Volume 16, No. 2, Art. 12 – May 2015

Sport-for-Development: A Level Playing Field?

Janet Njelesani, Barbara E. Gibson, Debra Cameron,
Stephanie Nixon & Helene Polatajko

Abstract: In the burgeoning field of sport-for-development, the benefits of participation for youths have been widely discussed. However, it has also been noted that some youth are excluded based on ability, location, economic means, and gender and are thus not participating. We considered that this might be an issue of ideologies. Thus, it was the purpose of this study to use a critical occupational approach to explore how sport-for-development ideologies in Zambia shape the participation of young people. Drawing on empirical data gathered from five case studies of sport-for-development organizations in Lusaka, Zambia, three themes were identified that describe ideological beliefs within the Zambian sport-for-development context. The first, sport benefits all, contributed to the practice of sport being used uncritically as an activity for all youth. The second, good people do, perpetuated what were considered acceptable activities that boys and girls could do in the local context. Finally, a belief that sport is the way out privileged boys who play football as well as athletic non-disabled boys in opposition to girls, poor youths, rural youths, and girls and boys with disabilities. Together these beliefs have contributed to successes (careers in sport) and shortcomings (occupational injustices) associated with the sport-for-development phenomenon.

Key words: occupation; Zambia; sport-for-development; qualitative case study; critical occupational approach

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

1.1 Critical occupational approach to research

1.2 Occupational justice

1.3 Zambian context

2. Methodology

2.1 Positionality of researchers

3. Findings and Discussion

3.1 Sport benefits all

3.2 Good people do

3.3 Sport is the way out

3.4 Interrelation of the prevailing beliefs

4. Implications for Policy and Practice

5. Limitations and Future Research Development

6. Conclusion






1. Introduction

Recent years have seen a proliferation in international development of nongovernmental organizations using sporting activities as tools to achieve international development goals in communities (KIDD, 2008). These organizations operate under the rubric of sport-for-development. Identified benefits of participation in sport-for-development programs have included improved physical fitness, physical health, mental health, psychological well-being, socio-psychological benefits, increased community identity, social coherence, upward social mobility, and integration (BURNETT, 2013; SDP IWG, 2007). [1]

With the proliferation of sport-for-development organizations using sporting activities as tools, it has been noted, that in spite of stated goals, some individuals are excluded based on age, gender, and ability (GIULIANOTTI, 2004). We considered that this might be an issue of ideologies. From a critical occupational approach, sport-for-development programs are seen as sites where ideologies are challenged and re/produced. For the purposes of this study, ideology is described as a broad system of shared beliefs that serve to justify and support the interests of a particular group or organization (EAGLETON, 1991). In turn, dominant ideologies are those that are most prevalent in a particular socio-cultural context and signify dominant forms of thought in a society, not just any set of beliefs. Ideologies, for the most part, go unrecognized and unquestioned (LIPMAN, 1997). [2]

A number of ideologies have been articulated in the sport-for-development literature. Prevalent in the sport-for-development movement is the belief that sport will improve the welfare of others through development (DARNELL, 2012). Accordingly, sport-for-development is organized to provide better opportunities for others, wherein others are the target beneficiaries who are seen as different (e.g., of a different race, class, culture, etc.) from oneself (e.g., donor). [3]

Another prevailing belief is that sport is a universal language (DONNELLY, 2008). This has contributed to the re/production of the idea that sport is an activity that is appropriate to use in programming for all youth. Nelson MANDELA described sport as "being able to speak to people in a language they can understand" (in DONNELLY, 2008, p.382), and former UN Secretary-General Kofi ANNAN called sport "a global language capable of bridging social, cultural, and religious divides" (ibid.). In considering these two beliefs together, they suggest an inclusive ideology that is espoused in the sport-for-development literature, that is, an aim to include all youth, regardless of gender, economic means, or ability in sport-for-development programming. [4]

Although there has been a rapid expansion of sport-for-development and a concomitant rise in research, most of the research has sought to identify as functional, unproblematic, and dominated by hard facts (i.e., positivist forms of knowledge) (KAY, 2009) following approaches seen generally in the sports sciences (STELTER, SPARKES & HUNGER, 2003). Nonetheless, cautionary tales about privileging positivist forms of knowledge have been brought forward, along with the raising of critical questions about sport-for-development. Peter DONNELLY (2008) argued that this representation in purely positive terms of sport serving as a tool for development is problematic. For example, because competitive sport is based on social exclusion it may promote the very injustices (e.g., exclusion of girls) it aims to address in the first place. These recognitions of the current literature as being dominated by positivist forms of knowledge and the need to ask critical questions supports the need for further critical research. It was therefore the purpose of this study to examine sport-for-development from a critical occupational approach. [5]

To address the aim of this article, we first provide a description of the critical occupational approach that guided our work, explain the key terms we are using and describe the context of the study. We next describe our methodology including data generation and analysis methods employed. Then, we examine the findings and discuss the implications of the findings in order to gain a better understanding of how beliefs shape inequalities in sport-for-development participation. [6]

