The Washington Post

Educate Them All

The Bush administration could put some flesh on its new Millennium Challenge Account if it took the opportunity at this weekend's World Bank meetings to push for a much-needed initiative: a global compact to achieve universal basic education in the world's poorest nations.

Currently some 130 million children ages 6 to 11 (mostly girls) are out of school. An additional 150 million—one in four children in the developing world—drop out before completing four years of education. Completing just five years of education can increase agricultural efficiency significantly. Studies have shown that educating girls not only raises their future wages but dramatically reduces infant and maternal mortality rates.

Despite such benefits, only 2 percent of all overseas development assistance goes to basic education. While spending on basic education and preventing abusive child labor has gone up significantly both in the last years of the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, overall spending remains at a pathetic $200 million.

With the Bush budget's sharp cuts in Labor Department spending, overall education aid to poor nations is proposed to be cut by $22 million next year, and aid to fight abusive child labor by $15 million. World Bank education lending has fallen from $3 billion in 1998 to $1 billion in 2001.

Fortunately, the World Bank will take a strong step forward by laying out a proposal for reaching the millennium goal of universal primary education by 2015. But will this be a real action plan or another empty promise?

Although the "Education for All" commitment in 2000—signed by 182 nations—stated that poor nations with credible national education plans would not be allowed to fail due to a lack of resources, the process is currently stalled. Without the type of clear compact that was established for the debt relief process, no poor nation has reason to believe that spending the political and financial capital needed to undertake systemic education reforms will actually lead to more external assistance.

At the World Bank meeting this weekend and the G-8 Summit in June, the United States has the opportunity to jump-start the process of creating a global education compact. First, it should insist on a clear and coordinated global contract under which a poor nation can be sure that if it meets tough but flexible criteria, an equally clear financing mechanism is in place to deliver needed assistance.

Every national plan should have a clear strategy for the hardest-to-reach populations—particularly poor girls in rural areas. The lack of education for these girls is a disease with a known cure. Since impoverished parents do not want girls traveling far to school, for safety reasons or because they need their help at home, smaller, multi-grade schools (like the old U.S. one-classroom schools) are being used with success in many countries, such as Egypt. In the highly effective Girls' Advisory Committees of Ethiopia, parents go to families that are seeking early marriages for their girls and encourage them to keep them in school. Scholarship programs in Brazil, Bangladesh and other countries have created savings accounts for girls themselves or stipends for parents to compensate for the cost of schooling.

Finally, nothing would do more to make this global compact a reality than for the United States to step forward with a commitment of $1 billion a year initially, and eventually $2 billion—and then to challenge other countries to contribute their share. To minimize inefficient and fragmented use of such aid, we should insist that the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF and other donors coordinate their funding so that aid can support strong education plans put forward by the developing nations themselves.

The funds could go in two directions. The main approach would be to fast-track 10 or so countries, mainly in Africa, that step up with serious education plans, their share of domestic resources and budget transparency. Such assistance must go beyond one-time expenditures such as school buildings and deal with the recurrent cost of new teacher salaries.

The second track would be to directly fund successful nongovernmental service providers in nations without comprehensive education plans, so that we do not neglect millions of children because of the shortcomings of their governments.

Underlying all this should be the idea that the commitment to "leave no child behind" needs to be a global, not just a national one.