At the April 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, 180 countries including the United States committed themselves to a simple yet profound goal: providing quality education for all the world's children by 2015. Part of the aim of the Dakar conference was to assess the steps taken since 1990, when most of the same participants had met in Jomtien, Thailand, and promised that all poor children would have access to quality primary education within a decade. So the Dakar declaration was simultaneously an admission of failure and a pledge to try again -- a triumph, as Dr. Johnson once said about second marriages, of hope over experience.
The jury is still out on whether the Dakar pledge will join the Jomtien compact in the crowded graveyard of overly ambitious development goals. It is true that countries and international institutions have exhibited a great deal of energy and continued commitment on the education front. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recently launched a Girl's Education Initiative with high-level political backing from Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and Graca Machel, Mandela's wife and a prominent activist for children's rights, education, and development. World Bank President James Wolfensohn has declared that no country with a viable plan for achieving universal education should be allowed to fail for lack of resources, even though World Bank lending for education has declined over the past two years. And the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has continued the Education for All (EFA) initiative renewed at Dakar with follow-up meetings at the national and global levels.
This activity has been spurred by a growing body of research showing that investment in education -- particularly for girls -- in the world's poorest countries produces impressive health benefits and high economic returns. Education boosts family income, and female education in particular leads to smaller, healthier families by lowering infant and maternal mortality and improving child nutrition. In Africa, a child born to an uneducated mother faces a 20 percent chance of dying before
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