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The global classroom

TONY BLAIR should be a happy man after the G8 summit in Okinawa: his pet theme of education loomed large in the final communique. Unfortunately, the pledges by presidents and prime ministers received only modest media attention. For readers of First World newspapers, the debates about genetically modified foods meant more than primary schools for Third World children.

The Group of Eight set a goal of primary education for all the world's children by 2015 and gender equality in schools by 2005. The summit also came up with the wheeze of a good lunch for every youngster who shows up in school. That produced the only indication of where the money to meet the targets might be found. President Clinton said that $300 million from surplus crops would go towards the meals.

Summit meetings are always stronger on rhetoric than reality. The fact that the debt relief promises of the world leaders' last meeting have not been met, and indeed have now been scaled back, discourages optimism. Improving school attendance can be achieved not through handouts from the groaning larders of the developed world but ony through the efforts of the poorest countries themselves, and these remain crippled by debt repayments.

So there is understandable cynicism about the new target dates for primary schooling, as there also is for the parallel aim of reducing the incidence of Aids among the young. None the less, even where the climate for an ethical policy on development issues is as cool as on, say, arms supply, the adoption of key principles is not to be ignored. Jubilee 2000 wants a stronger push for debt relief, but the fact that rich countries have made even a formal pledge to forego what is owed them is an achievement that most people would have thought over-idealistic when the Jubilee campaign was launched.

Giving substance to the education promises demands imagination as well as cash and faith. New technologies offer the opportunity not just to supplement the education available in rudimentary classrooms but to obviate the need for sophisticated line-based electronics. Maybe Mr Clinton should convert his surplus crops into the new generation of mobile phones for the children of Africa and Asia.

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