A Discussion with Mori Taheripour
Background: Speaking with Michael Bodakowski and Claudia Zambra on June 1, 2012, Mori Taheripour reflected on her history of engagement with sports and social development. The context was the June 2012 WFDD co-supported symposium on the Olympic Values in London, shortly before the London 2012 Games. Taheripour’s involvement stems from her role as a faculty at the Wharton Business School, where she has worked with sports leagues and athletes in a variety of disciplines including channeling sports for social good. As the first advisor for sports and development at USAID, she stresses the importance of sports as a catalyst to raise awareness and promote engagement in sustainable development. Taheripour cites peacebuilding work that builds on the underlying connection between sport, development, and Olympic values, particularly in bringing together groups that may otherwise not have opportunity for peaceful exchange. She highlights the power of sport in breaking down gender divides and in empowering girls in areas typically reserved for boys. One challenge in her work, as a still relatively young field, is the need for more quantitative data on the impact sport is having on improving lives and furthering development, but she notes a trend in greater availability of data.
Interview Conducted on June 1, 2012
Tell us about your personal experience, journey, and motivation that brought you to the intersection sports and development?
I come from a sports background and have been involved in the industry throughout my career, either directly or tangentially. Former USAID Administrator Alzonzo Fulgham brought me into USAID to leverage my experience and contacts and knowledge of the sports industry to help strengthen their development efforts around sports. I don’t have a traditional development background, per se, but very early on had an interest in the universality of sport and its ability to bring people together. Early in my career, I did cause marketing work, using celebrities, athletes and sports to launch awareness campaigns that engaged the public about important social issues that were not getting sufficient attention. I also focus on sport and social impact as a faculty member at the Wharton School and a co-founder and faculty advisor of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative (WSBI). My role at USAID is a culmination of my passion to leverage the power of sport for good.
More specifically, what is your background with sports?
In both academia and now at USAID, I have worked with US professional sports leagues (and players’ associations), from baseball to basketball to football. At Wharton and as a consultant, I have taught athletes (and agents) various disciplines including negotiations, entrepreneurship, communications and philanthropy.
Can you tell us about USAID’s program and their approach to sports and development?
I am the first person to have a formal sport for development position at USAID. Many NGO’s, donors, corporations, and foundations that work with USAID are doing amazing work in development with a focus on sport. While my position may be somewhat new, sport is not a new area of focus in development. Sport is a universal and compelling platform that creates a link between communities worldwide and can drive education, economic development, gender equality, peace-keeping, and promote health, disease prevention, and nutrition. At USAID, we are leveraging the power of sport to raise awareness and promote engagement to reach populations that are often excluded, such as youth, persons with disabilities and women.
Our FWD (Famine, War, Drought) Campaign focused on the development challenges we faced in the Horn of Africa. We engaged the NFL and NFL Players Association, in partnership with the Ad Council, we developed four public service announcements (PSAs) featuring ten NFL stars, who promoted a text campaign to raise awareness about the crisis in the Horn of Africa, an issue that had not received much attention in mainstream media. The PSAs ran on local and national networks television over a four-month period and were shown in the pre-game show for the AFC playoffs and during the Pro-Bowl. Why did we target the NFL and NFL players for this campaign? First, it was at the height of football season, and, furthermore, the African Diaspora is highly represented among NFL players, and there is a tremendous amount of interest among players in social issues impacting Africa. It was an awareness campaign unlike anything we’ve done before and broadened our reach and raised awareness about the development challenges in regions where USAID focuses its efforts.
Another recent example is our child survival campaign, entitled “Every Child Deserves a 5th Birthday.” People were encouraged to post pictures of themselves when they were 5 years old or on their 5th birthday along with a personal message of hope for children around the world to support child survival by preventing child deaths. High profile athletes who felt particularly passionate about the focus of the campaign participated, including Tony Hawk, Mia Hamm, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, and Miguel Cabrera. The ability of these athletes to reach their large fan base and followers played a big role in raising awareness of a critical development issue, in populations that may not have normally followed or been aware of the issue.
Are you seeing tangible outcomes in your work linking sports and development?
When we kicked off the FWD Campaign, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said his goal was to raise awareness about a humanitarian crisis that was not gaining a lot of traction in mainstream media. Once the PSAs were broadcast on national and local networks, we saw a spike in the number of text messages that were sent in support of the campaign, which at its core was a social media/text campaign. The campaign also raised awareness of NFL players, both of those who were involved in the campaign as well as others who learned about it. Players posted the PSAs on their personal websites, teams supported the campaign by featuring it on their websites and the NFL Players’ Association even featured one of the PSAs at their press conference during the Super Bowl. These channels all became a powerful opportunity for USAID to raise awareness about the crisis in the Horn of Africa.
How do you see the role of the three central Olympic values (Excellence, Respect, Friendship) as a guiding principle for your work?
I think the power of sport to promote peace is one of the underlying connections to the Olympic values. There are many sport-for-development programs that are able to connect people of different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds through the universality of sport; it’s amazing to witness! I don’t know any other platform that has the same ability to bring people together. For example, programs use basketball to bring communities together in conflict regions. To see the success of these programs, all you have to do is see how conversations are created around peace, teamwork, tolerance, respect and friendship among kids who would traditionally not have played together. Sport for development is not about training professional athletes, but rather about creating access to sports for all individuals. A little girl in Kabul, through an exceptional program called Skateistan, is seen skating a half pipe on a skateboard; a few years ago, this little girl may not have been allowed to even go to school because of her gender. The empowerment of that opportunity is really extraordinary. That goes back to the values; there are so many tie-ins to USAID’s efforts, empowering people and giving them hope and opportunity through sport.
