There are manifold ways in which sports can be used for development. We are committed to our signature sport and play-based approach, which has enabled us to support people all over the world in acquiring new skills and improving their psychosocial wellbeing.

During the civil war that broke out in 2013 in South Sudan, over four million people fled the country or were internally displaced. SA4D has supported those affected by the conflict with a focus on psychosocial health and livelihoods since 2012, first in South Sudan and then working with refugees in neighbouring Uganda. Psychosocial health and economic wellbeing are closely linked, for it takes good mental health to have the strength and capacity to be innovative in the face of hardship. Economic security, on the other hand, is important for people’s personal wellbeing.

Strong partnerships as nourishing ground

SA4D has worked in partnership with the local NGO Community Psychosocial Support Organisation (CPSO) and international partners such as Women Win to help people recover from trauma and acquire the necessary skills to forge a livelihood (e.g. vegetable farming and keeping livestock). Activities can be simple – like a football game, which can be liberating and a bonding experience for uprooted refugees with no solid social network to speak of. However, an experiential learning cycle usually underpins these sessions, whereby a sport activity or game is followed by a discussion for participants to share experiences, receive information and learn new skills, and a reflection on how to integrate new insights into everyday life.

We have ample experience in designing sport and play-based interventions, whilst CPSO can draw from extensive experience in giving psychosocial support to refugees and solid on-the-ground expertise. Together, it has been possible to help tens of thousands of women, men and children improve their economic situation and regain their emotional balance. In addition, these interventions have strengthened social cohesion and allowed people to build support networks.

Sport and play as a means

Sport as a means to address sensitive topics can sometimes be a double-edged sword. If done well, it is a gentle approach that can establish a sense of normality after traumatic events. But a trauma-sensitive approach needs to be taken in order not to overstep participants’ boundaries. Only when people are ready to share should they do so, and only where physical contact does not cause discomfort should it be a part of sport and play-based activities. Whilst nothing speaks against sports as an end in itself, we predominantly use sport and play to teach life and professional skills, and to support refugees’ psychosocial health. As such, our focus is not on importing sports equipment. Rather, we strive to achieve our goals with the tools and means available on site. We believe it does not take shiny football boots or an expensively equipped playing field to harness the potential of sport and play – but passion, dedication and solid expertise.

Following the recent signature of peace agreements, there is hope that the relative stability and peace that have returned to South Sudan will last. As a result, increasing numbers of refugees and internally displaced people are returning home. But people rebuilding their lives in South Sudan face economic hardship and an unsafe and often unsanitary environment. Towns have been destroyed and communities disbanded. SA4D, in partnership with CPSO, will be supporting returnees in rebuilding their lives in the following months and years. With a stronger focus on children this time, we will continue to make use of sport and play as a means to foster resilience and promote economic and personal wellbeing.

This article has originally been published as a response to a sportanddev call on sport for refugees.