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IDB report underscores social benefits of sports for development but warns against program design flaws

Latin American and Caribbean region lags in sports spending, activity levels

Latin American and Caribbean region could get a development boost from sports activities that improve the region’s social and health benefits, provided the programs are properly designed and monitored, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Latin America and the Caribbean government spending on sports is modest. Preliminary analysis of fiscal budgets from 17 countries shows that spending on sports averages around 0.1 percent of GDP, about one-third of the percentage spent by European nations, without considering special programs for elite athletes or Olympic financing.

“World Cup soccer season is a good time to celebrate the benefits of sports,” said IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno. “This report shows our region needs to spend more on sports, not just to produce better athletes but also to foster happier, less violent and healthier societies. To gain the social benefits, we also need to design better sports programs and rigorously evaluate those that already exist.”

Why more sports

While Latin America produces first-rate athletes in numerous professional sports, exercise is a marginal activity in Latin America and the Caribbean. Based on self-reported data, one out of three adults in the region qualifies as physically inactive, compared to the global average of one in four (defined as participating in less than 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week).

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The lack of activity is pervasive in all demographic segments, but it is even more worrisome among school-going adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17, with almost 9 out of 10 adolescents not achieving the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.

According to World Health Organization estimates, the prevalence of physical inactivity is 35 percent higher in women than in men worldwide, and 41 percent higher in Latin America and the Caribbean. Almost one in four adults in Latin America and the Caribbean qualify as obese (a body mass index of 30 percent fat or higher) and more than half are overweight.

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Sports as a development solution

The report notes that sports can build human capital and enhance productivity by improving physical and mental health, discouraging substance abuse, and inspiring athletic as well as academic achievement. Sports can encourage capital accumulation, facilitate the workings of markets, and strengthen institutions through their effect on social capital, trust and culture, and crime.

Data from the United States show that expanding girls’ access to athletic participation translated into a 10-percentage point jump in state-level female sports participation. This, in turn, generated a 1-percentage point increase in female college attendance and a 1 to 2-percentage point rise in female labor force participation.

Research using data from the German Socioeconomic panel has found that active participation in sports boosts earnings by about 1,200 euros annually over a 16-year period, compared to no or very little sports activity. These results translate into a rate of return on sports activities in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent, on a par with an additional year of schooling. Similar results have been found for the United States. In Brazil, salaries of physically active individuals are between 15 percent and 31 percent higher than those of sedentary counterparts.

But authorities need to be cautious when opting for policies based on these studies. “It may be that people who choose to play sports have certain unobservable skills and characteristics that also make them more successful later in life,” said Carlos Scartascini, a lead researcher at the IDB and a study coordinator.

Evidence is mounting that even the programs with the best intentions could have unintended negative results. Some programs increase the prevalence of the behaviors that they try to curve, such as substance abuse and violence. Researchers using a Swedish sample found that participation in activities with low structure – such as a lightly supervised youth recreation center – was associated with high levels of antisocial behavior.

The right way to do sports for development

The study contains five recommendations to ensure sports programs help development.

  1. Improve data collection. Despite the dire trends in obesity and lack of physical activity that plague the region we still know little about the problem, who it affects, how, and why.
  2. Design matters. Structured and caring environments can improve behavior, while unstructured ones can have the opposite effect.
  3. Pilots and evaluation. Projects should start small, with clear aims and outcomes that are monitored and evaluated. Expansions should occur only once there is certainty that the projects at least produce no harm.
  4. Use behavioral economics tools. Proven behavioral economics interventions offer a valuable complementary tool. “Nudging” individuals can increase physical activity with little negative fallout while providing time to learn where the money can be better spent.
  5. Consider how urban infrastructure investments impact activity. City design and infrastructure affect physical activity. A new road project should be also evaluated on whether it makes people more or less active, much the same way environmental concerns are taken into account before construction begins.
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Since 2004, the IDB has sponsored sports for development initiatives in 18 countries, benefitting programs have benefitted directly almost 90,000 individuals, including the A Ganar jobs training program that uses the power of soccer and team sports as an instrument to ensure young people find jobs, learn entrepreneurial skills, or re-enter the formal education system.

About the IDB

The Inter-American Development Bank is devoted to improving lives. Established in 1959, the IDB is a leading source of long-term financing for economic, social and institutional development in Latin America and the Caribbean. The IDB also conducts cutting-edge research and provides policy advice, technical assistance and training to public and private sector clients throughout the region.