POOR countries are still paying too much to rich nations in debt servicing to be able to fund primary education for all their children, Oxfam warned this week.
But a breakthrough on funding education is still possible if the issue can be placed high on the agenda at the World Bank's spring meeting this Sunday and Monday, and at the G8 meeting in Genoa in July, it says in a paper on international debt.
"Of 22 countries getting debt relief, 16 are still paying more on debt than on primary education," said Tony Burdon, policy adviser at Oxfam. "Some countries could increase their basic education spending. But the basic issue is that the debt servicing is still very high."
The paper warns that failure to make more concessions on debt relief will prevent heavily indebted poor countries from achieving the globally-accepted 2015 targets for providing universal primary education, halving poverty and cutting child mortality rates by three-quarters. Oxfam estimates the cost of achieving these goals in the 22 countries receiving debt relief at $1.5 billion (pound;1bn), which would be more than covered if the $2bn debt burden in those countries was eliminated.
Niger, for instance, is spending more on debt than on education, yet four out of five adults in the country are illiterate and fewer than half the girls of primary age are in school.
At the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, a year ago today, the international community pledged that no developing country which came up with an agreed plan to provide good primary education for al would be allowed to fail for lack of resources.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which is co-ordinating the worldwide drive for education for all, was charged with establishing a "global initiative" to ensure those resources are mobilised through debt relief and aid, as well as technical assistance.
Concrete proposals for a single co-ordinating mechanism have yet to emerge, but the Italian government, which will host the Genoa G8 summit, has called for a global trust fund for education to be set up and managed by the World Bank in co-operation with UNESCO and the EU.
Oxfam's Tony Burdon said G8 leaders had encouraged the spread of primary education by requiring low-income countries to produce poverty reduction strategies before they could receive loans or debt relief from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The process forces the 77 developing countries involved to draw up detailed plans for all areas of policy including education."That's propelling these countries to develop education plans," said Mr Burdon. "Most are on the way to getting a decent plan in place, along with a medium-term spending framework."
They produce two alternatives - an ambitious plan with a large financing gap and a more modest plan - then go to donors to haggle for support to see which option they can go ahead with.
"With Dakar the wealthy countries all pledged to fill the finance gap on decent education plans," Mr Burdon said.
As all the plans have to be drawn up by the end of 2002, the success of the "education for all" drive may depend on the commitment shown by Britain and others over the next 18 months to keep their promises.