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How can UNESCO’s revised Charter on physical education and sport become a game-changer?

Photos: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game.


In a session dedicated to the revised UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby called for ‘game changing’ initiatives when he spoke at the international Play the Game 2015 conference.


How can a document be a change-maker in practice as well as on paper? This was the central question – not only from the speakers and delegates, but from UNESCO’s Executive Officer for Sport, Phillip Müller-Wirth (pictured), himself – when the biennial Play the Game in its closing session took a look at how to make UNESCO’s newly revised Charter of Physical Education and Sport more than words.


UNESCO first adopted the Charter 37 years ago, and a decision was made to revise it after recommendations presented at the 5th International Conference of Ministers and Senior Officials Responsible for Physical Education and Sport (MINEPS V) in Berlin in 2013, where ISCA was present as a stakeholder.


Müller-Wirth described UNESCO as the “custodians of sport policy development” who introduced the Charter, and several persons or institutions represented in the debate, including ISCA, the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (ICSSPE), the International Director of Play the Game, Jens Sejer Andersen, have played an active part in revising it.


Now, after a significant overhaul, it is time for all stakeholders to “move away from policy intent” and find out “what should be done and how to do it”, he said:


“This is our common Charter and it will only be as useful as we make it.”


Kirkeby highlighted three phases in bringing sport policy to life, from left to right on his presentation slide: Challenge identification (the problem/the plan to solve it), Changing the game (action) and A better sports world (the end result). Challenge identification, he noted, includes pointing to problems, such as inactivity, and developing documents like the UNESCO Charter and the WHO Physical Activity Strategy to address them.

But, he said, “we are still on the left side of the slide” when it comes to practice.


“And this indicates the kind of systemic barrier we have… We are very successful in agenda setting, revealing [issues] and advocacy. But this is not the same as saying we have solved the problem… It can be a precondition to have conventions, codes and strategies, but it is not directly linked to solving the problem or changing the game.”


Using the vision

Richard Bailey from ICSSPE summed up policy as something that is “done to people… it’s dropped on them like an atomic bomb and they’re expected to deal with it”.


He argued that framing the policy in an understandable way and communicating the messages is essential in its dissemination and use.


However, Play the Game award winner Bob Munro, a former UN adviser for Nairobi in Kenya, praised the revised charter for its readability. On the flipside, he drew on his experience working on sustainable development in a developing country to take a critical view of the previous document, prompting the UN to ask itself “What has been the impact of the first Charter in the last 37 years?”


Africa indeed, was one of the continents on which the Charter could make a difference, Müller-Wirth noted in the question-and-answer session.


“In the majority of the countries we’re dealing with in the world there is no standard for the vision we articulate in the charter… And in these countries I think it is vital that stakeholders, be they public, which they are in most cases, because civil society is not as involved in many regions in the world as it is in Europe…, have a reference, a standard and a common vision to refer to that is official. And I think that was one of the main merits of the charter before its revision, that it could be used to state certain claims that had no other reference in the international agenda.”


If this is where the Charter could have its greatest impact, then resources should be focused on the 50 developing countries most in need, Kirkeby said.


The need for basic infrastructure for sport policy

Müller-Wirth noted that this would be one of UNESCO’s priorities, stating that there would be two strands to its implementation: a checklist or global baseline for countries following the charter, and tools to assist countries fulfil the standards:


“The most important thing is to use the Charter at a national level in certain countries that are seeking to establish their sport policy all together, including legislation and the basic infrastructure for sport policy that does not exist in many countries… and this is something I would put as a priority.”


Jens Sejer Andersen concluded the session, and the conference, by saying that after working closely with the document he was optimistic about its potential to make a difference for the sport and physical activity sector, but reinforced the need to move from identifying the challenge to changing the game.


“There is a time for charters and there is a time for action… We have to think, we have to use language, we have to discuss, but we certainly cannot let it be at that.”


By Rachel Payne, ISCA

For more information about the Play the Game conference, visit