More than 130 million children under 11 in developing countries do not go to school, but for as little as #163;4.5 billion a year - the amount Europeans spend on ice-cream - they could all have a basic four-year education, according to the United Nation's Children's Fund.
"Nearly a billion people, two-thirds of them women, will enter the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names - much less operate a computer or understand a simple application form," said Carol Bellamy, director of UNICEF, whose annual State of the World's Children report this year focuses entirely on education. "The world can no longer afford such an enormous waste of potential."
The report found direct links between poverty and poor health and education. For instance, a study of nine countries and the Indian state of Kerala found that education had more impact on infant and child mortality rates than interventions in health, nutrition, water and sanitation. Education was also the single most important factor leading to a reduction in child labour. And for children traumatised by war and violence, it provided a crucial healing balm towards rehabilitation.
Continuing to deny a basic education to children worldwide would, on the other hand, create a potentially life-threatening chasm "with powder-keg implications for global peace and prosperity".
Taking stock of education worldwide, UNICEF notes that progress has fallen well short of the pledge of education for all by 2000, made by the World Conference at Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990. Yet the drive to raise girls' participation and to improve the quality of primary education has also been overlooked in the rush to push up enrolment rates.
The blame was laid at the door of governments which did not invest as high a proportion of national income on basic primary education as countries with similar economies. The World Bank was heavily criticised for failing to offer more help to the poorest countries, but the UK, Germany and Japan were singled out for improving aid levels.
However, the greatest impediment to universal education is the developing world's debts. Tanzania, for example, spends six times more on debt repayments than on education; Mozambique spends more on debt repayments than on health and education. Radical and wide-ranging, the report illustrates with individual and often highly-colourful accounts some of the world's more imaginative and quixotic educational solutions: floating schools on houseboats in Cambodia, schools under trees for Rwandan refugees, and schools in a backpack for many of south America's disparate communities of children.
At a media briefing in Florence last month, UNICEF representatives presented their solutions to countries' particular problems. They talked of supplementing the income of very poor families to reduce child labour in Brazil and multigrade schools in the Philippines. Life-skills programmes are being tried in Uganda in an attempt to reverse that country's draconian teaching orthodoxy where last year seven children died as a result of corporal punishment. Parents in Madagascar who fail to send their children to school are fined.
Some of this might sound foreign to UK educationists. Yet the essential problems strike a chord: that it is not enough to ensure that children attend school, that the quality of education and how it is transmitted is of overwhelming importance.
"The State of the World's Children 1999", Pounds 7.95 from UNICEF's information department, tel 0171 405 5592