'It makes all the vile articles worthwhile'

21st April 2000 at 01:00
This week governments will promise primary education for all the globe's children. The problem is an identical pledge a decade ago ended in failure. Brendan O'Malley reports and, right, talks to UK minister Clare Short about her hopes for universal schooling

THE PRESS has been unkind to Clare Short. She is much more sophisticated than some journalists have suggested.

Once described as a hatchet-faced harridan for her campaign against page-three girls, she is now blamed for Britain's tardy responses to global disasters - from the Mozambique floods to the Ethiopian famine - yet gets little credit for the influential role Britain is playing fighting long-term poverty.

The contrast with fellow outspoken leftwinger Ken Livingstone is sharp. Both have been lambasted for bucking the party line - on legalising soft drugs for instance.

But when it comes to fighting world poverty "Red Ken", now expelled from Labour, is on the outside attacking the "killer capitalism" of the world's financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund, while Clare Short is right in there, as UK governor of the World Bank.

Behind the scenes, she has become a driving force in international efforts to switch the bank's focus from hacking back state spending to social investment - and she's a key advocate of placing education at the heart of that. Aides speak admiringly of how she can knock heads together and push foreign leaders into making commitments.

With the help of Gordon Brown, and thanks, she freely admits, to the overwhelming impact of the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign on world leaders, she has helped secure international support for writing off debt to the poorest countries - provided they have a tight policy in place to reduce poverty through education and health programmes.

Suprisingly tall, stylishly dressed - in smart dog-tooth jacket and black slacks - and, unlike her image, a warm person to meet, she is proud of the way Labour has put education at the top of the Government's aid agenda since it came to power in 1997.

"We went big-time for education," she says, "and made the Jomtien (1990 conference, see left) commitments the centrepiece of our work - universal primary education is the core one - and we've been trying to drive that through the whole international system, through the IMF, the World Bank, the UN committees and the EU."

The immediate task is to secure the right kind of commitments at the Education for All conference in Dakar.

That it will be left to her and not Tony Blair to lead for Britain, and take the rap if world leaders fail to guarantee a global commitment of $8 billion (pound;5bn) to pay for places for the 125 million children out of school, has been heavily criticised by aid agencies like Oxfam and ActionAid.

But Clare Short is convinced that the international community is more heavily mobilised than in Jomtien 10 years ago, when similar targets were set, unsuccessfully, for 2000.

"Dakar will be a test, but the commitment to the 2015 targets - including universal primary education - is deeper and sharper and we've played a

significant part in that."

"We won't deliver universal primary education in the war-torn countries, the Angolas and Afghanistans, but we can get to the point where, in every country at peace it's an absolute norm. It will be the first time in human history that fundamentalilliteracy is removed from normal conditions."

She knows something about uphill struggles. She won her seat in 1983, Labour's worst election since the war, rose quickly in the party but repeatedly clashed on policy - she resigned from the frontbench over the Gulf War bombing campaign, was carpeted over her comments on cannabis and backed a loser, Margaret Beckett, for the leadership.

Now 54, she has also had to cope with more than her fair share of personal tragedies. Her first marriage, begun at the age of 17, ended in a painful divorce, her second with the death of her husband after a long period of suffering from Alzheimers and a physically wasting condition. The anguish of giving away her son for adoption only came to light when they were happily reunited in 1996.

But when she talks about strategies to help the world's poor, she seems undaunted by the scale of the task. Planetary objectives trip off her tongue.

"If you want development, you have got to educate girls," declares the longtime champion of women's rights. "The World Bank has done some analysis over the past few years and there's no question, if you look across the world at which countries developed faster, educating girls is the single most powerful intervention you can make.

"I mean even quite big reactionary governments think: 'Sod it, if you want development you have got to educate girls'. The argument is more comprehensively won than it has ever been in history."

She cites a visit she made to a tribal village in Andhra Pradesh, India - a country with a poor record on literacy given its educated elite.

"There wasn't a single literate woman in the village but every single girl was in school, including the special needs girls. And the women had a map made of stones of every home in the village and where the girls lived and they checked every day that they went to school.

"That means in one generation you know that change can take place. It's wonderful."

The second key weapon, she says, is the launch of an effective mechanism to gather data and monitor progress.

This is the outcome she most seeks from Dakar and likens the potential of such work to landmark studies such as Rowntree in England, but on a global scale.

"There are deep parallels in our own history," Short says. "Statistics sound dry but the real measure of the depths of poverty moved the UK in those times and I think, for instance, the Indian middle classes would be shocked and moved if they really got the measurement of the depths of poverty in their country."

Most of all, she says, you can't bring change unless the developing countries' governments are committed, as Uganda has shown in declaring free school places for four children in every family, tripling enrolment in three years.

If that commitment is not evident at Dakar, she will be set for another dressing down in the newspapers, but she will still relish her job.

"I'm in politics because we can make life more just and fair for people," she says. "My great-great-grandfather came to Birmingham out of the Irish potato famine and we got work and education and that was the liberator of us. There are lots of people who have never had this chance and to be given a job where you can help move the world forward is a fantastic privilege. It makes every boring political meeting and vile newspaper article worthwhile."

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