Many poor countries are set to miss the UN goal of universal primary education by 2015 unless richer nations keep their pledge to help them, campaigners say.
In advance of the Commonwealth education ministers' meeting in Edinburgh next week, it emerged that only one member state, Canada, has given any money to the global "fast-track" initiative. This is aimed at getting aid money swiftly to developing countries which draw up an acceptable education action plan.
The World Bank last April selected a handful of nations that could be put on the "fast track", yet donors have not honoured their promises. Nearly 90 of 155 countries surveyed by the bank will probably miss the 2015 goal.
Commonwealth education ministers need to kickstart the initiative in advance of a major fast- track donors' meeting in Oslo in November, the Global Campaign for Education says.
"It is crucial that donors come up with at least enough money to fully fund the 18 countries selected for the fast-track initiative. The first seven countries with their education plans approved still have an unmet need for $221 million (pound;132m)," said Anne Jellema of the campaign.
Ben Phillips of Oxfam said the richest Commonwealth countries - Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand - must each provide at least three times more aid than they do at present if universal primary education is to be achieved.
Unesco estimates some $7 billion a year is needed until 2015. Canada has committed just $6m over three years to the fast track and $31m in bilateral (country to country) aid to Honduras. Bilaterally Britain has committed $70m so far, Australia $33m and New Zealand just $2m. These countries have so far committed nothing to the fast track.
The global campaign's hardhitting September "No-progress report" said donors had endorsed only 10 of 18 the countries already committed to far reaching reforms. They "then insisted on drastic cutbacks and finally declined to honour even the much-reduced financing requests that remained".
Despite the fast track, the four largest Commonwealth donors still give the majority of their aid to single countries. This means that cash continues to be dictated by former colonial ties and geopolitical considerations instead of need, says Oliver Buston of Oxfam in Washington.
Most fast-track funding has gone to smaller,"cheaper" countries. New Zealand is expected to announce a fast-track contribution - all of it to Vietnam.
Meanwhile countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and Sudan face huge challenges to provide primary education for all.
Campaigners in more than 50 countries around the world will be pushing their representatives at the Commonwealth education ministers' meeting to make free education a reality.
Join the campaign by emailing UK representative Education Secretary Charles Clarke at www.oxfam.org.ukwhat_you_can_docampaigneducationnowaction.htm