1.1 Critical occupational approach to research

A critical occupational approach can be used to examine the assumptions and ideologies underlying human activity, how knowledge is re/produced when engaging in occupations; who controls knowledge production; how an occupation is chosen; and the social, cultural, and political contexts of occupations (NJELESANI, GIBSON, NIXON, CAMERON & POLATAJKO, 2013). Occupations are groups of activities and tasks of everyday life: named, organized, and given value and meaning by individuals and a culture (CAOT, 1997). In addition to paid work, occupations include such things as caring for oneself or one's children, attending school, cleaning the house, or playing sports. Despite the difference in meaning of the terms activity and occupation, we deliberately use them interchangeably in this article, because activity was the word used by research participants. [7]

A critical occupational approach locates occupation as a site of knowledge production that is, active political sites in which meanings are generated and contested (NJELESANI et al., 2013). Understanding knowledge re/production involves an exploration of what knowledge is re/produced; how it is re/produced; the context in which it is re/produced; the way it is organized; and the systems that control what is produced (GIBBONS, 1994). A critical occupational approach is particularly useful for the study of sport-for-development because sport-for-development programs use sport as a primary means of achieving their goals, and sport is a type of occupation. Furthermore, this approach answers the above identified call for critical research (DONNELLY, 2008; KAY, 2009) in sport-for-development research. [8]

From a critical occupational approach it must be considered that there may be negative consequences to using sports in development programs, e.g., some youths may not like, want, or be able to participate in sports or in a particular dominant sport or, as Valerie FRIESEN (2010), comments that "like any language, sport in its modern, global form originated in a specific socio-cultural context, was spread by economic, military, political, and religious means, and may displace local traditions and homogenize cultures" (p.31). Furthermore, as pointed out by FRIESEN, the belief that sport is a universal language does not consider, in common with any development tool or cultural practice, that sport engenders potentially oppressive power relations and ideologies that may silence or marginalize the less powerful. [9]

1.2 Occupational justice

From a critical occupational approach, the exclusion of youth is an issue of occupational justice. Occupational justice is "a concept that can be used to guide consideration of diverse occupational needs, strengths, and potential of individuals and groups, while taking into account occupational enablement, empowerment, rights, and fairness" (POLATAJKO et al., 2007, p.80). The construct of occupational justice is inherent in a critical occupational approach in that it juxtaposes moral, ethical, and political ideas of justice and occupation and addresses issues of socio-cultural processes that inhibit people from participating in occupations. It is congruent with critical social science in that the conception of occupational justice is aligned with the interests of critical theory in which diversity and its critiques of universal theories (TOWNSEND & WHITEFORD, 2005) and occupational injustices (i.e., when occupational justices are violated) are seen as being socially constructed (WILCOCK, 2005). [10]

In this article, our application of occupational justice is a critical one in that we use it to examine how the dominance of particular ideologies leads to certain kinds of injustices that may not be easily recognized by the actors involved. Furthermore, as occupational justice recognizes that occupation is situated in and influenced by the prevailing social, economic, and political forces, the construct is in accord with the importance of context that is embedded within a critical approach. Rachel THIBEAULT (2007) reminds us to use occupational justice terms with caution, explaining that they have the potential to polarize and misconstrue the aims and objectives of governments, agencies, and communities that may not actively intend to exclude. We recognize that occupational injustices do not always occur in a willful way, yet they do occur, so in order not to ascribe fault or blame at the level of the local organization or individual in this study we focused on examining ideologies being re/produced at the macro-level in sport-for-development in the Zambian context. [11]

1.3 Zambian context

As identified by John SUGDEN (2006), "those wishing to use sport to promote non-sporting social reform need first to carefully dissect the nature of the sport experience in both its natural setting and its broader social and historical context" (p.222). For the purpose of our article, we provide a brief summary of the key factors to be considered in the Zambian sport-for-development context. [12]

Zambia is a country in Southern Africa that gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The country is culturally diverse with over 70 tribes that enjoy an amicable co-existence. Thus, Zambia is commonly regarded as a peaceful country. Christianity has been central to Zambia since its introduction in the mid-nineteenth century by European colonial explorers. In the 1991 Constitution, Zambia was declared a Christian nation, which opened the door to evangelizing the nation and strengthening the acknowledgment that Christianity is a powerful force in government and politics (ARNETT, 2007). This influence of Christianity on the nation also contributed to "evangelical sport-for-development" (MWAANGA, 2010, p.62). [13]

Football was introduced to Zambia in the beginning of the 1900s by missionaries, British colonial administrators, and investors (CHIPANDE, 2010) and therefore is not considered to be a traditional game. However, today it is seen as essential to Zambian heritage and is the national sport (BANDA, 2010). Although football is highly valued in Zambia there is little funding available for national or professional teams, causing the best players to leave home to play in Europe. One of the most significant points in the history of football in Zambia was the 1993 air crash in which the Zambian national football team was killed en route to a World Cup qualifying match. This loss of footballers who were on the verge of international acclaim created a sense of national loss, so much so that the president announced a week of national mourning (DARBY, 2004). [14]

