WASHINGTON — The events of the past year have brought home America's leadership role in an interconnected world.
As the US Departments of State and Education today complete their celebration of International Education Week - an effort to promote Americans' understanding of other nations and to encourage their understanding of us - we should keep sight of a more crucial education issue: the depressing reality that 120 million children in developing countries do not attend school. And we should not forget that the US has the means and expertise to catalyze global action to put the situation right.
In 1990, at the World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in Thailand, the nations of the world committed themselves to provide basic education to all children by 2000 - an unfulfilled promise. Good intentions and modest improvements were no substitute for the sustained and coordinated efforts that should have followed the declaration. Another generation of children lost out on crucial learning years.
The global community met again in 2000 to examine progress and failure, and the EFA target was reset for 2015 and the movement reenergized.
Increased access to basic education in the developing world is in our national interest. The Bush administration has rightly made education a focal point of both domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said: "Education is a common value - a positive path that can lead to a more secure future for all citizens."
Now is the time to back up declarations with deeds. Funds necessary to bring more children into school and give them a quality education have yet to be put on the table.
That opportunity presents itself next week at the EFA donors group meeting in Brussels. The US can set the example by dedicating the funds and taking the lead in encouraging other wealthy nations to commit real money as well.
Without basic education, development will not happen. It lays the foundation for democracy, wealth, and employment. It influences the way one thinks and perceives the world, leads to increased stability and prosperity, is an antidote to despair and discontent, and promotes tolerance and improved health.
A number of nations have laid the groundwork, addressing inequities and problems in their education systems, and making budget adjustments to bear the brunt of the cost for schooling their children. Experts believe that many can achieve universal primary education by the 2015 target - but only with immediate, additional financing to support their programs.
The US is best positioned to encourage progress. At stake is the future of 120 million children who have never been in a classroom - and the fate of their nations. Can we really afford to wait any longer?
• George Ingram is executive director of the Basic Education Coalition, a group of 16 development organizations in Washington, D.C.