Those who don't believe that idealism still flourishes among today's youth should look at what some 3 million children worldwide sent to the Group of Eight leaders.
As many as 1 million paper cut-outs representing other children had a simple message written on the back: Ensure that our friends, the 104 million children between 6 and 11 years old who will not see the inside of a classroom this year, can get a free, basic education.
As director of the U.S. Global Campaign for Education, a coalition of antipoverty, religious and teachers organizations, I helped bring to Washington 20 such idealistic students who participated in the "Send My Friend to School" effort to talk to their members of Congress.
More than just a cute classroom activity, the children's message is intended for G-8 leaders, who should treat it as a matter of life and death during their summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, July 5-8.
While no one ever sees a child dying from a lack of education the way they see a child perishing from hunger or AIDS, make no mistake about it -- children die every year from lack of education.
Seven million cases of AIDS might be prevented if all children completed basic education. Girls' education in particular has been found to not only raise incomes, but to reduce infant and maternal mortality as well as violence against women, and lead to greater democracy.
A bold effort for universal basic education can be a way to win a pre-emptive war in the battle for hearts and minds: Terrorist leaders may be well-educated, but the enthusiasm and number of their followers will no doubt diminish when hope and opportunity are provided.
In Dakar, Senegal, in April 2000, more than 180 poor and rich nations alike signed on to what became a Millennium Development Goal -- that all children should complete a basic education by 2015. Yet now 104 million children are out of school, 150 million children who are in school are projected to drop out, and more than 80 poor nations are off track to meet the Millennium goal.
The compact designed in Dakar required that poor nations develop a national education plan for universal basic schooling with good governance, comprehensive reform and special efforts to ensure that girls weren't excluded.
Donor nations agreed that their part of the program would be to ensure adequate funding for those poor countries that stepped up to the plate by fulfilling their responsibilities.
Fast Track Initiative
Donors have taken an important step by setting up a framework -- the Fast Track Initiative -- to develop uniform standards and coordination for external financing.
For a brand new global financing mechanism, the initiative has done well. More than $385 million has been approved for the first 12 nations that have qualified. Yet this compact or any sort of global fund for education can't succeed unless the major donor nations commit the additional $7 billion to $10 billion needed for the global community to deliver on its promises for universal education.
Even if the G-8 members can't summon the will to commit the billions needed, they could close a major gap: An initial commitment to provide every African girl a free, quality basic education.
Fund 25 Countries
The best way to do this is to agree to fully fund the 25 additional nations with acceptable national education plans that could receive coordinated financing through the Fast Track Initiative this year.
This group includes many of the major African countries that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made the focus of this year's G-8 meeting, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal.
The costs would be about $3 billion a year, with the U.S. share being $1 billion. On the other hand, if these major African countries -- many of which have begun all the reforms that donors asked of them, including eliminating fees -- aren't supported, they could understandably and sadly conclude that when it comes to getting the poorest girls and boys in school, the donor nations are all talk and false promises.
In the U.S., Congress, a bipartisan team of appropriators, Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona, and Democratic Representative Nita Lowey of New York, have helped to gradually increase the amount the U.S. spends on such aid. Yet, we still commit only $400 million for the education of all the poor children in the world -- about what we spend to build a mere 20 high schools in the U.S.
Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has proposed the first Education for All legislation, seeking $2.5 billion by 2009. Meanwhile, First Lady Laura Bush has spoken eloquently about the importance of girls' education. It is safe to say that if the U.S. came forward with a truly bold education-for-all initiative, it would attract significant bipartisan support.
The greatest danger is that the U.S. and other G-8 nations will produce a pilot program that sounds good but accomplishes little to show Africa and the rest of the developing world that we are serious about reaching universal basic education by 2015. The G-8 leaders must reject such slight efforts in exchange for a bold signal to the developing world.
When I asked fifth grader Dion Thomas from Georgia if he knew what the G-8 was, he responded: "They are the eight countries rich enough to really help get all kids in school." I couldn't have said it better.