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Can you measure the value of sport?

Building an evidence base to support S4D for protection, education, inclusion
06 Apr 2018

(6 April 2018) Sport for Development (S4D) is an intervention which can potentially deliver positive impact on children’s well-being. However, with little coordination between S4D organisations and a lack of rigorous evidence proving its value, there is a vacuum of concrete information and lessons learned in the sector. UNICEF Innocenti has initiated a new research project looking to fill this gap by building an evidence base to support improved S4D programming and policy to increase the impact of sport beyond the playing field.

Sport is a powerful communal experience, bridging boundaries of language, religion and culture; engaging billions of supporters and participants. Beyond physical well-being, UNICEF has long recognized that sport can have many additional beneficial effects for children. In fact, Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the right of every child to play and recreational activities in a safe and healthy environment.

S4D is the use of sport as an instrument to positively impact social and personal development. Various S4D initiatives aim to achieve different objectives. Some initiatives aim to engage youth in sport to keep them away from harm, while others use sport to provide psycho-social support for children traumatized by war, disaster or exploitation. Still others use sport to engage youth and stimulate positive development of values, attitudes, and behavior. Harnessing the power of S4D has many benefits when designing practices and policies, not least its relatively low cost and easy incorporation into existing programmes at all levels. 

Visit UNICEF global S4D page

However, sport remains an untapped tool for making positive change for children on a larger scale. Currently, a myriad of organizations use S4D initiatives to achieve positive child outcomes. The closure of the United Nations Office of Sports for Development and Peace in 2016 left a vacuum in the sector and reduced coordination between key S4D actors. While there are over 550 registered organisations, there is a lack of rigorous evidence on their impact. Action surrounding S4D outpaces the evidence base to support it. Unlocking the potential of S4D – and the investment to support it – requires quality evidence.

During a physical training session, a group of Yemeni child practice self-defence techniques at UNICEF safe space for youth at Markazi camp for Yemeni refugees. Djibouti.


UNICEF Innocenti’s new research project on S4D – supported by the Barça Foundation – aims to close this gap by building a reliable and consistent evidence base. Not only will this research help strengthen evidence on the impact of S4D initiatives, it will also facilitate cross-national learning, and may even help to reinvigorate sport as a development intervention. The research looks to understand how S4D initiatives can most effectively transform children’s lives and promote positive outcomes in four specific areas:

  • Education
  • Child Protection
  • Participation
  • Social Inclusion

Additionally, the research will identify both limitations and best practices in monitoring and evaluating S4D programmes and initiatives. The aim of this exploration is to identify the most effective initiatives, and the reasons for their success. This evidence base can help to harness the power of sport to transform the lives of children.

Girls play football during afternoon activities at the Centre de Transit et d'Orientation, a UNICEF-supported reintegration centre for children associated with armed groups, in Kananga, Democratic Republic of the Congo


The universal appeal of sport provides an important advantage for S4D based efforts to motivate, inspire and mobilise communities. UNICEF Innocenti’s research aims to provide a more consistent definition of S4D for the many organisations who are already using sport to improve children’s lives, as well as evidence to help governments position sport as a viable development initiative. S4D can help ensure that even the most marginalized children in the world can reach their full potential.

UNICEF Innocenti’s research on S4D is led by Dominic Richardson, Senior Education Specialist, and is supported by education expert, Juliana Zapata.