Zambia was selected as the site for our research because it currently has a greater number of local and international well established sport-for-development organizations than other countries (LINDSEY & BANDA, 2011). Second, existing research partnerships were already in place. The University of Toronto had previously collaborated with the University of Zambia. This history of the Universities' partnerships and the first author's personal connections, contributed to a point of entry into the sport-for-development field. [15]

2. Methodology

Our study used a critical occupational approach (NJELESANI et al., 2013) and a qualitative case study design (STAKE, 2006). Ethics approval was granted from the Research Ethics Boards at the University of Toronto and the University of Zambia. Maximum variation sampling was used to recruit organizations that: 1. used sports as a tool for development; 2. operated out of Lusaka, Zambia; 3. were currently offering program services; and 4. had received funding for a period of at least five consecutive years. Case studies were conducted with five sport-for-development organizations in Lusaka, Zambia (see Table 1 for the organizations' details). The organizations were purposively selected to have organizations that used different approaches to achieve their aims and to ensure equitable gender and ability representation. As agreed to in the consent process, minimal information is presented about each specific case and participant.


Type of

Mission of Organization

Participants in




& Youth Served




Local, community based, established in Zambia

HIV prevention awareness, modern sports, traditional games, serving girls and boys

1 European woman,

2 Zambian men

3 Zambian men


Local, community based, established in Zambia

Girls' empowerment, modern sports, traditional games, serving girls and boys

1 Zambian woman

5 Zambian women


Local, community based, established in Zambia

HIV prevention, modern sports, traditional games, programming for youth with disabilities, serving girls and boys

4 Zambian men,

1 European woman

1 Zambian woman


Local, community based, established in Zambia

Girls' empowerment, modern sports, traditional games,

serving girls

2 Zambian men,

1 Zambian woman

None were identified by the program director


International, community based, established in South Africa, Zambian Branch

HIV prevention, modern sports, traditional games, programming for youth with disabilities, serving girls and boys

1 Zambian man,

2 Zambian women

2 Zambian men,

1 Zambian woman

Table 1: Case study demographics [16]

Participants were recruited from the five organizations who satisfied the following inclusion criteria: 1. currently either employed or volunteering as program staff (identified as those designing, directing, or leading programs and paid by the organization) or youths participating in a program(s) (local individuals who engaged in the activities offered by the organization, referred to as beneficiaries by program staff); 2. at least 18 years of age; and 3. able to speak English. Fluency in English was not a barrier to recruitment as it is the national language of Zambia. In total 27 participants (three to six from each organization) were recruited. The 15 staff participants (nine males and six females) were 19 to 54 years of age, and the majority of these participants had a background in playing or coaching competitive sports. The majority of program staff had previously participated in similar programs in the same or a similar sport-for-development organization in Lusaka and had received advanced education (i.e., university and post-graduate) and training in sport management and coaching. All of the 12 youth participants (six males and six females) were 18 to 27 years of age. In presenting the data pseudonyms are used to maintain anonymity. [17]

Data were generated through the use of multiple qualitative methods, including 27 individual interviews (KVALE & BRINKMANN, 2009), field notes (STAKE, 1995) taken during 20 observations of program activities and document analysis (ibid.). Combining these varied methods developed converging lines of inquiry, which facilitated thick description and deeper understanding of the data (PRASAD, 2005). Each participant engaged in one interview in a private location at the program site. The interviews were 45 to 90 minutes in length and were conducted by the first author and a local research assistant. We digitally recorded and transcribed all the interviews verbatim. Field notes were collected during sport-for-development program activities (e.g., football tournaments) and organizational activities (e.g., staff orientation, planning and evaluation meetings, and workshops). Documents provided by the directors of the sport-for-development organizations were also collected for examination. Documents collected included trainers’ resource books (i.e., instructional guides produced by the organization) as well as program newsletters published by each organization. Data generation took place between June and September 2011. [18]

Data analysis consisted of multiple analytical techniques drawn from Matthew MILES and Michael HUBERMAN (1994), Robert STAKE (2006), and Johnny SALDANA (2009) and focused on exploring underlying ideologies. Specifically, our analysis consisted of generating a priori codes consistent with the study aims and a critical occupational approach. After reading the interview transcripts several times and reflecting on the field notes and written memos, provisional inductive codes were then generated. The generation of provisional inductive codes was guided by asking critical questions of the data, including:

  • What are the relevant socio-cultural structures, processes, and practices that may mediate and constrain participants' perspectives?

  • What assumptions underpin the ongoing valorization of some sport occupations and the rejection of others in sport-for-development programming?

  • What power relations are at play?

