LEADing from the Inside

Hello again! I am finally back with my second summer blog post. A lot has changed since I last wrote; I have traveled to Morocco to work for LEAD Africa as both a researcher and intern. LEAD Africa is one of the first-ever hybrid sport-for-development soccer academies in the developing world. The academy combines intense soccer training in the morning with rigorous schooling and leadership training in the afternoon. The academy also gained international attention for utilizing sport to address endemic gender and ethnic barriers by trying to maintain an equal gender distribution at the academy and drawing from all ethnic backgrounds.

I could not wait to spend three weeks in Morocco and work for the academy. Last summer I helped implement an impact evaluation for LEAD at their Liberian academy. Liberia is still recovering from a decade-long civil war where major opposition groups were drawn along ethnic lines. Post-conflict interventions have taken time to mend deeply rooted ethnic fractionalization and realize reconciliation. Sport has been recognized as a viable post-conflict intervention because participants can easily build organic relationships across a wide cross-section of society. Furthermore, by bringing together talented female and male soccer players, LEAD believes soccer training will not only give females the self-confidence needed to compete with boys on the soccer field but will also spillover to other male-dominated social-spheres, like the classroom.

LEAD finalist students trying out at Mansouria's new soccer stadium, which the academy will use next school year

LEAD finalist students trying out at Mansouria’s new soccer stadium, which the academy will use

Our research from last summer indicates that the academy structure is clearly working. LEAD student-athletes outscored the student control groups on the academic exam, gender, ethnicity, and non-cognitive surveys we administered. Since I am a fanatic soccer player and fan, I was not surprised by the results because I have personally experienced how soccer, depending on the program structure, can either bring people from different backgrounds together or exacerbate existing prejudices.

In high school, the club soccer teams I played against were often drawn upon ethno-national lines. Since many teams were formed out of immigrant communities, we played against Haitian, Polish, Mexican, Serbian, and Jamaican teams. When you pit a bunch of young, competitive boys from different backgrounds against each other on the soccer field, it often brings the worst out of them. Animosity would spill out onto the field and players would get kicked out of games for demonizing comments, and in a few cases, full-blown fights. For instance, one of my old coaches Ilya, a Serbian, ended up fighting the referee, a Bosnian, at a match over an ethnically charged comment the referee made about the Bosnian War. And no, I am not exaggerating- Ilya literally charged the referee and kicked him!

During my sophomore year of high school, my soccer team was coached by a Serbian, Coach Dule, and we had two Bosnian teammates, Faruk and Meris. Because of our team’s personal experience, you may imagine that we were initially skeptical this arrangement would work out. Although there were some tense moments during practices and games, as we continued to perform well, Coach Dule, Faruk, and Meris managed to work well together. As the season progressed, they managed to leverage their shared background to our team’s advantage. Coach Dule would communicate to Faruk and Merris in Serbian so the opposing players could not understand our tactics and they would respond in Bosnian. Although they did not understand everything Coach Dule said, they understood enough to communicate and carry out his plans. By bringing people from different backgrounds together on the same team, instead of pitting them against each other on the soccer field, Coach Dule, Faruk, and Merris had to find common ground for our team to succeed. The by-product of this successful player-coach arrangement was forging unique relationships that ultimately transcended ethnic and political boundaries.

Although from my personal experience and research in Liberia, soccer was a useful tool to mend pre-existing ethnic tensions, break down gender barriers, and incentivize classroom learning, that does not necessarily imply the academy structure could be applied to different country contexts. As LEAD Africa opened their second academy in Morocco, my job was to begin assessing whether LEAD’s unique structure could also work in Morocco.

The view from my apartment's balcony, not too shabby to live a two minute walk away from the beach

The view from my apartment’s balcony, not too shabby to live a two-minute walk away from the beach

Got too close to the coast and paid the price, a ten-foot wave got the best of me

Got too close to the coast and paid the price, a ten-foot wave got the best of me

Since the academy is just getting off the ground in Morocco, I worked both as a researcher and administrator. The academy plans to open in Mansouria this September, and there is a lot of work that needed to get done. Mansouria is located right on the Atlantic coast midway between Rabat and Casablanca, Morocco’s two largest cities. Yet, the town feels more like a refuge from the big, bustling cities with beautiful beaches and a small-town feel.

I spent a lot of time in Rabat, Morocco's capital. This Rabat's old city, called the Medina

I spent a lot of time in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. This Rabat’s old city, called the Medina

My role as a researcher, alongside my research partners Jack and Fatima-Zahra, was primarily to collect baseline data on the applicants’ gender views, academic, non-cognitive and socio-economic background. This data will be used in future impact evaluations to control for initial baseline differences between the students who ultimately gain admission to the academy, our treatment group, and the students who just missed the cut, our control group. Because the academy ultimately selects the top applicants, it is important to control for these baseline student differences, otherwise, it would be impossible to determine whether future impact evaluation results are driven by the academy structure or by inherent differences between the treatment and control cohort quality.

