More than six hundred million people tuned in to watch FIFA’s World Cup Final in 2010.  This amazing figure is one of the many statistics that demonstrate how sports captivate our lives. Across the world, athletic competition activates a collective spirit that enhances community participation among children, adolescents, and adults.  Attracting youth participation and development through a powerful tool such as “sports” should be a paramount investment to be made in the next years by developing countries.

As most of us recognize, education is the key for the world’s long term progress.  However, learning should not be left only to the classroom. Currently, children and adolescents in developing countries have too much leisure time, and some don’t even attend school. Many come from broken families, join gangs or participate in illegal activities because of lack of direction.  Children and teens that seem abandoned by the formal education systems can be sheltered from the many backdrops that abound in their communities by the implementation of “sports for development” programs.

The role of sports in society is not only measured by TV ratings or stadium attendance. In 2003, the UN defined sport, for the purpose of development, as “all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction, such as play, recreation, organized or competitive sport, and indigenous sports and games”.

Since “sport” is a synonym for “play”, why not recognize, respect and therefore invest in healthy leisure activities? The implementation of sports programs can be easy and cheap, and, if developed well, can become a low cost, high social benefit venture. In order to achieve this, investment should not only be focused on building new infrastructure.  The amount of money and effort dispensed should also be motivated by creating effective programs that give priority to developmental objectives and are designed to be inclusive. These would enable sports to be as a means for educating youth.

Sports for development programs can become a powerful tool for development and learning. They promote participation, inclusion, human values, acceptance of rules, discipline, health promotion, non-violence, tolerance, gender equality, teamwork, among others. All of the aforementioned problems are visible in the poor communities of developing countries. These issues can be dealt with by adopting programs that directly address them as part of their routine.

I encourage countries to look at sports through a different angle.  Sports are an effective instrument that can help improve the quality and development of our children, families and countries in general. Each country will need to tailor its programs in order to focus on its particular problems and obtain the results it seeks.  The results will be observed in the long term. They will not necessarily consist of an individual standing on podium receiving a medal, but an entire generation of good citizens, prepared with the necessary competencies to face their country’s present and future challenges.

Camila de Vengoechea is the Training & Development Manager for the Morgan & Morgan Group in Panama City. She is interested in education, youth and sports for development programs. She currently directs a social program focusing on wellness, sports and nutrition in one of Panama´s poorest communities.