  • Whose interests do the incorporated sport occupations serve? [19]

Following the generation of codes, pattern coding was used to group similar codes into emerging themes (MILES & HUBERMAN, 1994). Rigor was achieved at this stage using analysis meetings with the entire team and reviewing the emerging themes. Finally, given that each case had the same research objective yet occurred in its own particular context, STAKE's approach was modified to enable us to examine the relationships that linked the cases. [20]

2.1 Positionality of researchers

Positionality is a term used to indicate the idea that people are defined "not in terms of fixed identities, but by their location within shifting networks of relationships, which can be analyzed and changed" (MAHER & TETREAULT, 1994, p.164). Positionality is always considered in relation to the place the researcher occupies with respect to her or his participants as well as in the world (ST. LOUIS & BARTON, 2002). Because this was a multi-authored study, it is recognized that the researchers held multiple positions in relation to the context of the research. The majority of the participants were black Zambians who were living in a middle-income country, identified as Christians, worked or participated in a sport-for-development program, and were athletes. Their positionalities were in contrast to the Canadian researchers, all of whom were white females conducting critical occupational science research, living in a high-income country, and not identifying as athletes or coaches. [21]

We explicitly dealt with the different positionalities as a team by discussing our positionalities during team meetings. Furthermore, the first author wrote reflexive memos to try and understand how staff and youth participants saw the issues in the context of who they were (sport coaches and athletes) and where they were (participating in the sport-for-development field in Zambia). To better understand the participants' positionalities, we drew on the experiences of a formally appointed advisor from the University of Zambia and of informal Zambian advisors to bring alternative perspectives (HSIUNG, 2012). The role of the advisors was to ensure we did not reproduce oppressive patterns or come to erroneous conclusions because of false interpretations of the context. [22]

3. Findings and Discussion

The findings describe the ideologies that influenced the participation of youth in programming in the sport-for-development cases studies. Three prevalent ideologies were identified: sport benefits all, good people do but don't do, and sport is the way out. [23]

3.1 Sport benefits all

Congruent with the sport-for-development movement (DARNELL, 2012), a belief that sport benefits all was found to prevail. This belief holds the idea that sport has universally positive inherent benefits that appeal to all youth, as Bryan, a staff member, put it:

"We are coming in to fill the gap, to say sports and education are very important because a child that is into sports has the physical benefit of it and also education comes in, like we teach life skills, where a child will learn how to make a decision in his or her life, that progresses his or her life." [24]

This belief was evident in that sport, in particular football, was used uncritically, as it was seen as an activity that was believed to be appropriate for all youth. As Noah, a staff member, said: "I would say the most prominent is football, there is only one." Staff encouraged all youths to attend their programs, but girls did not always participate in these programs. This was due in part because football, which is a heavily gendered activity in Zambia, was the prioritized activity. Noah, a staff member, talked about how the community supported football for boys, as it was a boys' sport, but did not support the participation of girls:

"Here in Zambia, I have seen that it [football] is a male-dominated discipline, so they feel that it is reserved (more) for the males than for the females. When it comes to the traditional views like maybe if girls get involved they will have difficulty in delivery of children or problems with bearing children. They would also say that girls would have difficulties getting married. They did not see the whole idea or importance of her participating, but for the male folks, they would just encourage them to go. With women they would make a barrier so that they can't." [25]

Francis, a staff member, recognized the exclusion of girls by virtue of the program incorporating the sport of football:

"If you are dealing with women sports, especially in rural areas, it is very difficult at times to have a turn out or girls participating because the tradition's aspect of it is that they should be involved more in the kitchen and be ready to take care of their houses instead of running around in the streets playing football. That kind of thing brings down female participation." [26]

As this belief contributed to one activity being universal and implicitly accepted, less consideration was also given to the unique needs and desires of boys and girls with disabilities. Alen, a staff member, explained why boys and girls with disabilities were not participating: "We need a special ball for them to play, and we need to have special rules for them to engage and such rules are not available most of the time." Although participants talked about wanting to include all youth, in some instances children with disabilities were perceived as making the decision themselves not to participate because of their own limitations. Chabala, a male staff member, said: "Some disabled children sometimes don't want sports because they feel it is for the abled ones." The findings of the exclusion of youth in sport-for-development programs based on gender and ability resonates with Richard GIULIANOTTI (2004) who argues that sport-for-development "is unnecessarily exclusionary towards other social cleavages" (p.357), and with Aaron BEACOM (2009) who suggests that greater opportunities are needed for persons with disabilities. [27]

In our study, we also found that there was an over-concentration of initiatives in cities, leaving out youth living in rural areas who most often have extensive household and work commitments, and those who are the poorest with less opportunities to participate. Not including rural youth was attributed by staff to the fact that coaching and playing fields were not available in rural areas and because sport was not seen to be as valued an activity in rural areas by the community members themselves. Mary, a staff member, said: "Some rural government schools don't have sport, so we don't do any programs with those schools because the schools think that sport should be saved for the weekend, and it's not worthwhile activities." Youth who had household and work commitments were, in the eyes of the staff, not participating as a result of these commitments. "You find, even in the afternoon, for children to attend sports it was difficult because this is a rural set up. In the afternoon, the children would have to go and assist in the fields" (Percy, staff member). [28]

