THIS weekend, political leaders from the world's richest countries have an opportunity to tackle a problem at the heart of global poverty. At the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan, they will discuss the education crisis gripping the world's poorest countries. The bad news is that efforts to turn discussion into action are set to fail in the face of abject political leadership.
The fact that the education problems of poor countries have made it on to the G8 agenda at all can be traced to the momentum behind the huge global campaign mounted by teacher unions, anti-child labour organisations, and agencies like Oxfam and ActionAid from more than 100 countries. The Global Education Campaign is backed by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn, and President Clinton.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been pressing for a postiive international response to the Dakar framework and he played an active role in getting the issue on to the Okinawa agenda. However, the Department for International Development opposes the idea of a global initiative backed by additional resources, which has limited the scope for Britian to show stronger leadership in the run-up to the G8 meeting.
In April, at the World Education Forum in Dakar, more than 180 governments adopted a Framework of Action reflecting the core demands of the global campaign. It made three commitments aimed at achieving primary education for all by 2015.
First, developing countries pledged national action plans and budget provisions to accelerate progress in two years. Second, industrialised countries agreed to finance any such plan, recognising that many countries lack the resources to meet the 2015 goal.
The third commmitment was an unequivocal promise to develop "with immediate effect" a global initiative to raise the estimated $8 billion (pound;5.5bn) a year needed to achieve universal basic education over the next decade. It would provide a way to match increased budget commitments by Third World governments with increased aid and debt relief.
The initiative would have a particularly powerful resonance in Africa, where more than 50 million primary school-age children are out of school - and where the gap between needs and financing capacity is widest.
The Okinawa summit provides the first litmus test of whether rich-country governments are serious about the commitments made in Dakar. Yet among the G8 governments, only the United States comes out of the pre-summit episode with its credentials intact.
Finance Secretary Larry Summes has mounted a minor diplomatic offensive aimed at getting the summit to come up with the framework for a credible international initiative. He wants Okinawa to do for education what the Cologne summit last year did for debt relief, when it reformed the heavily indebted poor countries initiative. But he is swimming against a tide of indifference and sometimes outright hostility.
Most G8 aid ministries want to continue funding education programmes on a country-by-country basis, regarding a global initiative as being either wildly over-ambitious, or unecessary, or both - a mindset that calls into question why they signed the Dakar Framework for Action.
The World Bank is leading by example. Last month it boldly set out how it will deliver on the Dakar promise - by providing a significant increase in funding to governments that adopt credible national action plans. It is holding discussions with around 30 countries, most of them in Africa, to discuss implementation.
Kofi Annan has also been working overtime to persuade the G8 leaders to do more than indulge in discussions on education. He wrote to each of the G8 leaders urging them to make a major commitment of resources. But none of this has shaken the G8 out of its collective torpor. Current plans are for the Okinawa summit simply to endorse the Dakar Framework for Action, with no reference at all to implementation.
This is part of an endless cycle of reaffirmation in which governments restate their commitment to broad principles without ever indicating how they might be acted upon.
This contrasts starkly with what is happening in health. Faced with the HIVAids crisis and a resurgence of infectious diseases in poor countries, the G8 countries have developed a raft of global initiatives aimed at mobilising additional resources.
The sheer scale of the global crisis in education merits a similar sense of urgency. At the start of the new millenium, there are 125 million children out of school - and across much of the developing world, educational infrastructures have collapsed, leaving millions of school-age children sitting in classrooms without books, pencils, or even roofs.
Changing this will require decisive action at national level.
But without effective international leadership and support, the education crisis will continue to deepen. And in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy, educational deprivation will translate into poverty, and widening inequalities between rich and poor countries.
The G8 summit provides a real opportunity for governments to begin to take decisive action. But to do that they must offer more than empty words.
Kevin Watkins is senior policy adviser at Oxfam