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Virtual aid for Third World

Commonwealth education ministers attending the 13th meeting of the group next week can expect a more positive attitude from a Labour Government.

Baroness Blackstone, education and employment minister, and George Foulkes, international development minister, will travel to Botswana with fresh Government pledges on aid and a commitment to human rights. The ministers hope to roll back the years of the Conservative government's apparent disregard for the Commonwealth, said to stem from Margaret Thatcher's contempt for its insistence on tougher sanctions against South Africa and the liberationist rhetoric of Third World members.

The Government has pledged to give aid and overseas development a higher priority. As well as aiming to increase its expenditure from 0.29 to 0. 7 per cent of GNP (the UN target), it has upgraded the Department of Overseas Development to give it Cabinet status in the person of Clare Short.

The Government also hopes to place more emphasis on export promotion, aiming to sell books and equipment to developing countries and also to the potentially huge new market in South Africa.

This year's conference, Education and Technology: The Challenges for the 21st Century, will reflect how information technology offers the best chance of raising the standard of education across the whole of the Commonwealth.

The meeting aims to show how rapidly developing technology can be used to bridge the gap between small developing nations and countries such as Singapore, whose schools conduct much of their work on the Internet and are linked by a computer network to Government ministries, and Malaysia, where homework is handed in and marked on the Internet.

An existing example of these ambitions is the Commonwealth's Distance Learning Centre in Vancouver, to which the UK is one of the major contributors.

Ministers will also address the future of education in the Commonwealth once information technology is up and running. This issue will be brought into focus by the proposed "virtual university" for Africa: ministers will be asking whether the ethos for this will come within the continent itself or be dominated from outside, mainly by the United States.

The meeting also proposes to advance an "holistic" approach to nurturing talent within the Commonwealth. This will include providing aid programmes for developing countries and improvements in health and education.

At the Denver Summit of leading industrialised nations earlier this year, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Clare Short announced an increased commitment to education in Africa, especially in primary education, on the basis that improved literacy among the population makes a country less dependent on aid in the future.

The contentious issue of human rights is also set to come up as delegates attempt to agree a definition of human rights - based on a study in four Commonwealth countries - on which they can base a youth education programme for member states.

Objections are expected from Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are proud of their own teaching of national values and are reluctant to adopt the Commonwealth values.

Other Commonwealth states with dubious human rights records are unlikely to oppose the idea for fear of attracting attention. As one organiser admitted in advance: "Few countries will stand up and say they are opposed to human rights, but they may dispute the definition afterwards.''

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