Living in poverty was a reality for most of the youth participants; however, many of the poorest youth in Zambia live in rural areas (ARNETT, 2007), but there is less of a concentration of programs in these areas. Staff and youth participants recognized the absence of poor youth in the programs: "At the end of the day, you find that the economic statuses of the communities' [make] people leave the program. They probably have to go and start work somewhere" (Francis, staff member). Bruce KIDD (2008) recognized this lack of programming available to rural youth. One finding emanating from a conference with sport-for-development stakeholders in Zambia noted that "few NGOs venture outside the capital of Lusaka, so that while children in some Lusaka communities may receive training from several NGOs, children in rural areas receive none" (p.377). [29]

This belief that sport benefits all contributed to program staff perceiving that since football was the most widely played sport, its characteristics—feasibility, sustainability, and cultural significance—were inherently positive qualities that should serve the range of youth participants well. However, the existence of such a belief contributed to the exclusion of groups of youth, because from a critical occupational approach, occupations can be both inclusive and excluding. [30]

The belief that sport is appealing for all youth and that all youth should be included in programming was evident in the program documents reviewed. For example, one of case study three's documents (staff training manual) described the target youth for their program to be children with disabilities, girls and women, street children, and children living with HIV/AIDS. [31]

This belief that sport benefits all is congruent with beliefs previously identified in the sport-for-development literature including that sport will improve the welfare of others through development (DARNELL, 2012) and sport is a universal language (DONNELLY, 2008). These beliefs contain similarities in the ideas that using sport as a tool in programming can lead to development outcomes seen as beneficial, and that sport activities are universally valued activities that people should be doing. Furthermore, they are tied to an inclusion ideology because they aim to include all groups of youth, no matter the persons' ability, economic means, location, or gender. [32]

3.2 Good people do

The belief that sport benefits all was tied to the second belief, good people do. Because sports, especially football, was seen as having universally positive inherent benefits by program staff and youth, it was seen as a deterrent to engaging in those activities seen as not good (e.g., drinking, drugs, etc.) or unchristian-like in the Zambian context. This belief of football having positive benefits was talked about for both boy and girl program youth. What was different were which activities were seen as better to participate in for girls and for boys. Jonathan, a youth participant, talked about how football was not seen as a sport for girls to play: "Parents and guardians do not support the girls to come and join us. They say girls cannot play football with guys." [33]

This belief is congruent with the dominant gender ideology that consists of ideas and beliefs about masculinity, femininity, and male-female relationships (COAKLEY & DONNELLY, 2009, p.17). The dominant gender ideology in the Zambian context emphasizes that football is a sport for boys to play and is not appropriate for girls to play. For example, some participants said parents were concerned about children participating in sports because these occupations were not considered traditional roles and were seen as less valuable than participating in other activities such as school studies and home responsibilities. "Sometimes parents refuse them to join, saying it is a sheer waste of time, and that maybe you did not go to the [playing field] but went somewhere else" (Cheyenne, youth participant). The idea of parents and adult community members being more skeptical about girls' participation in sporting activities are congruent with the findings of a study by Tess KAY and Ramon SPAAIJ (2011) who found the obstacles to using sport as a tool for women's development included concerns about women's safety, competing obligations (e.g., food, shelter, gendered division of labor), as well as issues surrounding gender and sexuality norms. Similarly, in the Zambian context, parents' tended to control their daughters activities more so than their sons, often for fear of harm from men or their daughters being tempted to engage in an activity seen as harmful or sinful. The findings are also similar to those of Martha BRADY (2005) who indicated that, in her studies of sport organizations in Kenya and Egypt, girls were interested and motivated to engage in sports programming, yet engaging girls was challenging largely because of parental concerns and social norms concerning the appropriateness of girls' participation in sports. [34]

This belief surrounding what good people do is also congruent with the dominant Christian ideology in Zambia that emphasizes what are considered acceptable activities for Christians. This was seen when girls were not encouraged to play football by their parents because the attire was perceived to resemble clothing (e.g., clothing that exposes skin such as shorts) that a sex worker would wear and therefore not an activity congruent with Christian values. These dominant ideologies in Zambia contributed to football being a heavily gendered and segregated activity within the programs of the cases studied. [35]

The belief that good people do and the interrelating ideologies privileged some boys but contributed to occupational injustices for others as it led to the prioritization of a narrow range of sport activities, leaving girl youth, youth living in rural areas, poor youth, and boys and girls with disabilities less able to participate in programming. Other activities that may have facilitated participation, such as dancing and traditional games, were largely absent from programs, thereby reinforcing the incorporation of football as the priority sport into the sport-for-development programming. [36]

