The Developing World’s Quiet Crisis

When leaders of the Group of Eight nations meet in Genoa this weekend they will confront issues of globalisation ranging from a new round at the World Trade Organisation to genetic modification in agriculture. Crucial though these policy areas are, they are also difficult and divisive. But the summit can be an occasion for building support for globalisation—if the G8 shows leadership in reducing global poverty.

Two years ago, at the Cologne summit, the G8 reached an accord on debt relief. The need now is for a global effort to promote universal primary education in the world’s poorest countries, where 125m children—mostly female—remain out of school.

While attention has understandably turned to the vicious impact of HIV/Aids, lack of access to quality education is the quiet crisis of the developing world. In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Burkina Faso, Mali and Ethiopia, fewer than half of children aged 6-11 go to school. Universal access would not only produce major gains in health and income standards but also offer fertile territory for cultivating common ground in the divisive debate over globalisation.

First, among those who clash on trade, education is an area of consensus to sincere advocates on both sides who want to ensure globalisation raises all boats. While it has long been known that each year of additional schooling in poor countries can raise a child’s future earning power by 10-20 per cent, emerging research suggests that, with globalisation and technological innovation, substantial education can raise wages even more, even in developing countries. Other studies show access to education will be critical in determining whether new trade brings increased opportunity or inequality in these nations.”

Expanding access to quality education can also facilitate agreement on a second divisive issue: fighting abusive child labour in developing countries. Efforts to outlaw exploitation without a corresponding commitment to universal education often simply lead to children being moved from dangerous factories to drug-running or brothels. But genuinely free schooling—with no fees or high costs for uniforms, transport and textbooks—encourages impoverished families to rethink their decision to send their children out to work.

A third area is population control. While Catholic groups and family planning organisations spar over funding for international family planning, they can join hands in supporting funding for girls’ education—a proven method of promoting smaller, healthier families.

Last year in Dakar, Senegal, 185 countries affirmed their commitment to achieving universal primary education by 2015. Sadly, those expressions of support have not been matched by action.

Although James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president, was no doubt sincere in his declaration that no country with a good education plan should be allowed to fail for lack of resources, Bank funding for education declined from $2bn in 1999 to a disappointing $770m in 2000. And while the US increased basic education lending by $37m last year and may increase funding further this year, that figure falls woefully short of the true US share of the $7bn-$9bn annual increase that Unicef estimates rich and poor countries will have to contribute together to get every child into school by 2015.

The Genoa summit should ask the chief operators—the World Bank, Unesco and Unicef—to work with the G8 and other donors to develop an effective structure for a global fund or global alliance on basic education. Forcing these parties to come to the table will ensure that the initiative is seen as a true collaboration between rich and poor nations, designed to meet donors’ concerns that resources are used effectively and developing countries’ concerns that intervention will not override their sovereignty in educating their own people.

Such a framework could further build trust, ensure effectivenes and maximise participation from donors and aid recipients by creating a board with balanced representation across developed and developing countries. It should have an independent peer review process to assess the credibility of national education plans, just as the Global Alliance on Vaccines Initiative employs experts to assess the immunisation plans of countries that apply for funding.

While basic education has not been a priority so far, it has started to draw attention from G8 members. Gordon Brown, British chancellor, and Paul O’Neill, the US Treasury secretary, have made enthusiastic statements; and Paul Martin, Canadian finance minister, has expressed interest in using his turn as chairman of the next G8 finance ministers’ meeting in Canada to move forward on a global initiative. What is needed now is a strong push from the heads of state, both in Genoa and then at home with their own legislatures. Delay wastes too much human potential.