Proud Djirribal woman and University of Queensland (UQ) PhD student, Lee Sheppard, is examining whether Sports for Development programs are benefiting Indigenous communities or are more focused on ‘ticking boxes’.

Sport for Development (SfD) programs are recognised globally as vehicles for achieving social development outcomes and providing opportunities for disengaged groups.

Many SfD programs have been established by non-government organisations (NGOs) like the Clontarf Foundation, which aims to impact the lives of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men through football, improving their education and employment prospects.

“Sport is claimed to have the unique capacity to draw in and influence hard-to-reach groups and individuals, including marginalised and traumatised youth populations,” said Sheppard.

“SfD programs are programs that NGOs have started to proliferate over the last ten years where they target … the most at-risk group in Australia, our young males, who are at-risk of disengaging or have disengaged from school.

“They use sport to attract them back to school and keep them coming.”

With a background in anthropology and experience working in the mining industry, Sheppard was invited by the UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences to examine the nature of SfD programs.

While Sheppard said SfD programs benefit Indigenous communities overall, her fieldwork revealed the kids who need the program most are not being targeted.

“The programs inspire students who are highly resilient and are motivated to succeed,” she said.

“But how do they serve at-risk kids who have already dropped out of school and fallen through the cracks?”

Informed by conversational research methodologies of yarning and Dadirri (deep listening), Sheppard spent time with north Queensland communities to collect data and listen to perspectives on SfD programs.

“During fieldwork and the more I look into it; it shows programs target everybody the same. But those that are really hard to reach are the ones that are starting to disengage in school,” she said.

“The kids with low resilience, the ones that really need help, are sometimes put into the ‘too hard’ basket and they prefer to focus on those who are easier to work with.”

“Because a lot is going on in their lives and they’re not engaged in the program, they end up getting moved on from the program.”

Sheppard found that while the evidence for SfD programs remains inconclusive, many are funded by corporate mining companies like Rio Tinto, and through industry-NGO partnerships.

She explored in her research whether Indigenous communities’ interests are being best served or whether companies are more focused on ‘ticking boxes’.

“Agencies and bodies providing SfD programs have increased and produced the ‘social problems industry’ that concentrates on rehabilitation-oriented programmes designed and marketed to solving social problems,” she said.

Sheppard said these programs are entwined with paternalistic ideas that “treat our young people as problems” rather than focusing on the social factors causing these problems.

Set to complete her PhD on October 31, Sheppard hopes her research will inform how future SfD programs are implemented and run in Indigenous communities. She believes programs should be better adapted to individual needs.

“Rather than a focus on bolstering weaknesses, programs should consider individual strengths and refine their talents,” she said.

“SfD programs would work if the providers, governments and funders communicated with our mob in ways that promoted empowerment, decision-making and self-determination.

“Instead of progressing their own agendas and expecting us to ‘accept’ the intervention without question, they should work with our mob in culturally appropriate ways, listening to and taking on board each community’s needs and solutions for their youngsters.”

By Grace Crivellaro