3.3 Sport is the way out

The prevalent belief, stated by many of the participants, was the importance of excelling at sports so as to win, because winning was seen as the way out of poverty and achieving success. This belief is tied to competition, success, and sport development. Aaron, a youth participant, recognized the opportunity to move on to playing football internationally: "At the moment I am based in Lusaka, but as I go on, I think I will have [sporting] chances outside the country." [37]

This belief served to exclude girls, rural youths, poor youths, and girls and boys with disabilities; that is, it reproduced the notion that non-disabled boys who could win the game should engage in sports, and other groups of youths should be spectators. This was most obvious during the observation sessions of program activities where most commonly no boys or girls with disabilities were seen to be participating in the football matches and girl youth of all ages were grouped together on one team and played only against the youngest aged boys' team. [38]

Sports, in particular football, were seen to be intended for non-disabled athletic males, so much so that the program was seen as a success when boy youth made it out of Zambia to play professional football abroad. Jonathan, a youth participant, agreed that this was an important goal of the program:

"I really want to have a chance of becoming somebody in life, doing something, to be specific, being a football player, doing something that can keep me busy in my life. Because when I am doing these activities, I do them with all my heart, and I think that this is the kind of thing that I have been wanting to do in my life, and I look forward to doing them even on a higher level, even national level." [39]

This aim of playing football professionally necessitates that programs focus on developing skills essential for high performance in sports (i.e., sport development). With this sport development focus comes the idea that to be successful requires youths to have not only a level of sport-specific bodily skills but also knowledge of the official and unofficial rules and aims of the sporting activity as well as the time, resources, and family support. Although not an expressed aspect of the missions of the five organizations studied, nor an articulated goal in the documents we reviewed, it was clear from the participants, both staff and youth, that development of sport skills was an important focus of programming. Further, participants suggested that this development of sport skills was working and that these skills opened career opportunities in professional sports for some of the youth. From a critical perspective, this was found to be only a select few, namely, a very small proportion of athletic non-disabled boys living in urban areas. Thereby the programs were seen as a success when these boys attained economic prosperity through achieving a career in sports, most especially through becoming a professional football player abroad. These findings support Cora BURNETT's (2009) discussion of competitive frameworks in the South African sport-for-development context, which resulted in sport development programs occurring to such an extent that she suggested social development aims were being compromised. [40]

The focus on sport development contributed to re/producing issues of occupational injustices for some youth by marginalizing those who did not conform because they were unable to compete, sidelining them from playing. These youths for whom the sport activities were not as suitable were relegated to participate in less-valued activities where there was less choice (e.g., playing on segregated teams or acting as scorekeepers). Relegating youth to participate in less-valued activities may reproduce or reinforce occupational injustices rather than contest or resist them. The practice of centering sport-for development on activities that lead to occupational injustices can be considered counter-productive in the sport-for development arena as it would seem to perpetuate disempowering behaviors and attitudes and reinforce gender and ability stereotypes that the programs are attempting to overcome through their empowerment-focused programming. [41]

Gender and ability were not the only factors that were associated with the belief of sport is a way out that was tied to competition, success, and sport development. Class and rural living also played important roles. Boys and girls from rural areas and those with household responsibilities encountered occupational injustices based on the idea that, in order to win, programs were best suited to youth who could make sports their priority and who were available to attend all sessions because they had the necessary economic means and community support. The inability to participate because youth needed to spend time at home was seen as a lack of commitment; however, this lack of participation may be related to social positions and broader socioeconomic inequalities. [42]

The belief that sport is the way out is congruent with the dominant class, ability, and gender ideologies and is influenced by broader systemic issues, such as endemic poverty. This belief connects sports positively with capitalism, and its competitive system of economic rewards is therefore related to the ideology of the dominant class, which emphasizes that economic success is necessary as a way out of poverty and can benefit not only the individual but also her or his entire community. In sport-for-development this success is garnered when boys achieve a career in sports, most especially through becoming a professional football player abroad. The belief is also congruent with the dominant gender and ability ideologies in Zambia that emphasize what are considered appropriate activities for boys and girls and persons with disabilities of both genders to do, in that sport is the way out is only considered a possibility for non-disabled boy youth. [43]

3.4 Interrelation of the prevailing beliefs

The belief that good people do contains ideas of what are appropriate activities for boys and girls to do in the Zambian context both fit with and at times was at odds with the other two prevailing beliefs. First, this belief is similar to sport is the way out in its constituent ideas about what girls and boys should do. Both espouse an idea that sport is an activity for boys. However, the idea that girls should not be playing football runs contradictory to the belief that all types of sports benefit all groups of youths which emphasizes that all youth should be included no matter their gender. These contradictions across beliefs and the interrelated ideologies that are reflected in the activities used in sport-for-development programs occur in part because the incorporated sport activities have many forms, functions, and meanings as discussed in the companion papers (NJELESANI, CAMERON, & POLATAJKO, 2012; NJELESANI, CAMERON, GIBSON, NIXON & POLATAJKO, 2014). Therefore, in considering the three prominent beliefs that emerged in the findings, the sporting activities incorporated in sport-for-development programs can be seen as both re/producing and challenging dominant ability, gender, religious, and class ideologies in Zambia, which is congruent with the idea that occupations could be seen as promoting health and wellness or promoting harm. [44]

