Education officials and donors are meeting with representatives of international organizations this week in Senegal to discuss plans and progress towards the U.N. Millennium Development goal of universal primary education by 2015. Halfway through the allotted years, participants say important progress has been made, but some education lobbyists say funding and political will fall far short. Naomi Schwarz has more from Dakar.
In 2000, when the United Nations and world leaders made universal primary education one of their eight millennium development goals, more than 100 million children were not in school. They aimed to bring that number down to zero by 2015.
This week, marking the halfway point, ministers, donors, and others are meeting in Dakar to assess their progress.
Ronald Siebes is co-president of the U.S-based Fast Track Initiative, an organization aimed at channeling extra funding from partners including the World Bank, the United Nations, and the European Union to the poorest countries to help them achieve the education goals.
"We are really making progress," he said. "There are huge challenges, but progress is being made to achieve this important goal."
After a slow start in the 32 countries funded by the Fast Track Initiative, their annual report says by 2010 most will have 100 percent of kids start first grade.
An official with the same organization, Desmond Bermingham, says countries in West Africa, whether funded by the Fast Track Initiative or not, are making progress.
"I would say the most critical issue is that the governments are making education a priority," he said. "It is a political will issue and they are really making very rapid progress. They have got a lot of catching up to do. They are moving faster than any region has ever moved before."
But he says part of the reason is that West Africa had the farthest to go. In some countries in the region, more than three-quarters of school-age children do not attend school.
Bermingham says several countries are putting measures in place to block corruption in the education sector, rampant in many African countries.
"Where it is working really well is where there is a very short accountability line between the school and the parents," he noted. "They have a really strong interest in making sure the money is used properly. Several countries are now introducing systems of publishing the school budget in the newspaper or even on the door of the school. Uganda is one of them, Kenya is one of them, and Niger has introduced a similar system."
But Lucia Fry, of the South Africa-based Global Campaign for Education, says if progress continues at the current pace, it will be impossible to meet the development goals by 2015.
She says aid falls far short of what is needed.
"Overall, we need another $6 billion U.S. per year just to get every child to complete a primary cycle of education," she explained.
And she says too much emphasis is being put on enrolling kids in school without ensuring that they stay long enough to finish.
"Although primary enrollment has risen we have also got in 50 countries worldwide, less than half of all children worldwide complete primary school," she added.
And she says there is still a long way to go to address the needs of children on the margins, including those with handicaps, who live in conflict zones, or who work to support their families.