World Volunteer Web Home  
Volunteerism worldwide: News, views & resources
  Home   About us   Contact us   Contribute   Search   Sitemap 
 
Sport for all, volunteerism for all
27 September 2003

Munich, Germany: Remarks by Andre Carvalho, Chief of the programme Develpment & Operations Group UN Volunteers on behalf of Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Executive Coordinator UN Volunteers on the occasion of the 18th TAFISA World Congress.

Honorable Representatives of the German Government and Bavarian Authorities,

Distinguished Representatives of the International, German and Bavarian Sports Bodies

Mr. President and Members of the Board of TAFISA

Ladies And Gentlemen

Allow me first to bring to you the greetings of all my colleagues in UNV Bonn and of the more than 5,000 UNVolunteers around the world who work everyday to help make the lives of thousands people in need less arduous.

Let me begin by thanking, on behalf of Ms Capeling-Alakija, Professor Dr. Palm and the organisers of this important congress for inviting her to deliver a keynote speech to you this evening. As many of you know, Sharon is the Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers Programme. Many of you may not however be aware that she is also a spirited sports enthusiast who enjoys few things more than getting together with friends in the vicinity of a big screen so they can watch a basketball game - and I can assure you- as a colleague who knows this side of her well - she is not the quietest fan in the crowd.

By focusing on volunteerism - and its role in making sports accessible to all- this congress sends two crucial messages:

First, wide access to sports is crucial to the vitality and productivity of every society.

And second, without volunteer effort, wide access is not possible.

This conference takes place in Germany, a country that can take pride in the impressive statistic that 28 percent of its citizens volunteer for organisations or causes in their free time. Germany also houses the headquarters of the United Nations Volunteers programme.

The United Nations Volunteers programme makes available to countries that require them more than five thousand UN Volunteers from virtually every country who, even as we speak, are hard at work in communities around the globe - planting, teaching, monitoring, building, healing, rescuing, designing ...and yes...coaching, refereeing, and cheering.

Countless people, all over the world take pleasure not only in playing and organizing, but also in watching athletics. Why does sport have such a firm hold on so many of us? Why does it have so much power to stir our imaginations and raise our spirits?

A renowned jurist may have offered a clue when he said: "I always turn to the sports page first, because it records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but people’s failures."(Quote attributed to Earl Warren.)

Quite a statement!

Yes, front-page headlines can be disheartening, but they do occasionally report a life saved, a discovery made, a disaster averted. And the sports page sometimes reveals unworthy athletes or unruly fans.

But for the most part- and especially in the amateur sphere- sport is indeed about human potential, human striving, and human achievement. It is in the field of sport, and on the fields of sport, that we push our physical and emotional limits. It is there we test our mettle.

Sports can uplift and unify. Case in point: as President of a new South Africa, Nelson Mandela talked about the "profound role of sport...in nation-building and reconciliation" and called it a force that "is binding our nation." (Speech by President Nelson Mandela at the 1997 Presidential Sports Awards 15 August 1997, Pretoria.)

Sport is indeed about connection. Whether we are fans or coaches or players, most of us engage in sports with other people.

To be sure, there are exceptions. One can run, swim, or drive golf balls alone. And, as the Arabic saying goes, "when you play alone, you are likely to win" but it seems that if too many people play alone, society is likely to lose.

In the nineties, a Harvard University professor, Robert Putnam, noticed that more and more of his countrymen were going to bowling alleys by themselves. He wrote an article drawing attention to the phenomenon of "bowling alone", and analyzing its implications for civil society. And judging by the publicity this scholarly article received, he had touched a nerve. "Bowling alone" ultimately became a best selling book that set off a good deal of soul searching, reaching well beyond academic circles.

The great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget died more than a decade before "Bowling alone" became a metaphor for the fraying of the social fabric. But it was Piaget who titled a dissertation about children playing marbles: "Children invent the social contract."( Jean Piaget "Children Invent the Social Contract", in The Development of Moral Reasoning in Children. M. Gabrain, ed. New York: Free Press, 1932.)

Piaget’s studies confirmed what parents and teachers have long known: it is in the context of play that children come to understand the explicit rules and tacit understandings that frame human interaction. It is in the context of play that children develop moral reasoning. It is in the context of play that the social contract is invented over and over again, every hour of every day.

As children play marbles they learn that rules matter. Without rules, the game makes no sense. It’s not fun. At first, children believe that rules come from higher authorities and cannot be changed. But over time, they learn that rules are invented, that they can be negotiated.

There is a paradox inherent in these lessons. Rules are inventions; but to get along in life, we often need to regard them as if they were imperatives. We cannot be good citizens without acknowledging them, but we cannot be moral individuals without questioning them.

Now, let me return to the subject Sharon Capeling Alakija has been asked to address this evening: Volunteerism.

Like sports, volunteerism is essentially and profoundly optimistic. It is about human potential, striving, and achievement. It is about connection. It challenges one’s limits and tests our resolve. Like so many sports, it requires people to perform on someone else’s turf. And as in sport, if it’s done right, everybody wins.

As I think of them, sports and volunteerism are a kind of double helix- two life-affirming strands intricately intertwined.

It is in the realm of sports that millions of people around the world first experience volunteerism. When you begin volunteering as a youth, you tend to do it for the rest of your life.

Here in Germany, a significant percentage of volunteers- especially among young people- devote themselves to sports.

That is good news, because as everyone in this room can appreciate, it takes a tremendous volunteer effort to sustain amateur sports around the world. Moreover, expanding access to sports opportunities requires the participation of diverse volunteers.

In short, sports for all means volunteerism for all: all ages, all racial and ethnic groups, all ability levels, all genders, and all social strata.

