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Global Education at Davos: World leaders, your Homework is Due, and Please Sit up Straight in Your Seat

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As the World Economic Forum collected its usual group of corporate leaders, governments, social entrepreneurs and influencers this week, I've been at Davos talking about a different kind of "economic stimulus package". One not for banks or financial markets, but for the world's poorest people: full funding of global education.

Although not seen at the Belvedere Hotel lobby or wearing their WEF badges this week, there are 75 million children of primary school age who still have never been to school. Instead, they work in factories, on farms or caring for their sick parents. For those fortunate enough to make it to school, millions struggle to learn, as they share teachers with up to 100 other students, have few or no textbooks, and receive only a few hours teaching a day.

I'm here calling for something that if achieved, will bring about a terror already known to millions of children in the world 's richest countries.

Homework.

It's not lost on me, as a product of the American educational system, that's I'm here bending the ears of the elite about kids getting to be somewhere I often made an excuse or feigned illness to get out of attending as a child (To Mrs. Hoffman, if you're still teaching 4th grade, I'm sorry. I was wrong. It turns out reading is important.)

I was at Davos with Kailash Satyarthi, a child-rights activist and President of the Global Campaign for Education, engaging leaders in the "Class of 2105," a new global leadership group mobilizing resources, political will and public opinion behind the Education for All goals, bringing together major players from business, faith groups, civil society and government to make the case for a breakthrough on education.

And Davos is as good a place as any to make the argument for education. Now, more than ever, education is a sound investment in people, global economies and security. It offers a pathway to escaping from poverty, to finding a good job, and to becoming an active and valuable contributor to the social and economic health of our communities.

If a basic human rights case doesn't move your hearts and minds, note the evidence is clear that expansion of quality education, with a particular focus on girls, may be one of the highest yield investments available in the developing world. A person's earnings increase by 10% for each year of schooling they receive, translating to a 1% annual increase in GDP. A woman's children are less likely to die before age 5, a young girl is less likely to contract HIV.

And as in the case of international summits and forums, it's not just the promise that needs to be made, it's the check that needs to be written. In 2000, world leaders pledged to ensure that by 2015, there would be Education for All. Eight years later, the world is far off track for making the education goals a reality. We've seen real progress with 40 million more children in school and experts agree that the goals are achievable--but much more needs to be done.

Kailash spoke on the WEF's Global Education Initiative Panel here, saying as a child labor activist, he's seen the best and the worst sides of the private sector's role in developing countries, and he is convinced that on the issue of education, it can be a true force for good.

And he's been joined in the "Class of 2015" by a growing roster of leaders, from Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, UK Prime Minister Brown, EU President Barroso and World Bank President Robert Zoellick to private sector champions like FIFA, Cisco CEO John Chambers, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, celebrities, faith and civil society leaders. Bono and Bob Geldof have sjgned up and FIFA has even committed to making a lasting legacy of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that every child in Africa should be able to go to school.

Business can do a great deal, but it's really governments that must lead the charge. Momentum is growing, with the UK taking a leadership position by pledging to spend £8.5 billion in the next 10 years, helping the world's poorest countries recruit more teachers, build new classrooms and provide basic materials like books. Last year, France and Britain also each agreed to commit to supporting eight million children in school in Africa by 2010. In June, the EU recently committed to a plan with an ambition of increasing aid to education to $4.3 billion per year by 2010, which would almost double the money currently available to ensure universal primary education.

And President Obama proposed this past September at another influential forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, a US contribution of $2 billion to a new "Global Education Fund", one that would leverage commitments from other rich countries and help get us back on track to meeting the Education for All goals. Before recently heading back to Pennsylvania Avenue to serve in the Obama Administration, former National Economic Adviser to President Clinton and director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling did key work on pushing this new idea along, as a novel funding mechanism much in the vein of the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill for her confirmation hearings, this "Global Education Fund" was the only new international development effort that she named.

We know that Education For All is achievable. The question is do we have the political will? At a "Class of 2015" event in Oslo this past December, we heard how Hem Lata, a 17 year-old girl forced into early marriage, not only realized her dream of going to school but also helped others to do so too.

Her challenge to the government representatives there: "If I can do this, why can't you, as world leaders, do the same for all children of the world?"

And it's a very good question. Education For All would cost just $16 billion in total overseas aid per year, a tiny fraction of the proposed financial bailouts. As rich countries spend their way out of trouble at home, running up huge budget deficits to so, developing countries face a double jeopardy. As their own resources shrink, development aid is likely to fall, with poor countries of the world further strapped for cash to pay for vital public goods such as education.

In forums like Davos and with efforts like the "Class of 2015," we must keep global education high on the political and public agenda, calling for rich countries to live up to their aid promises and make that aid predictable and recurrent, whilst at the same time relaxing the restrictions on poor countries' own public investment.

The global economic crisis is serious, but it cannot be a reason to fail to build the political will to achieve education goals and keep the promise that every child will get the opportunity of an education by 2015. World leaders, your homework is due.