The aftershock of the global financial crisis threatens to set back education worldwide, according to a major report from Unesco this week.
The 2010 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report warns that, with 72 million primary-age children still out of school, a combination of slower economic growth, rising poverty and budget pressures could erode the gains of the past decade.
"While rich countries nurture their economic recovery, many poor countries face the imminent prospect of education reversals," said Unesco director- general Irina Bokova. "We cannot afford to create a lost generation of children deprived of their chance for an education that might lift them out of poverty."
The Global Monitoring Report, developed annually by an independent team and published by Unesco, assesses progress towards the six Education for All goals to which more than 160 countries committed themselves in 2000.
The goals cover: expanding and improving early childhood care and education; universal primary education by 2015; youth and adult access to learning and skills programmes; a 50 per cent improvement in adult literacy levels by 2015; gender equality in education by 2015; and improving the quality of education.
The latest report, Reaching the Marginalised, warns that the recession could drive another 90 million people into extreme poverty, while some of the worst-affected countries are still recovering from high food prices that left an additional 175 million malnourished in 2007 and 2008. "Education systems will not be immune to the effects of these deteriorating human conditions," it adds.
While the United States has prioritised education for public spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, low-income developing countries lack the capacity to mobilise financing on the scale required to maintain public spending in priority areas.
"They desperately need an increase in concessional development assistance to provide breathing space to cope with the crisis and maintain spending plans in education and other areas," says the report.
Its authors call on the United Nations Secretary-General to convene a high-level pledging conference to address the money shortfall.
Kevin Watkins, director of Global Monitoring Report, claims wealthy countries and international financial institutions have been exaggerating how much aid they have provided. "Rich countries have mobilised a financial mountain to stabilise their financial systems and protect vital social and economic infrastructure, but they have provided an aid molehill for the world's poor," he said.
The report estimates it will cost $16 billion a year to achieve universal primary education and wider Education for All goals by 2015 - a figure described as "about 2 per cent of the amount mobilised to rescue four major banks in the UK and US".
Currently, about 72 million primary school-age children and another 71 million adolescents are not at school and, on current trends, 56 million primary-age children will still be out of school in 2015.
Gender disparities remain engrained, with 28 countries in the developing world having nine or fewer girls in school for every 10 boys.
There has also been little progress towards the goal of halving adult illiteracy - a condition that affects 759 million people, two-thirds of them women.
The report concludes: "It is easy to lose sight of what is at stake. The world economy will recover from the recession, but the crisis could create a lost generation of children in the world's poorest countries whose life chances will have been irreparably damaged by a failure to protect their right to education.
"But whole countries also stand to lose out as weaker progress in education leads to slower economic growth, reduced job creation, deteriorating public health and a more marginal place in the increasingly knowledge-based global economy."