A word about gender: there are many men who consider volunteerism primarily "women’s work." After all, men’s identities are often tied up with paid employment. If you ask them whether they do volunteer work, they often say no... but if you ask them whether they have ever coached a team or refereed or acted as scorekeeper ...the answer is almost always yes.

Why does this matter so much? Because the leap from scorekeeper to peacekeeper is not as great as you might think. Let us recall Nelson Mandela’s comments: he said that sports don’t just unify people...they help to bring about reconciliation.

This is not just theory. All over the world, efforts are underway to promote the causes of peace and reconciliation through sports. Let me offer some examples.

In the aftermath of war, sports can foster reconciliation among former child combatants- who may be traumatized and polarized by their horrific experiences. Case in point: in Sierra Leone, UNICEF and theNGO, right to play, have joined forces to organize networks of coaches who can provide sports programmes for these young people- who have often been separated from home and family. Sports programmes can help to reconnect them with each other and with their communities.

In other places affected by conflict or natural disaster, sports help restore children’s lives to some semblance of normalcy. According to UNICEF WFP and UNCHR workers- often among the first responders- two things help most with children’s recovery:

Number one: food, and

Number two: simple sports equipment. A Ball. A Hoop. A Jump rope.

Kids are not the only ones who need to play. The commander of a un peacekeeping unit in Africa reported that when his company deployed in new areas, one of the first requests received from the people was for footballs and volleyballs.

I can also cite the numerous experiences of volunteers in my own organisation. UNV sends volunteers from all over the world- often mid-career professionals- to regions where UN organizations need their skills or knowledge to help improve the quality of life, build peace, rehabilitate a village, or restore blessed normalcy.

In the three decades since UNV was established, more than 30,000 UN volunteers from more than 160 countries around the world have dedicated years of their lives to such efforts.

For example, UN volunteers have contributed to intensive peace-building efforts in East Timor. Between June 1999 and June 2002, UNV fielded almost 3,000 volunteers to support the independence and reconstruction process.

As rebuilding got underway, UNV received a special request from a new timorese cabinet minister. It seems that along with architects, doctors, and election observers, the new government had a need for... a football coach. And so, UNV recruited Ricardo Picheto from Brazil, to serve as East Timor’s first National Coach, and also to assume responsibility for the teaching and training of young players.

Football was the national pastime for many of the youth of East Timor, but always led and controlled by the Indonesian government. Following the crisis, the breakdown of this very important aspect of society created a vacuum. Through his volunteer assignment, Ricardo helped to re-establish a national pastime.

In places like East Timor, sport has a particularly urgent function. It provides young people with ways to channel energy, bond with one another, and test their abilities- without joining bands of violent "militiamen."

UNV is focusing on sport in other parts of the world as well. Recently, our volunteers helped to create sharek- an initiative for youth in the West Bank and Gaza, taken from the Arabic word for "participate." The focus of this initiative was left up to the young people themselves...and young Palestinians overwhelmingly chose sports as a necessary element in their lives.

The places I have mentioned represent extremes in the vast spectrum of human experience. But a key point is that virtually all communities- not only those ravaged by conflict or disaster- are strengthened by play in all of its forms.

More and more communities and nations are recognizing that when they invest in sport, they are contributing to health, education, employment and moral development. When they facilitate participation in sports, they are helping people achieve a sense of belonging. When they support sport in all of its diversity—including participation by those with disabilities—they are building hope for the future as well.

Sport is a means: the values and skills learned through sport- such as fair play, teamwork, resilience, discipline, and sharing- parallel those needed for development and peace.

But sport is also an end: the desire to play is an essential human attribute.

These and other findings led to the establishment of a un inter-agency task force on sport for development and peace. A major finding of the task force is that sport should be a crucial plank on any development agenda, especially but not only when the focus is on young people.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stressed the importance of realizing sport as a tool for development and peace. According to the secretary-general, "sport can play a role in improving the lives of ... not only individuals, ... but whole communities. I am convinced that the time is right to build on that understanding...".

What can we do to build on that understanding? The UN task force offers many ideas.

- to support sustainable development: we can recognize that sport is a significant force in economic and social development and in environmental protection.

- to improve the well-being of children: we can encourage governments, development agencies, and communities to think about how sport can be included more systematically in plans to help children, particularly those living in the midst of poverty, disease, and conflict.

- to strengthen education: we can use the appeal of sport to increase school attendance and achievement, and to promote inclusion in education, especially of girls, refugees and persons with disabilities.

- to improve health: we can recognize that sport and physical activity are the most sustainable and cost-effective way to tackle noncommunicable diseases.

- to combat aids and advance other important causes: we can recognize the value of sport as a highly effective communications tool, and of athletes as powerful spokespersons.

- to promote unity: we can make sport a common framework for peace-building and development efforts.

and finally…

- to promote volunteerism: we can remove impediments to volunteerism for all in the realm of sports, and we can recognize that sport is a crucial entry point to a life of volunteerism.

It has been through years of work by TAFISA, the IOC and the volunteer movement that the issues of sports and volunteerism have found their way onto the un agenda. Now, how do we achieve these aims? We have a map- in the form of the strong set of recommendations that came out of last February’s un-sponsored sport and development international conference held in Magglingen, Switzerland attended by some of you here this evening. The recommendations are too numerous and detailed to list. Suffice it to say that they pose very concrete challenges for all of us- whether our day-to-day involvement is in the private public or voluntary sector. I encourage you to work, in your own sphere, toward carrying out some of those recommendations.

As Secretary-General Annan has said: "the time is right." The time is now.

Thank you very much.