The education crisis is a global political problem

From a speech by Kevin Watkins, Oxfam's senior policy adviser, to the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers at Harrogate
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The world's governments and an army of UN officials are about to descend on the Senegalese capital of Dakar for the World Forum on Education. The forum provides a critical opportunity to tackle the education crisis in poor countries. Unfortunately, it threatens to turn into another high-level talking shop. Ambitious targets will be set, high-sounding principles will be declared, and a new "plan of action" devoid of financing provisions and practical strategies will be adopted. Dakar has all the making of a good photo opportunity for politicians, and a total irrelevance for the world's poor.

This matters because the Dakar conference is too important to fail. Five years ago, the world's governments set ambitious targets for human development, including the halving of income poverty and a two-thirds reduction in child deaths. Without progress in education, these targets will be missed.

Sadly, we've seen it all before. Ten years ago, at the World Conference on Education for All, the same cast of actors promised that universal primary education would be achieved by the year 2000, and that adult illiteracy would be halved. Five years later they put that date back to 2015.

Today, at the start of the new millennium, the facts speak for themselves. At the dawn of what has been called the information age, there are 125 million children of primary-school age not in school. Two-thirds of these children are girls, denied the right to an education by what amounts to a system of gender apartheid. Another 150 million children start school but drop out before gaining basic literacy skills. One in four adults in the developing world is unable to write a simple letter - and the number of illiterates is rising.The next generation of illiterates is now being produced among the children of the poor.

Countless millions more are sitting in classrooms lacking even the most basic teaching materials. In rural Tanzania, there is one textbook for every 30 children. And across much of the developing world, children are being taught by demoralised teachers, many of whom are doing two or three extra jobs just to survive.

There is an alternative. The Dakar conference needs to send a clear signal that no government committed to achieving education for all will be thwarted for want of financial support. It then needs a global action plan, setting out a strategy for linking good policies to additional resources.

Achieving universal primary education will cost an estimated $8bn per annum for 10 years. Equivalent to just four days worth of global military spending, this is a small investment with high return. But the financing gap has to be closed.

The industrialised countries should commit themselves to mobilising half of this amount - $4bn - through a combination of increased aid and debt relief, with Africa receiving priority attention. But there is no point throwing good money in the general direction of a bad policy environment in which governments lack the political will to deliver decent quality education to all citizens.

That is why all developing countries attending Dakar should commit themselves to preparing a national plan of action setting out strategies for achieving universal primary education, and identifying financing gaps. Poor countries themselves should raise $4bn for the global action plan by reducing military and other unproductive expenditures and transferring the resources to education.

Of course, none of this will be popular with governments. Rich countries like nothing less than the prospect of having to back their commitments with real money; and many poor-country governments will feel uncomfortable about having their budgets subjected to international scrutiny. But it is not just governments attending the Dakar conference. There is now a global movement for education that will be holding governments to account.