Hassan tower, began construction in the 1100's but was never completed

Located in Rabat, the Royal Family began construction on Hassan tower in the 12th century, but it was never completed

But, in order to collect data, we first had to organize the application process. The most important component of the application process is the Open Application Day, where all kids from Mansouria ages 8-10 can come to the soccer stadium and be evaluated on their football and academic potential. This day is a big deal for the academy because it is their coming out day to the community; LEAD wanted to gain grass-roots traction and ensure the best applicants from poor socio-economic backgrounds would come tryout.

While LEAD founder Will Smith and LEAD Morocco Country Director Soufiane Najah El Idrissi worked with the municipality, Fatima-Zahra and I went with local teachers into the communities to spread the word. Well, I was not much help since I cannot speak Arabic nor French. I mainly passed out flyers and took photos while Fatima-Zahra was the star of the show. It was incredible to watch her interact with the children. She managed to engage dozens of people at the same time while they peppered her with questions. After briefly explaining the academy, Fatima-Zahra would ask children to come back with their family and friends. The kids would then sprint off to their neighborhoods and return with large groups of people that were both confused and excited by what Fatima-Zahra had to say. As the children ran off with their flyers, you could see the academy’s message disseminate through the community as people came out of their houses and onto the streets.

Spreading the word in the souks

Spreading the word in the souks

Fatima-Zahra talking to a future LEAD student (although she has a couple of more years before she can apply)

Fatima-Zahra talking to a future LEAD student (although she has a couple of more years before she can apply)

We certainly were successful in gaining community support as over 400 kids showed up for Open App Day! We were so overwhelmed that the registration process took over three hours. It was great to see the community support, but it was also incredibly stressful. It is hard enough to get a group of twenty kids to listen to you, let alone 400! We had to ensure that all children had the opportunity to play football, be fed, and take the academic test. Because turnout far exceeded our expectations, we also did not have enough materials. I had to resort to printing exams at a local municipality building and running them back to the stadium.

Ultimately, we fell short of our goal to evaluate all students. This was especially disheartening because we planned to invite back 80 students the next week to take part in a three-day Finalist Camp. During the camp, students would take part in extensive football and academic evaluations, and also take our research surveys. Then, after the camp, the academy would select 40 students to enter the academy. Yet, without the complete data, we could not choose who we wanted to invite back.

Photo of us taking photos of all the surveys. We had over 4000 pages to digitize!

Photo of us taking photos of all the surveys. We had over 4000 pages to digitize!

While working on a short timeline, we worked to put together a contingency plan. We managed to put on a second Open Application Day for the students who did not get the chance to be evaluated on the first day. This time, we were prepared, and it went much more smoothly. With the necessary data, we could now select the finalists and begin to set up the Finalist Camp days.

Meanwhile, Fatima-Zahra and I also worked simultaneously to assemble and train a group of eight research assistants to conduct the surveys. Our research assistant (RA) team were composed of college and graduate students from Rabat. Since we needed additional help to ensure the Open App days ran smoothly, most of the RAs also worked as administrators on these days and were familiar with the structure. Once the Finalist Camp days came around, we were all well-seasoned veterans. During the Finalist Camp, we managed to successfully administer the surveys to almost all participants. Between football training and class, Fatima-Zahra and I would shepherd students in groups of eight into the survey room where the research assistants were waiting to administer the surveys. Although we managed to get the process down to an exact science, it sure helped that we only had 80 students.

Finalist students getting ready to play on the pitch

Finalist students getting ready to play on the pitch

Although there was a lot riding on these days, I had so much fun working with the LEAD administration. It all comes down to the people you work with. From Liberia to Morocco, I have managed to spend time with Will and see how he operates LEAD from the inside and understand what has driven the organization’s explosive growth. Will has done an excellent job crafting a mission-driven culture that is grounded in personal relationships. Will has not only hired the best-of-the-best, but everyone is first and foremost friends. When your work is rooted in an overall mission and you enjoy the people you work with, work no longer becomes a task, but instead becomes part of your identity. Every day I was in Morocco, I genuinely felt as if I was part of the LEAD team, and I was excited to get to work.

On brand LEAD squad pic

On brand LEAD squad pic


So many people made my time in Morocco special. First off, I want thank Will and Soufiane for going out of their way to make sure I felt welcome and at home. The LEAD Morocco academy is truly in good hands with them and I cannot wait to come back and see the progress. Fatima-Zahra was the best co-lead I could ask for and major props to her for carrying out the project while being sick! Although Jack could not make it to Morocco, he was there every step of the way and always willing to help on a moment’s notice. Also, a shout out to all the research assistants Lamiaa, Ilias, Wissal, Youssef, Laksissar, Janate, Mohamed, and Nasro. They all went worked tirelessly to administer the surveys and ensure the kids did not overrun the camp.

Now that this chapter of my summer is completed, I am back in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia working on my Honor’s Thesis Project. My co-advisor Professor Shiferaw arrives this week, and I am excited to see him present at the Ethiopian Economic Association conference!

More to come,



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