Despite the rhetoric discussed by participants and contained in program documents of how sports has benefits for all and therefore all youth should be participating in programming, the overriding belief in this study was that of sport is the way out. This belief was tied to competition, success, and sport development and seemed to be in contrast to the beliefs related to inclusion. The belief that sport is the way out also superseded the other beliefs as sport development for a small group of male youth was seen as a greater priority than programming that included youth from a broad array of groups. That this belief was a priority became clear based on where resources and activities were prioritized in the case studies. [45]

The emphasis on sport development influenced organizational priorities such that organizations expended many resources on implementing activities for a select few, leading to insufficient resources to enable other people to participate in activities that were important to them. This was most obviously seen when staff talked about the lack of participation of boys and girls with disabilities as a result of not having the appropriate equipment (e.g., modified sport equipment) or training and not sending coaches to rural areas where greater factors contributed to youth's ability to participate as Mary a staff said as noted in full above: "Some rural government schools don't have sport, so we don't do any programs with those schools." [46]

That sport is the way out was the predominant ideological belief can be understood given the positionalities of participants coming from the field of sport coaching and athletics, all within a current culture of programming that idealizes and prioritizes sport activities. Furthermore, coming from a place where few other opportunities offer the same financial gains, the idea of focusing on sport development in hopes of someone becoming a professional player to improve his economic status becomes, perhaps, unarguable. [47]

These three beliefs were each identified within the sport-for-development context in Lusaka, because of their opposing ideas about inclusion versus winning they contribute to the tension between the use of sport activities for social development (i.e., sport-for-development) and the development of sport skills (i.e., sport development). This blurring of sport development and sport-for-development seen in the Zambian sport-for-development context under study supports the idea that sport development and sport-for-development are most often not mutually exclusive (BEACOM, 2009) and are often blurred in rhetoric and practice (KIDD, 2008). According to Bruce KIDD (2008), "while policy and promise employ the language of development, the bulk of funds continue to be invested in sports" (p.373). The findings here support KIDD's predictions that the programs examined would be ideologically and structurally preoccupied with sport development and would face strong expectations from staff and many youth alike to focus on sport development. Despite the practice of sport development being prioritized in programming, this implicit goal was not recognized, or at least not acknowledged. Failing to make this goal both explicit and legitimate undermines the value that sport development holds for some youth in these programs and their communities. [48]

4. Implications for Policy and Practice

We have examined ideologies in order to gain a better understanding of how beliefs shape inequalities in participation as a component of occupational injustice. In confronting the ideologies, the findings from our study support the idea that what appears to be an unintentional occupational injustice contributes to a lack of participation and exclusion, and thus must be at least in part addressed through policies and strategies that enable inclusion (TOWNSEND & WHITEFORD, 2005). At the policy level, the findings of this study have implications for policy makers in their decisions, starting from which organizations are funded, to how funding is given to particular activities, to having policies that require organizations, to mainstream programs for marginalized and vulnerable youth. Given how sport-for-development is situated in the Zambian context with influences at all levels, we also acknowledge that with inclusion comes the potential for new forms of exclusion, despite inclusive intentions. There are only limited resources, so there may be less time for individual sport training as a coach works with a larger group. With less time, the quality of the programs may suffer. However, as the programs normally operate under a peer model, these ideas could lead to new opportunities for peers to extend the range of skills that they have. [49]

Sport-for-development policies and practices can also strive to be more open, inviting, and familiar to youth who do not have the ideal abilities, resources, sport expertise, or knowledge. This could be done by trying to make the many rules, expectations, and activities more flexible and inclusive. This approach helps to open up space for participation, diversity, equity, and inclusion through sport activities by ensuring that a multitude of factors are taken into consideration and that activity choices are not made on the assumption that programs are only for boys' sport development or are only beneficial to boys. This approach is congruent with many strategies (e.g., seeking community buy-in) already underlying sport-for-development planning; however, it is unique because it focuses specifically on the occupations—the sports. [50]

