A global alliance of campaigners has hit out after it emerged that Uzbekistan - a nation accused of "wide-scale violation of human rights" - may receive a $50 million (pound;30 million) handout from Western countries to make education reforms.
The Cotton Campaign, a network of non-profit organisations, companies, teaching unions and investors, is calling for the funding to be withheld until the country scraps its use of forced child labour in the annual cotton harvest. The alliance is backed by Open Society Foundations, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to promote democracy and human rights.
Other places with poor human rights records, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, are also among the 16 countries being considered for almost $700 million of aid from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), which distributes billions of dollars from nations such as the UK, Australia and Canada.
As the GPE's financial advisory committee meets in Washington DC this week to consider the countries' applications, campaigners say the process raises significant questions about how to raise standards of education in areas with dubious transparency and accountability.
The Uzbek controversy comes after a major report was published last month by watchdog Transparency International, which claimed that aid lost through corruption was a "formidable obstacle" to achieving the United Nations' goal of universal free primary education by 2015.
The non-governmental organisation has ranked Uzbekistan as the sixth most corrupt nation in the world.
Campaigners have claimed that for up to two months every autumn, more than 500,000 Uzbek students as young as 15 are made to leave their lessons to help pick cotton. Isolated incidents of primary school students being compelled to help out have also been reported.
Some 60 per cent of teachers are forced by the government to abandon schools for the cotton fields. According to human rights organisations, many are threatened with pay cuts or even losing their jobs if they fail to comply.
The Uzbek government has claimed that the GPE funding would be used to improve early years literacy, teacher training and secondary schools.
But Matthew Fischer-Daly, coordinator of the Cotton Campaign, said there was a "high risk that some portion of the funds granted by GPE to the Uzbek government would support these human rights violations".
A 2012 report by the Cotton Campaign states that "for a 10- to 12-hour work day, a half-starved 15-year-old earned approximately 20 (US) cents".
Jeff Goldstein, a member of the Cotton Campaign's steering committee, told TES that the practice was "probably the most egregious case of state- sponsored forced labour anywhere in the world".
Although Uzbekistan's government last year publicly clamped down on forced labour of primary school-aged children, the campaign says that this year more students who attend secondary schools, vocational colleges and universities are being forced to take on cotton-picking work.
"Sometimes high school students are told `You will not be allowed to sit your exams if you don't work in the cotton fields'," said Kate Lapham, senior programme manager at the Open Society Foundations. The organisation's institute in Uzbekistan was shut down last year.
"Teachers are told they will not be paid if they don't work in the cotton fields, and they could be fired," Ms Lapham added. "Because Uzbekistan is small and far away, and it's been a quiet ally to the US in the war on terror, it's not necessarily publicised so much what a terrible dictatorship it is. But it really is in the order of North Korea; it's a terrible, terrible government."
Uzbekistan's funding application, however, has the official backing of international children's charity Unicef and the World Bank, which has agreed to supervise the project.
"The World Bank does not condone forced labour in any form, including child labour," a spokeswoman told TES. "The reported cases of students and teachers being mobilised for cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan could have a negative impact on the teaching and learning conditions.
"The World Bank believes that the most effective way it can address the issue in Uzbekistan is to use a holistic approach through continuous country dialogue and collaboration with international agencies and donors."
A final decision on the funding applications is expected next month.
In aid of education
Biggest contributors to the Global Partnership for Education
Grants for developing nations being considered by the partnership
Sierra Leone $17.9m