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War on poverty eclipsed by Iraq

More than a year after world leaders pledged to jump-start progress towards universal literacy, efforts to reach out to the 115 million children currently out of school remain stuck in the slow lane.

Eighteen developing countries were singled out for urgent funding last June, after the World Bank concluded that 88 nations would fail to achieve universal primary education by 2015 without drastic action.

Education in Africa, in particular, is in crisis: two out of five African children do not attend school. Those who do, receive only 3.5 years'

schooling on average, while primary-school enrolment actually declined during the 1990s in 17 African nations.

Moreover, Aids is decimating staff ranks. Some 12 per cent of South Africa's teaching force is infected, while in Zambia the number of teachers dying from the virus will outstrip new recruits this year.

Africa's unschooled millions will swell the ranks of the estimated 860m illiterate adults. Boosting literacy and numeracy is critical to eradicating poverty, say experts. Children able to read, write and count stand to earn 10 times more than their uneducated peers.

Industrialised nations signed up for the Education for All initiative at the 2000 World Education Forum in Senegal, vowing no developing nation committed to universal schooling would be thwarted for lack of money.

Observers hailed it as a bold departure from decades of ineffective education aid, characterised by piecemeal pet projects.

But the initiative will unravel unless patrons start coughing up, warned Gene Sperling of the Centre for Universal Education in Washington.

"African leaders are coming forward with viable plans, but the donor countries are not keeping their side of the bargain."

Wealthy nations are preoccupied with Iraq and the global economic slump, which have "gazumped the international stage", said a World Bank source.

Britain and Japan have pledged $4 billion (pound;2.5bn) towards overseas education over the next five years, while President Bush has boosted projected annual US spending to $250m (pound;159m) this year.

But prospective donors have yet to commit concrete sums, a recent Oxfam report noted.

To date, the first seven African and Latin American fast-track nations have been promised less than half the $430m they need in order to get 3.9m children into schools - a fraction of the overall task.

"We need donors to remember the other war - on poverty," said the World Bank source.

* The United Nations has designated 2003-2012 as the literacy decade.

International Literacy Day is Monday, September 8.

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