Promoting occupational justice might not be at the forefront of the staff's minds because they tended not to see this injustice in the first place and because there has been little dialogue about this topic. It is difficult to address injustices that are not discussed or recognized. This notion necessitates the recognition and questioning of the dominant ideologies operating within sport-for-development and how these influence occupational justice for youth. One suggestion is more dialogue that asks the questions that have largely gone unasked to date. Questions could include "What can sport-for-development do to make the world a more just and equitable place?" This dialogue could occur through public engagement frameworks, wherein members of the public are involved in the agenda-setting, decision-making, and policy-forming activities of organizations. Such dialogue could potentially help program staff to better recognize the occupational needs of program youth. Furthermore, dialogue with colleagues is also suggested, as it is easier to consider new ideas and to work through how these can be applied to the realities of practice when openly discussed with others. Finally, there could be dialogue between researchers and practitioners. The rationale behind this last idea is that a purely academic emphasis fails to attend to practice realities and does not lead to uptake in practice. It is important for practitioners not to be overly reliant on the existing practice or to perpetuate what has always been done. This approach will not bring into focus the advances in knowledge and understandings produced by those in academia that can be of value in modifying existing practices. The suggestions described illustrate that such discussions with all stakeholders are requisite for aligning sport-for-development with occupational justice that will bring youth the benefit of participating in sport activities. [51]

5. Limitations and Future Research Development

One limitation that particularly influenced the examination of this research was that the case studies occurred in a context where being critical as a participant could be considered inappropriate, particularly for a girl. This fear of being perceived as critical is rooted in Zambian society which some argue is patriarchal (MULIKITA & SIAME, 2005). This made it particularly challenging to find ways to prompt participants to offer greater detail and more in-depth responses as to why or why not the program activities worked for them. [52]

The findings of this study draw attention to the concept of occupational justice for youth who are considered to be the most marginalized and vulnerable in Zambia. This finding necessitates an exploration more broadly than in the sport-for-development context alone of how their occupational justice is enabled or not enabled in other contexts (e.g., education, health). These studies would call attention to occupational justice for youth and could help to uncover ways to move forward with Zambia's Sixth National Development Plan (SNDP), particularly the objectives of increasing women's participation in national development and enabling persons with disabilities to participate fully in all aspects of life (SNDP, 2011, pp.6-7). [53]

6. Conclusion

In this study we used a critical occupational approach to create new ways of thinking about and uncovering dominant ideologies that have been largely unexamined in sport-for-development. We have brought to light three ideologies that may influence the participation of youth in sport-for-development programs. Taken together, these beliefs existing within the Zambian sport-for-development movement appear to be competing with one another. While the first two appear consistent with the formal aims of sport-for-development as they envision every child reaping benefits from playing sport and depict sport as a good activity in which to participate, the third belief is more akin to sport development that prioritizes competition and elite-level participation. [54]


We would like to extend our gratitude to all of the staff and youth from the sport-for-development programs who shared their time, hopes, and wisdom with us. We would also like to thank the Zambian organizations who allowed us to enter their space, because this study would not have been possible without their support.


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Janet NJELESANI holds an Adjunct Lecturer position in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include critical qualitative research methods and approaches, and disability and global health. This manuscript was completed as part of her PhD in the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute at the University of Toronto.


Janet Njelesani

Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
University of Toronto
160-500 University Avenue
Toronto, ON M5G 1V7, Canada

E-mail: janet.njelesani@utoronto.ca


Barbara E. GIBSON is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto and a Senior Scientist at the Bloorview Research Institute at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, Canada. She holds the Bloorview Children's Hospital Foundation Chair in Childhood Disability Studies. Her research investigates how social, cultural, and institutional practices intersect in producing health, inclusion/exclusion, and identity with disabled children and youth.


Barbara E. Gibson

Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto
160-500 University Avenue
Toronto, ON M5G 1V7, Canada

E-mail: barbara.gibson@utoronto.ca


Debra CAMERON is an Assistant Professor and International Fieldwork Coordinator in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Toronto. Her research interests include international health and development, international fieldwork placements, cognitive interventions, and parenting.


Debra Cameron

Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
University of Toronto
160-500 University Avenue
Toronto, ON M5G 1V7, Canada

E-mail: deb.cameron@utoronto.ca


Stephanie NIXON is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and Director of the International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation. She is cross-appointed in the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at University of Toronto. Her current research uses critical social science to explore links between HIV, disability and global health in Canada and in Southern Africa.


Stephanie Nixon

Department of Physical Therapy, University of Toronto
160-500 University Avenue
Toronto, ON, M5G 1V7, Canada

E-mail: stephanie.nixon@utoronto.ca


Helene POLATAJKO is a Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the University of Toronto Neuroscience Program, the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Interim Director of the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, at the University of Toronto, Adjunct Scientist at St John's Rehab Hospital and Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. Her research has been focused on intervention and outcome measurement. Her particular interest is in exploring how cognitive strategy use can support skill acquisition among individuals with performance deficits.


Helene Polatajko

Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
University of Toronto
160-500 University Avenue
Toronto, ON M5G 1V7, Canada

E-mail: H.Polatajko@utoronto.ca


Njelesani, Janet; Gibson, Barbara E.; Cameron, Debra; Nixon, Stephanie & Polatajko, Helene (2015). Sport-for-Development: A Level Playing Field? [54 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 16(2), Art. 12,

Copyright (c) 2015 Janet Njelesani, Barbara E. Gibson, Debra Cameron, Stephanie Nixon, Helene Polatajko

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