THE World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, agreed a global action plan to ensure every child receives a primary education by 2015 and that disparities between boys' and girls' schooling are eradicated by 2005.
Currently, up to 125 million children do not have access to primary school. The governments of developing countries pledged to draw up national plans to provide free, good-quality education for all by 2002.
Donor governments promised that "no countries seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources".
Speaking on behalf of the donor governments, Maria Minna, Canada's minister for international co-operation, said: "I think the world as we know it will change considerably when we have every boy and girl educated."
The consensus was reached despite a threatened walk-out by non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Education International, which represents teachers' unions around the world. They were initially dismayed when they failed to secure agreement on their plan for donor countries to stump up $4 billion towards the $8bn needed to finance education for all.
Britain's International Development Secretary, Clare Sort, stressed that aid was not the main obstacle. In some cases it was being offered to governments and not being used. The key to change, she said, was to get national governments to spend more of their budgets on their own education system.
As the conference threatened to end acrimoniously, US president Bill Clinton's national economic adviser, Gene Sperling, injected fresh impetus with a unilateral pledge to ask Congress to raise US aid for basic education by 55 per cent this year - to $155 million (pound;102m). On behalf of President Clinton, he pledged to ensure that education became a "serious topic" on the agenda of the G-7 summit to be held in Okinawa, Japan, in July, and to press the World Bank to double its lending for basic education.
G-7 economic leaders, influenced by British Chancellor Gordon Brown, have already made debt relief conditional on strategies for reducing poverty through education and health programmes.
Though the financial pledge from donor governments was non-specific at Dakar, the final agreement adopted by delegates from 180 countries did include an international commitment to develop immediately a global initiative to mobilise enough resources to support each developing country's action plan. Campaigners will be looking to Okinawa and the annual meeting of the World Bank in September for proof of progress.