Our simple aim is to support the goals set at the recent World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, namely:
to provide every child in the world with a primary place by 2015
to ensure girls and boys worldwide have equal access by 2005.
In the coming months and years, we will report from developing countries on the progress made towards these goals. We will focus on steps being taken by
Britain and other western governments to ensure these aims are met.
We will also encourage schools to link up with and support their counterparts
in the world's poorest countries. With
citizenship lessons soon to become part of the national curriculum there has never been a better time to do so. We aim to show that good citizenship is not just local, but global.
The amount Africa spends repaying debt would fund primary schooling for all of its children several times over. But the world's richest countries are still dragging their feet over debt relief and aid for education. Brendan O'Malley reports.
THE campaign to provide free good-quality primary education for every child in the world by 2015 faces a vital test this weekend.
The target was set at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in April. But the decisions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting in Prague this weekend will show if richer countries are willing to provide the debt relief and aid needed to achieve this.
Already charities are saying it will be too little too late. Internationally-agreed targets on education and poverty reduction look set to be missed.
"Failure to reduce the burden of debt will leave some of the world's poorest countries paying far more to creditors than they are able to invest in education and health," a new Oxfam study on countries receiving debt relief noted this week.
Currently 130 million of the world's children - one in five of the primary-age population - do not attend primary school and two-thirds of those are girls.
At Dakar, world leaders pledged to provide a primary place for every child by 2015 and to ensure equal access to education for girls and boys by 2005.
Developing countries pledged to draw up coherent national plans by 2002 to achieve this goal; Western governments promised that no country would fail for want of money.
This was a compromise stitched together after the Dakar conference nearly collapsed when rich countries refused to set aside $8 billion (pound;5.7 billion) - the estimated cost of providing universal primary education - in a fund to achieve the 2015 goal.
Western leaders, including Britain's development secretary, Clare Short, dismissed the fund as "tokenistic", arguing that the money was already on offer for countries prepared to make a transparent commitment to universal primary education, the hard bit was getting them to spend their own money on primary schools. "It's a question of finding those states where you have got reformers and getting behind them," she said.
The conference was saved by a series of pledges by Bill Clinton. The US President promised to ask Congress to raise aid for education by 55 per cent this year to $155million (pound;110m) and to press the World Bank to double lending for basic education.
Crucially, the Dakar agreement specified that a global mechanism would be put in place immediately to ensure that donor countries backed up their pledges with hard cash by providing earlier, deeper and broader debt relief - tied to spending on basic education - andor increasing aid. Progress on the developing countries' part of the bargain would also be monitored.
But, so far, the signs are not good. "After Dakar nothing has happened on that, which is absolutely appalling," says Tony Burdon, a policy adviser for Oxfam. "Only the World Bank and the United States are trying to push things forward."
He says, without a proper monitoring mechanism donors will just carry on helping only certain favoured countries.
Mr Burdon says: "Britain only works in 12 countries in education. What about the others?"
The case of Uganda highlights what can be achieved with the right commitment (see opposite page). In 1997 the Kampala government committed itself to free universal primary education and began negotiating with donor governments to try to make that pledge a reality by 2003.
In return, under the HIPC (heavily indebted poor countries) initiative, Uganda has been told this week that its relief is being raised from $58m to $100m (pound;71m) per year, which will enable it to pay for 31,000 extra teachers, with the aim of cutting the teacher:pupil ratio from 1:110 to 1:80 in the first two primary years.
The Ugandan programme is co-ordinated and heavily backed financially by Britain's Department for International Development. It is the product of attempts by G8 leaders, particularly British Chancellor Gordon Brown, to shift the emphasis of International Monetary FundWorld Bank policies away from encouraging developing countries to reduce state spending towards promoting social investment in health and education.
But the question that Oxfam is asking is why so few countries have so far benefited from the debt relief initiative. Set up in 1996, the HIPC scheme was intended to support 41 of the world's poorest countries, but so far only nine countries have received any relief because so few have met its tight conditions.
"When it comes to debt relief," the report says, "the IMF has developed delay and prevarication into a science."
Critics say the rich countries are guilty of double standards, forcing struggling countries to continue to make interest payments they can ill afford on their national debt when that money could be ploughed into health and education.
As a result, Africa spends four times the $2.14bn (pound;1.5bn) needed to fund universal primary education on servicing debt.
The most worrying finding of the study is that some countries in the debt relief programme will not benefit at all - including Zambia, Tanzania and Senegal - because their debt payments will actually increase.
This is because countries who could not previously afford to make their scheduled payments are now being forced to pay up and because the IMF calculates repayments on the basis of foreign export sales rather than what governments actually receive in tax.
After receiving debt relief, Zambia - which has two million children out of school and where more teachers are dying of Aids than they can train - will still spend 40 per cent of its state budget on debt, making more spending on schools unrealistic.
At Oxford earlier this year, Gordon Brown, in the Gilbert Murray Memorial Lecture, invoked the spirit of John F Kennedy in urging governments to use debt relief to create a virtuous circle of economic development to fight world poverty. He placed special emphasis on primary education, the development case for which was unanswerable.
"It is the absolute precondition for progress ... Countries cannot develop properly if only elites are educated," he said.
The test now, according to Mr Burdon, is for G8 leaders, who form the majority of shareholders at the IMF and World Bank, to end the vicious circle of poverty created by debt.
To do this, he says, they should agree at the IMFWorld Bank annual meeting in Prague this weekend to make the process of joining the HIPC scheme easier, so that countries can get on with thrashing out an education strategy with donors. He also wants them to cap debt repayments at 10 per cent of government spending.
But in the long term, Mr Burdon says, the Dakar pledges need to be followed by commitments on the part of donor countries to provide finance to turn the conference's vision into reality. "They are calling on governments to develop education plans by 2002. Now donors need to do their part, which is to come up with a mechanism for making sure those countries get the finance they need."
UNESCO Education for All statistics:www2.unesco.orgefa
Department for International Development Education for All strategy: