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U.S. Should Lead the Class in Global Education

Inadequate schooling is the silent crisis of the developing world.


When eight of the world's most powerful leaders meet Wednesday to discuss global issues at the annual G-8 summit, they should not forget the plight of the 125 million children who have never seen the inside of a classroom and the 140 million others who drop out of school before learning how to read or write. Of the world's developing nations, 88 are off track for reaching universal primary education by 2015, a goal that has been endorsed repeatedly by the international community over the past decade.

While the statistics are grim, there has been momentum for launching a global compact between the rich and poor nations to address this silent crisis of the developing world.

The World Bank and its development partners have come forward with an action plan that proposes "fast-tracking" assistance to 18 poor nations that have developed credible national education strategies and demonstrated their commitment to using aid effectively.

Japan has announced that it would increase education aid for Africa by $2 billion over five years. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who is hosting the G-8 this year, has put basic education on the summit's agenda.

Where is the United States? Missing in action.

Earlier this month, with global education advocates looking to the U.S. for leadership, the Bush administration stepped forward with only a micro-initiative to increase funding for an Africa education program from $20 million annually to $40 million annually. But $20 million is about the cost of building just one U.S. high school; it is woefully inadequate considering the education crisis on the African continent.

Africa is home to 75 million children who do not attend school and to 36 nations that are off track for reaching the universal education target. Barely half of African children finish primary school. For girls, the number is significantly lower.

Yet from Uganda to Ethiopia to Gambia, there are significant signs of progress. Studies have shown that completing primary education can have dramatic effects on a family's earnings, and girls' education in particular leads to smaller, healthier families.

The World Bank estimates that Africa will need at least $2.1 billion more per year from the international community to achieve primary education, or six years of schooling, for all its children. Even this figure is a bare-minimum estimate that presumes optimistic reform scenarios, such as poor countries footing 80% of the overall education bill.

No one is arguing for more money without clear evidence of poor nations stepping up by taking ownership of smart, accountable and performance-based plans. Proposals for a global compact--including the World Bank's new fast-track plan--consistently call for increased aid to only those nations that have devised viable education plans and are ready to be monitored and audited. This is entirely consistent with the administration's appropriate focus on aid effectiveness and results. Yet small programs, such as the administration's latest proposal, fly in the face of this focus.

Ad hoc proposals can undermine the efficient use of aid, which works best when it is well coordinated and not fragmented or overlapping. Furthermore, a coordinated, global agreement to financially back poor nations is essential for inspiring systemic education reforms throughout the developing world. Without it, no poor nation has the incentive to tackle entrenched interests and to mobilize hard-to-come-by domestic resources for undertaking difficult reforms.

On Wednesday, each G-8 nation should make specific financial commitments to back the fast-track plan and put up its fair share of the additional $5 billion to $10 billion needed each year to achieve universal basic education by 2015. The U.S. must do its part by putting at least $1 billion on the table, contingent on poor nations doing their part by developing sound education strategies.

The administration can rightly insist on controlling bilateral assistance and demanding performance, but it should do so as part of a coordinated global compact for basic education that poor nations can believe in.


Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton administration, is director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. Oeindrila Dube is an education and development consultant for the center.

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