Turning to the Olympic truce, do you see it as a realistic goal in today’s societies, especially in conflict zones?
I think the truce is far more representative of a certain ideal, a symbolic effort, preceding the Olympics that is an opportunity for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to espouse and reinforce to the world the values that the games represent. I see it as more of a significant tradition than anything else. That being said, I think sport in and of itself is a tremendous catalyst that can drive peace and conflict mitigation where few other things have worked, by bringing people together around similar values. Will it be sustainable? Not in and of itself. Sport can certainly not alone be the solution to conflict issues. That would be too easy! Instead, it’s one of many tools that can create a holistic approach to peace building and can be incredibly powerful, along with economic empowerment, education, and community development. These are all important tools, and along with sport, which can be the unifying factor, they can drive sustainable change.
How do you approach gender issues in your work?
Very similarly - I think that gender issues cannot be addressed by using a sport platform alone, but sport can certainly promote equality by changing preconceived biases, creating a paradigm shift in communities. Through participation in sports activities, young women take on roles that traditionally were only associated with boys, and that alone is really powerful. A lot of programs promote gender equality by putting a girl on the soccer field or on a basketball court, and the boys are upset or puzzled at first, dumbfounded by the physical abilities of these girls. They begin attaching characteristics to girls that are often allocated to boys, such as competitiveness, and that changes the mindset of the other boys, and in the families of those girls, there’s a change as well. However, the transformation can’t occur if you stop there. Sports programs have to be paired up with other tools such as an economic empowerment, promoting financial independence, and education. Going back to Skateistan, the success of this program is not based on giving youth access to skateboarding. In order to get on a skateboard, the kids take classes and study the Qur'an, they learn to read and do their homework. The program uses skateboarding as the carrot to facilitate education opportunities for youth. The girls are getting an education and then getting on a skateboard. The visual alone of young women in their hijab, skateboarding, is a powerful testament to the empowerment that is promoted which can be witnessed by the young boys in the program, teachers, parents and other members of the community. Gender equality is created through this transformative paradigm shift.
Does religion play a role in any ways?
Not necessarily beyond the individuals’ values. If you can bring in and marry those values to any activity, then you are able to connect more effectively with the individual and maintain their interest. Any time you try to force someone outside of what they have themselves valued and hold important, you are less likely to succeed.
For example, Peace Players International in West Bank/Gaza works with kids who are Palestinian (Muslim) and Israeli (Jewish). These are kids who wouldn’t play together under normal circumstances given the political climate of that region, but by virtue of being on the basketball court, they interact in a non-threatening way, where they learn about each other. Their religion is an important part of their identity, and they learn about one another, respecting their differences, including their religious beliefs, cultures, and values. When done well, you can really be successful incorporating the values that sports teaches, such as respect and team work, to learn about and respect religious differences.
How do the governments of the countries where you implement programs react to your work?
I have actually seen a great deal of support for these types of programs from other governments, and in some cases, there is even a greater emphasis placed on sport as a tool for development. Perhaps it's that in our culture, we view sport as a leisure activity, whereas in some other countries, sport reinforces nationalism, bringing people together much like religion, with tremendous fervor and is taken very seriously.
Have you had the opportunity to work across different USAID bureaus or government agencies?
All the work I do is cross-bureau, cross-sectoral, encompassing the entirety of the Agency. As sport is increasingly viewed as a platform for our development efforts and not the by-product of our work, it becomes a cross-cutting approach that is applicable to all of our efforts from global health and child survival to education, peacekeeping and conflict mitigation, gender equality, democracy and governance, policy and innovation. The regional bureaus are also partners. I’m not focused on any one area, but rather contribute to, support and complement the work of all of USAID’s regional bureaus.
What are the greatest challenges you face and how are you working to overcome them?
One of the greatest challenges is the lack of quantitative evaluation data that captures, with sound metrics and evaluation data, the success of sports programs in development. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we need to see more sound qualitative and quantitative evidence. The good news is that we are seeing stronger metrics and convincing evaluation tools, and even longitudinal studies are beginning to be undertaken to see the long-term impact of these programs. As more evidence is captured to prove the success of these programs, such as behavior change, prevention of communicable disease, improved literacy, and decrease in gang violence, depending on the intended goals and outcomes of the programs, the greater the investments will be from donors and development agencies.
Apart from USAID, who are some of the major actors that are charting the course at the intersection of sports and development?
There are many other governments and their respective development agencies that are increasing their investments in sport for development. Organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) are placing tremendous emphasis on sport and development, increasing investments, and seeking strategic partnerships in support of programs in countries that increasingly look to sport as a potential tool to address social challenges, drive economic growth, and advance transformation. There is also more interest from corporate and private sector organizations that are taking notice, looking beyond sports marketing to understanding the social impact of sport, extracting greater value through their support of these programs by looking at them as a social investment rather than just philanthropy. There are many sport for development NGOs globally that have and are collaborating in order to reduce fragmentation, which is a promising trend. Organizations like Beyond Sport, Peace and Sport, and Laureus have tremendous convening power, and along with the United Nations, Right to Play, and numerous organizations that promote global policy and programs, and academic institutions such as the Wharton School that contribute from a research and thought leadership perspective, there is a powerful set of actors who are connecting sport and development and will only catapult its relevance on the global stage. Athletes themselves are looking at greater global impact, and are interested in learning about global development challenges, so they can use their platform to contribute to the connection between sport and development. The same is true of sports leagues, teams, federations, and the IOC and FIFA.