as fundamentally important to their objectives.
When acknowledged and valued in this way, the mandate to then source and action knowledge and skills is enabled. Sport can only begin to contribute to environmental SDGs if those in authority state intention, and thus allocate resource, to do so.
While it is important to note the valuable contributions presented by the opposing team countering our argument, what emerged was a clear: the level of knowledge and skills is not perfect, however, the primary limitation does not lie in a knowledge or skills gap, but in an action gap, which is failing to effectively mobilise what is already available to us.
It was a privilege to be part of this debate and to hear the valuable points raised from my fellow team members and opposition, as well as share the room with many people doing great work in this crucial area of sport for sustainable development – I look forward to seeing how we tackle the action gap moving forward.
Joie Leigh is an advocate for championing sport and sustainability and a former Great Britain and International Hockey player.