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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 14:12 GMT 15:12 UK
Analysis: World must do better
Woman in Senegal
High hopes for education have not yet become reality (Photo: Unesco/Inez Forbes)
By Liz Blunt in Senegal

Ten years ago, in Jomtien in Thailand, the nations of the world promised education for all by the year 2000. In retrospect, that pledge looks to have been impossibly optimistic.

A lot of solid work has been done. East Asia and most of Latin America have high levels of literacy and nearly all their children are in school. The number of girls going to school has crept slowly but steadily upwards, even in traditionally reluctant areas like Pakistan and the Middle East.

Hard-pressed governments simply cannot afford to commit themselves

But the Asian financial crisis had a sharp effect on the number of children going to school - especially in Indonesia. The collapse of Communism slashed state funding in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and potential gains in Africa have been more than cancelled out by civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Congo and by the ravages of AIDS in the south.

Even where governments report rosy statistics, education experts have learnt to be cynical - good overall figures can hide pockets of extreme deprivation. And a lot of effort has gone into getting children into school, much less into worrying about how long they stay or what they learn when they get there.

Ten years on, all the pressure groups and many of the official delegates have come to the Dakar conference determined to be more rigorous - to force countries to set precise targets and timetables and to break down their statistics to show what is actually going on.

And although everyone agrees that education is a good thing, the stage is still set for disagreements over who should provide it and how it should be funded.

Free education?

The non-governmental organisations are pressing hard for the conference to abandon current economic orthodoxy. They want the conference to accept that basic education is a core state activity, and that as long as individual parents are expected to pay - whether through official school fees or unofficial levies - some children will always be excluded by poverty and there will never genuinely be education for all.

The Asian financial crisis had a sharp effect on the number of children going to school

It is here that the two drafts of the potential Dakar Declaration part company. The NGOs are clear that they want basic education to be free, of good quality and available to all children, youths and adults - and they want to set a date for all direct costs for basic education to be removed.

The clause on payment in the official draft has been through several versions. But it is clear that, with the IMF and the World Bank breathing down their necks demanding they should rein in public spending, hard-pressed governments simply cannot afford to commit themselves to this level of provision.

The statistical surveys submitted to the conference show clearly that where countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe and, in the past, Sri Lanka have made a Socialist commitment to free universal education, their willingness to spend the necessary sums of money has brought clear and visible results.

But the price has been high, and the NGOs are unlikely to get the unequivocal pledge that they want at the end of the Dakar conference.

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Education for all?
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06 Dec 99 | Africa
African education in decline
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