The day starts early at the primary school in Aqualaar, a village in Kenya's arid northeastern district of Garissa. By 5 a.m., when the children arrive, their teacher, Ibrahim Hussein, 18, is waiting by his blackboard to give a lesson on arithmetic.
"School" in Aqualaar is a sandy patch of ground under an acacia tree. Mr. Hussein's blackboard hangs from the branches. There are no desks or chairs. But around 30 children sit listening with rapt attention, following the lesson by scratching numbers with sticks in the sand.
Classes start before dawn for a reason. By 8 a.m. the children will have started their day jobs. The boys will be out herding goats and cattle with their parents. The girls will be collecting water with their mothers from a stream 10 kilometers away. But they'll be back at 5 p.m. for another two-hour class.
Welcome to the world of education for ethnic Somali pastoralists in Garissa. This is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Kenya. Fewer than one in three children make it through primary school. And just 10 percent of Somali girls finish their teenage years with more than two years of education.
Lacking support from the government, parents are taking matters into their own hands. The villagers pay Mr. Hussein, a high school graduate, a small fee to teach their children. And they make time for their kids to attend his classes. For Khadija Ali, whose daughter Fatima, seven, and son Hassan, nine, attend the school, the choices are straightforward: "Of course it's hard. But an education will give my children a better life and chances that I never had."
If only governments around the world demonstrated the same resolve and sense of urgency. Ten years ago, at a global conference in Dakar, Senegal, they pledged to make sure that by 2015 all of the world's children were getting a basic education. They are not delivering on that promise.
Less than five years from the target date, school registers tell their own story. The world's economy is increasingly based on knowledge and skills, but 72 million children of primary school age are not in school. Millions more drop out before finishing primary school. And many who do finish school lack basic literacy and numeracy skills – a testimony to the poor education they have received.
Of course, it's not all bad news. Some of the world's poorest countries have made extraordinary advances in education. But as any school kid will tell you, a promise is a promise – and the promise of education for all will be broken if we carry on as we are. New figures released this week by UNESCO show that, on current trends, 56 million children will still be out of school in 2015.
Changing these trends should be at the top of the international agenda. Governments in developing countries need to take the lead by putting in place the policies and investments needed to reach the most disadvantaged children.
Too often, those with the most to gain are the last in line when it comes to public education. In urban slums from Manila to Nairobi, the absence of decent public schools means that some of the world's poorest families have to pay for a private education that is often second-rate – and many can't pay.
Disadvantages in education don't operate in isolation, of course. They are linked to wider problems of poverty and discrimination against girls and women. In Pakistan, girls from poor rural backgrounds average just two years in school – less than one-third of the national average.
It's not just governments in developing countries that need to improve their performance grades. Donor countries are failing to keep their promise to the world's schoolchildren. Ensuring that all kids get a basic education will require dedicating an extra U.S.$13 billion a year from now to 2015. Yet after several years of stagnation, aid commitments for basic education were cut last year.
Contrasts with health care are striking. Global funds for AIDS and immunization have served as a focal point for political attention, attracting finance and increasing the flow of aid to those who need it.
The Fast Track Initiative, a global framework operating under the auspices of the World Bank, was meant to play a similar role in education. Instead it has overseen a low level of financing and long bureaucratic delays, with some countries waiting two or three years for support.
Of course, there are many obstacles to delivering on the promise of education for all, including shortages of schools and teachers, deeply-ingrained prejudices, discrimination against girls, grinding poverty and inadequate teaching. But such barriers can be broken down — by fairer public spending, targeted support for the most disadvantaged, and policies that attract, train and retain effective teachers.
Good schools are a potent weapon in the fight against poverty, social prejudice and extremism. They are an investment in economic growth, shared prosperity and security. It is time for governments to put education where it belongs: at the heart of the national and international policy agenda.
Kevin Watkins is director of the 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published by UNESCO.