AMERICAN backing for international efforts to guarantee schooling to the world's poorest children hung in the balance today as leading finance ministers met in Canada with universal primary education high on the agenda.
Concrete commitments from the world's wealthiest nations - especially from the US - at the meeting of G7 finance ministers in Halifax and at the G8 summit of heads of state on June 26-27 are deemed key to the success of the World Bank's Education for All plan.
This means ending years of vague expressions of support by putting their money where their mouth is and spending billions to help the estimated 125 million children who currently do not attend school.
Ministers will pore over a report from the G8 taskforce on education endorsing the plan. This calls for grants to help developing countries'
schools rather than loans.
But in the run-up to the conferences the richest nation of all appeared reluctant to produce the cash needed to get the programme, projected to cost up to $5 billion (pound;3.5bn) a year, off the ground.
"I'm not sure there will be a specific dollar sum committed," said a senior US government official, speaking to The TES on condition of anonymity. "We have already made a significant commitment to international aid at (March's UN conference in) Monterrey, and that education would be part of that."
President Bush increased the US aid budget by 50 per cent over the next three years to $10bn, but education's share was not earmarked.
Campaigners said a specific contribution from the US is desperately needed to spur other donors, and retain diplomatic support for the initiative. "There 's potential for a real global compact on education. But there needs to be clear financial commitments - the biggest risk is that there'll be only vague support," said President Clinton 's former economic adviser Gene Sperling, now director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But Oxfam's Oliver Buston hopes a "critical mass" of commitment from other countries will force America's hand. He said: "President Bush won 't want to be seen as missing in action when he sees himself as the education president".
While only Holland and Germany have pledged sums to Education for All, Canada has announced a $500m budget for international development, and Britain has pressed for G8 funding.
Earlier this week, the World Bank named the 18 developing nations eligible for immediate funding under its plan (see story, right).
The bank first unveiled the action plan in April after announcing 88 nations were likely to miss the target of universal primary education by 2015 set at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal.