Comment: Here's one problem that won't be solved by the internet

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Martin Luther King once castigated America's leaders for defaulting on the constitutional promise of freedom and justice for all. "Instead of honouring this sacred obligation," he wrote, "America has given the Negro people a bad cheque which has come back marked `insufficient funds'. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

Over the past decade an equally momentous promise has been broken. Ten years ago the governments of 155 countries gathered at the World Conference on Education for All, where they pledged to provide primary education for all by 2000. They have fallen shamefully short of the target - and nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Earlier this week, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were in Florence unveiling a global initiative to improve access to the internet in the world's poorest countries. The cause is a worthy one. In a knowledge-based global economy, electronic information is vital. With fewer internet hosts than New York - not to mention the dearth of computers, and even of electricity - Africa faces obvious problems. But the real problem is that millions of African children are being excluded from even the most basic education opportunities, and internet access is not the answer.

The challenge facing Africa is to provide all children with the educational opportunities which will enable them to escape poverty. Mr Blair should understand this. His commitment to breaking the link between poverty and education in Britain has a powerful resonance in Africa.

The human face of the education crisis in Africa is invisible to the industrialised world. In Britain, parents complain about the state of school buildings and overcrowded classes. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 40 million children - almost half of the primary school age group - do not see the inside of a classroom. Millions more start school, only to drop out before gaining basic literacy skills.

Contrasts with the industrialised world are striking. An African girl born today in Mozambique or Burkina Faso can expect to receive fewer than three years of poor quality primary education. Her western counterpart will be in full-time education for 14 years. These inequalities today will translate into ever greater inequalities in income tomorrow.

Five years ago, at the UN Social Development Summit, governments postponed their commitment to universal primary education to 2015. That means that, on current trends, there will be 51 million African children out of school by that date.

Conflict and corruption have contributed to the crisis in Africa. It is obscene that governments in the region spend more on armaments than on primary education. Meanwhile, the lethal interaction of slow economic growth and rapid population growth has reduced real public spending per child by a third since the 1970s.

Under-investment by governments has led to privatisation by stealth. States have transferred the financing burden to households in the form of school fees that poor parents are unable to pay. Because girls' education is less valued, they are the last in and the first out when school fees put household budgets under pressure.

There are signs of hope. In Uganda, the government has increased enrolment by 2 million by withdrawing fees and increasing spending on primary education. Other countries, such as Malawi and Mozambique, are also implementing far-reaching reforms. But Africa lacks the financial resources to meet the challenge of education for all - and western governments have reneged on their commitment to help to fill the resource gap.

At the 1990 World Conference, rich countries pledged to cut debt and increase aid in the interests of education for all. In the event, they have spent the decade siphoning $12bn a year out of the region in the form of debt repayments - more than double government spending on primary education. And instead of increasing aid, rich countries have cut assistance to Africa.

Then there is the International Monetary Fund, whose programmes have imposed deep cuts in education budgets. In Zambia, where illiteracy rates are on the rise and enrolment rates declining, the primary education budget has fallen by more than 20 per cent under IMF auspices.

The human costs of the education crisis are incalculable. Educational deprivation in Britain is a passport to low income, unemployment and poverty. In Africa, it can be a passport to an early grave. Every year of maternal education is estimated to reduce child mortality by about 8 per cent.

Universal primary education in Africa would cost around $3.6bn a year over 10 years - equivalent to about two days' worth of global military spending. The resources could be mobilised under a compact for Africa's children as part of a global poverty reduction strategy.

What is missing is political leadership. Next week, the decade will end as it started, with yet another conference on education in Africa organised by the UN and World Bank, this time in Johannesburg. More wish-lists will be produced, and more empty promises will be made.

The British government is uniquely well placed to step into the breach. What is needed now is the projection of New Labour principles on education to the world stage in the interests of the poor. Having led international efforts to resolve Africa's debt problems, Britain should be pressing for a major G7 initiative to tackle an education crisis which, left unresolved, will destroy hope and foster instability.

Africa's children do not need more broken promises. What they need is concrete action to show that the bank of social justice and international co-operation is not bankrupt. How about it Tony?