If there were a prize for the global organizations most tainted with corruption, the International Federation of Football (Soccer) Association (FIFA) would be a strong contender. The inside dealing and lack of transparency, as well as longevity of its aging leadership, is reminiscent of ineffective government in many countries.
But, in spite of FIFA’s governance problems, soccer is vital and the most widely followed sport in the world. Soccer works, because unlike so many badly governed public agencies, NGOs, and projects, it gets key things right. How soccer works can provide useful insights for how we think about development.
Soccer and development, while very different, have features in common. Both have purposes or goals to score. Both have rules. 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. Each, however, handles these features differently.
1) First, the millions of fans across the world who love and follow soccer, entranced with the skill and artistry, understand that while watching is great fun, what matters is the final score.
In the short term, you win the game and your team gets three points. In the long term, these points and goals add up, and you move up the league until you win the cup.
2) Second, soccer has developed an extensive set of rules.
For those who have grown up with soccer or engaged actively with it, the rules make sense. Importantly, while people argue over the interpretation of rules, the rules are known and not renegotiated while playing the game.
In development, particularly in developing countries, the relationship between the game and its rules is tenuous. In recent years, often in response to donor pressure, several countries have undergone reform. These have produced a raft of new laws, regulations, and institutions. Many of these, such as anticorruption laws and agencies, ethics commissions, and public-expenditure management systems, are meant to strengthen governing.
But the problem is that all this impressive rule-making bears little connection to how people go about their lives. It’s not that people lack respect for the rule of law. It’s that the zeal for reform appears to have led to “too much too fast,” preventing change from taking root. When poorly established, rules fail to fulfill their key function in providing credible and predictable guidelines. It also disrupts development, draining it of creativity, motivation, and a clear-headed strategy.
3) Third, soccer has independent referees.
No one would think of proposing a game refereed by a player from one or both teams. Yet, in development, where the stakes are higher, that happens much of the time. In many countries, the executive branch is held in check by parliament, but its ministers are also members of parliament. It is not uncommon for heads of state to confer plum assignments to members of parliament. The very cooks are then charged to assess the quality of the food.
Among NGOs and donor agencies, the auditors and evaluators are appointed by the ones they will assess, and that fact is not lost on those who are hired. In soccer, it’s simpler. Teams do not get to hire their referees.
4) Fourth, soccer is also transparent.
For big games, that can mean 60,000 in a stadium, and millions more watching on television.
Public service is a misnomer in most developing countries because it has little public orientation and even less service. Recent studies have shown that absenteeism of public servants is widespread in health and education. This can go on because, unlike soccer, there is no public witness and the officials know they can get away with it.
5) Fifth, what excites about soccer is how the game is played.
The point is not to devise a plan that anticipates every possible move of the other team, but to coach players on how to read the signs and respond skillfully and quickly. In development, the inability to continually interpret feedback and adapt is a great limitation. Instead of developing sensitive antenna and intelligent response capabilities to deal with uncertainty, development practioners try to figure everything out at the outset, playing god, usually badly, in a contingent, unpredictable world.
The vitality of soccer derives from the clarity of its regulatory framework; a clear alignment of goals, successes, and incentives; and the open-architecture nature of its play.
Soccer as a metaphor for international development may come across as frivolous, but the features that make soccer work may be essential to motivating and realizing success in development. When it comes to solving complex challenges in soccer, development or anything else, play may be just the verb we need.