Five years to lay down the foundations

I am convinced that it is within our grasp to eliminate abject poverty in the world. Our Government has committed the UK to the target agreed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - reducing by half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015. That is something that we must do, for the sake of those living in poverty and for the future of the planet.

One of the major pathways out of poverty is education. For many people this pathway is closed off - because of where they live, their status in society, sometimes because they are female, very often because of a lack of money. This leads to a wider form of deprivation, when people are unable to develop the basic skills of literacy and numeracy and other life skills to enable them to take up opportunities, enjoy good health and a more fulfilling life, and send their own children, in time, to school.

Primary education has a beneficial effect on health, agricultural productivity, participation in formal and informal economic sectors, entrepreneurship and fertility rates. Research shows that it can be a fundamental element of poverty elimination. We should now target our energies and resources on eliminating poverty through support for education.

In the poorest countries there are low levels of literacy, poor maternal health, little access to the new technologies and widening gaps between the "haves" and "have-nots". They are also falling behind the rest of the world in technological awareness and scientific discovery. As other countries are transformed by new technologies, many developing countries are still trying to develop basic education provision and infrastructure.

The millennium provides a chance to take stock and to make changes in our approach to development. The new Department for International Development emphasises basic education for all. I would like to see the dawn of the 21st century highlight the importance for the world of education, education, education!

This means working with other industrialised countries. We must all support those countries which are struggling to invest in their future. We know from east Asia that this investment, coupled with an enabling and supportive economic and policy framework, leads to swift development.

But it is not trouble-free: in Malawi universal, free primary education almost doubled overnight the numbers of children enrolling. In Uganda a policy of free education for up to four children from any family led to an extra 2.6 million children enrolling. In both countries this requires thousands of new classrooms to be built, schools to be staffed and properly equipped, teachers to be trained.

These are essential strategies for providing good-quality primary education for all children. We already support these countries, but they, and others, particularly in Africa, deserve more. The Denver Initiative on Africa, announced by Tony Blair at the G7 Summit, committed my department to a target of 50 per cent increased spending to primary education over the next three years. This is exactly where our money should be going - human development for the poorest people.

We must also look at the needs for education skills and knowledge above the primary and basic levels, particularly in countries where good-quality primary education is already at a high level. There will be a need in those countries to ensure that secondary levels of education provide a sound academic basis for entry into the worlds of work and further levels of education.

Specific skills training works best when it is overlaid on a well-established academic education. We should also support research and the development of technological and scientific skills in higher education,where this complements investments in primary and basic education, and a development policy. Development in IT is moving so fast that countries without the skills will increasingly be left behind on global communication and economic development.

We can, of course, do more. In the international arena, we shall work with other donors and funding agencies to increase financial commitment and our collective impact on poverty. We need to strengthen the emerging global consensus on development. We will emphasise whenever we can our support for the OECD targets, especially the aim of achieving universal primary education by 2015, and removing gender bias in education. We shall monitor and report on how we and our country partners are progressing towards them.

My department's policy for the 21st century will need to reflect evolving global philosophies. Societies are increasingly knowledge-based, and individuals within them need to be multi-skilled. It is, therefore, important to maintain the momentum of change in education - first, and most importantly leading to better secondary level skills, followed by a better educated workforce and HE responsive to needs, with its capacity for research, scholarship, teaching and IT.

It cannot be right that at the end of the 20th century millions of children do not go to school, and millions of adults, most of them women, are not literate. Countries like Britain can provide more of the necessary resources, both human and financial, to support governments' efforts to redress this wrong. We intend to work with educational institutions and expertise both in Britain and overseas to provide a framework of educational quality to the children and adults who need it. Then we shall see the decline of poverty in the world.

To start with, I should like us all to make it an article of faith that every child born in 1997 in the developing world will have an opportunity to go to school in the 21st century. That gives us five or six years to lay down the foundations. We can do it - if we can mobilise the political will.

Clare Short is Secretary of State for International Development

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