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Using Soccer to Tackle HIV/AIDS

March 8, 2011

A simple soccer ball can be instrumental in helping youth tackle the devastating spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, according to Kirk Friedrich, the co-founder and Africa executive director of Grassroot Soccer. 

The non-profit organization has harnessed the sport’s power to teach over 425,000 young people in 19 African countries how to best protect themselves from the deadly virus. 

“Learning is not a spectator sport,” said Friedrich during a recent talk titled "Grassroot Soccer and the Sport for Development Movement."

“Games-based learning is a really powerful way for kids to learn,” he told the full Joukowsky Forum. “Everything we do is fun – that’s one of the criteria of our curriculum.”

The organization provides 10- to 15-hour-long educational programs using soccer to target youth – a demographic crucial in the rapidly growing continent.

“Educating youth is really the key to fighting HIV,’ according to Friedrich. “We want to have a small impact on a lot of kids’ lives.”

This innovative model can easily be replicated, he said. Its spread from a small Zimbabwean project born in 2002 to a continent-wide organization supported by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) is testament to its power, Friedrich added.

But results have varied between countries.

Liberia, for instance, had been mostly neglected in terms of interventions and therefore greatly benefited from the program, Friedrich said. By contrast, he added, results have been more modest in South Africa, where HIV/AIDS education is more prevalent.

Working with national governments has also proved challenging, according to Friedrich. “There are few success stories,” he said. But teaming up with local actors, especially school principals, has been fruitful.

The most crucial components of the program are the coaches, Friedrich stressed, who are soccer players ranging between 18 and 25 years of age. They go through extensive training to become facilitators – “we want them to reach that most-at-risk kid at the back of the group,” he added.

Support from global brands like Nike and soccer legends like Didier Drogba has also boosted Grassroot Soccer’s reach.

“Kids learn best from people they respect,” Friedrich said. “We’re stealing sport for the sake of HIV prevention. Our goal is to educate one million by the 2014 World Cup.”

The talk was part of the Sport and Development Seminar Series sponsored by the Watson Institute for International Studies and the Swearer Center for Public Service. The next event in the series, "Harnessing Fan Passion: A Look Inside Global Sports and Entertainment Marketing," will feature Derek Aframe '96, senior vice president, consulting, at Octagon Worldwide. It takes place Friday, March 11, at 2pm in the Watson Institute's Joukowsky Forum. 

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11