If development were soccer

Rakesh Rajani is a ONE member and the Head of Twaweza (meaning “we can make it happen” in Swahili), a 10-year initiative to enhance access to information, citizen agency, and public accountability in East Africa. Below is his contribution to USAID’s Frontiers in Development essays.

If there were a prize for global organizations most tainted with corruption, FIFA, the International Federation of Football (Soccer) Associations, would be a strong contender.

For years, its board members are said to have demanded, received, and dished out bribes for purposes such as vote buying and selling rights to host the World Cup. The “crony culture” inside FIFA has reportedly caused huge losses—about $100 million in one instance alone when an exclusive deal with a marketing company went belly-up. These acts have spawned investigations, books, and blogs seeking to expose the organization, but FIFA appears to have warded off serious reform. Its current boss has been in charge for 14 years and part of FIFA for 38. He ran unopposed in the last election, in part because his two rivals were disqualified for foul play. His predecessor had been at the helm for 24 years.

Precise numbers are difficult to establish, but soccer has well over a billion supporters worldwide. Many of these tune in every week on radio, TV, and, increasingly, the Internet. More than 700 million are estimated to have watched the final games of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, across all six continents. It is easily the world’s biggest sport.

While growing up in Mwanza, Tanzania, listening to commentary of English league games on a crackly BBC shortwave transmission was the highlight of my week. Today, walk through East Africa’s bustling neighborhoods or rural communities on weekends, and you will likely see animated men and (increasingly) women listening to a duel between national rivals or watching Chelsea play Arsenal or Barcelona take on Real Madrid. You will see much of the same across large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In many cases, these are communities that have no electricity and low incomes, but some entrepreneur will have rigged up a generator and an improvised satellite dish, and be turning a tidy profit charging entrance fees.

It’s not only about relaxing in front of the TV. Soccer is among the most common topics on social media, radio call-in shows, and street corners. Crotchety pundits, hip pre-teens, and nerdy economists alike pore over team statistics to discern patterns, debate choices, and predict outcomes. It is public engagement interspersed with politics, business, and local drama, but soccer remains at the core. And soccer evokes great emotion. When there is a crucial goal or save, observe the poetry of celebration rituals or the slow motion implosions of defeat among both players and fans. It’s quite an experience.

Why does soccer work? Why, unlike so many badly governed public agencies, NGOs, and projects, is soccer so powerful, lively, and engaging? Could it be that soccer has got something so right, that it doesn’t much matter that its state of supra governance is somewhat shambolic? And if that is indeed the case, might it provide useful insights for how we think about development in countries where the intractable problems of supra governance will not be sorted out soon?

Soccer and development, while very different, have several features in common. I’ll highlight four. Both have purposes or goals to score. Both have rules and conventions of how things are to be done. Both have someone deciding whether conduct is right, imposing sanctions for foul behavior, and judging the final outcome. And both have actors who need to be motivated and focused to deliver. But each handles these features very differently.

In Soccer, Success Is Clear and Simple

Soccer isn’t called the “beautiful game” for nothing. Players display enormous skill when dribbling, passing, and making daring dives and gravity-defying turns. Fans love these moves, and TV screens replay some of the best ones over and over, so that viewers can study the skill and savor the moment. Papers speak of the teams that play the most entertaining football. But all this skill is aligned toward a very simple and very clear purpose: to score more goals than the other team. Sure, a lot of other statistics are collected, such as the number of passes, number of fouls, percentage of possession, ages of the players, and so forth. The artistry is fun and appreciated, but what matters is how it contributes toward the purpose. What counts is the final score.

The incentives are well aligned too, in the short and long term. You win the game, you celebrate, your team gets three points. Everyone involved—the players, the managers, the owners, the spectators—understand this. In the long term, those points and goals add up, and you move up the league table or on to the next round of the competition, until you win the cup. The better you perform, the more likely you are to earn a better salary.

Read the complete essay on page 18 of USAID’s Frontiers in Development publication.

Photo Credit: Kendra Helmer/USAID.