When I tell people I am researching sport and peacebuilding, it never fails that I get one of two responses – the confused look that usually signifies a predisposition to thinking of those two concepts as mutually exclusive or the sudden dawning of “oh that sounds cool!”
Throughout my summer research, the most important question I was asked, and asked frequently, was “why sports?” Despite its simplicity, this is really the question at the core of our research, the question driving us to find and define the uniqueness of sport.
Sports draw people together even in places where “peace” has become taboo. It can provide an escape, a safe haven, even when surrounded by chaos. There are obvious and scientifically proven physiological benefits. Perhaps, most importantly, it gives children of all ages the chance to play. Sounds silly, sounds cliché, but I saw it again and again in the field. A soccer field can provide a bubble in time and space, a release from the world around. I saw this, I know this, but I am still struggling with how you share this, how you measure this, how you tell that story of impact so it reaches more people AND stays true to its origins.
When I was meeting with Generation For Peace delegates in the Middle East, this challenge of capturing these stories in the form of program evaluation nagged at me constantly. Their stories were so powerful, so unique, I almost felt like I was cheapening them by trying to fit them in my little box of measurement and evaluation. It bothered me that the story couldn’t just stand alone. As I return to my notes now, it is more and more apparent that this M&E element is what empowers these stories, these individuals and these programs to move forward, to adapt to the ever changing world, and to be sustainable. Beyond just the sharing of the stories, it allows for critical self-reflection for practitioners, stakeholders and participants. The M&E continues the story, rather than rewriting it.
At the same time that I was being asked “why sports?”, I had to ask myself the equally important question “why not sports?” There are several debates in the field revolving around the use of sport, particularly competitive sport, for peacebuilding. The skepticism is logical. If anything, sport is a neutral tool. Any value or harm that comes from it is the result of the method of implementation. We cannot use sport without a plan, and we cannot use sport in every context. And, importantly, we should not only perceive sport as soccer or basketball – movement-based peacebuilding can be achieved through dance, as in the case with Dance 4 Peace, or through yoga, or through the arts. As outsiders, we cannot know what is the best tool, but in each community there is a space for movement to foster peace, whether that be individual peace, communal peace, or international peace. The worst thing to do is to stop asking questions; why? why not? how? As we set out to document our summer research, we will not be providing conclusions, but rather the questions that we uncovered. Questions that we will keep asking, over and over again.
Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” A statement, after months of research, with which I can agree.