A controversial bid for $50 million (pound;30 million) of aid to fund education reforms in Uzbekistan has been rejected owing to concerns about the use of forced child labour in the country.
Despite official backing from global organisations including children's charity Unicef, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the World Bank, the application by Uzbekistan - a nation accused of "wide-scale violation of human rights" by campaigners - has been dismissed by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).
The GPE distributes billions of dollars donated by countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Australia to developing nations. Its board of directors said that Uzbekistan's bid had been "overshadowed" by concerns about the forced labour of more than 500,000 students as young as 15 during the annual cotton harvest. The partnership has asked Uzbekistan to produce evidence for how it intends to tackle the issue of forced child labour before it will reconsider its application.
Despite insisting that the investment could "contribute positively to the governance situation in the country", a report from the GPE's financial advisory committee revealed that some of its members feared that giving aid to Uzbekistan could pose a "potential reputational risk" to the partnership.
As previously reported in TES (18 October), opposition to Uzbekistan's bid for funding has been led by the Cotton Campaign. The alliance of investors, companies, teaching unions and non-profit organisations is backed by Open Society Foundations (OSF), which was founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to promote democracy and human rights.
Classrooms across Uzbekistan were left abandoned for weeks at a time between September and November, as more than 1 million people were forced to pick cotton in what human rights campaigners described as "one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labour in the world". International observers claimed that 11 people died in the cotton fields this year.
Despite admitting that it has funded projects in "countries with child labour and other human rights issues in the past", the GPE said that some of its members believed Uzbekistan was a "unique" case because of allegations that the child labour was "state-sponsored" - a claim denied by the Uzbek government.
"Independent monitors reported that again this fall the government of Uzbekistan systematically mobilised large numbers of high school students to participate in the cotton harvest, threatening to expel from school any who refused," said Jeff Goldstein, OSF's senior policy analyst for Eurasia.
"This being the case, we continue to believe that the GPE should not approve a programme for Uzbekistan until that country's authorities get out of the business of forcing children to pick cotton."
Before the GPE's decision to withhold the funding was announced, a spokesman for Unicef told TES that, with the aid, "millions of children (would) be offered a better, more inclusive education and hundreds of thousands of teachers (would) be better prepared with the latest teaching methods".
The beneficiaries would have included more than 400,000 children aged 3-6 living in rural areas, who would have been given access to pre-primary and early literacy programmes for the first time, the spokesman said. In addition, 200,000 teachers and school managers would have received professional development training.
"Schoolchildren in Uzbekistan have a right to a better education system and Unicef is supporting comprehensive reforms aimed at meeting shortfalls in investment, bringing the system up to internationally accepted standards and addressing major issues to do with equity, quality and access," the spokesman said.
But Cotton Campaign coordinator Matt Fischer-Daly told TES that thousands of students had been forced to miss out on education in the past few months. "The penalties were harsh: students who refused to participate were excluded; teachers faced losing their salary or jobs," he said. "Our goal . is to ensure that there are more (educational) opportunities for the citizens of Uzbekistan."