It is a measure of our collective guilt about developing countries, and of our desperation to find good deeds in a wicked world, that we so readily detect "breakthroughs" in the fight against poverty: the millennium development goals, the debt cancellation initiatives, the trade rounds, even globalisation itself. Now we want to believe that the visit to Africa of a Republican US president heralds a new dawn. Alas, nothing has changed. The plight of the world's poorest countries has worsened, and there are few reasons for thinking that it will soon improve. The rhetoric nearly always runs ahead of the reality; less politely, you could talk of hypocrisy and empty promises.
The latest UN Human Development Report, just published, states that, without urgent action, the millennium goals - which include halving the numbers who suffer extreme hunger, halving those with no access to safe drinking water and reducing infant mortality by two-thirds - will not be met in 59 countries. In 31 of those countries, progress has stalled or gone into reverse; some are worse off now than they were at the beginning of the 1990s. Only eight countries (it should by now be 19) have had any debt forgiven, and two of those have reverted to a point where debt, in proportion to exports, is again at an unsustainable level. The 2001 Doha declaration, allowing poor countries, in public health emergencies, to override drug company patents, ran aground when it came to negotiations on countries that have no manufacturing capacity of their own. President Bush's African Growth and Opportunity Act excludes from US markets most goods - peanuts, for example - in which Africa has an advantage. It also has numerous and familiar strings such as lower tariffs on US goods and the enforcement of US intellectual property rights. Similar conditions are imposed on US aid to Africa. The application of the supposed principles of market liberalism remains as uneven as ever: an EU cow gets more in subsidy than an African gets in aid, and annual agricultural subsidies in rich countries exceed the national income of all sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the promises, there are few signs of change: US and EU subsidies to cotton producers have increased since the turn of the century, and exporters in West and Central Africa have suffered grievously.
As for the supposed panacea of market liberalisation, the evidence does not support it. The most successful countries, in China and elsewhere in Asia, have consistently defied the international economic institutions, lowering tariff barriers, removing subsidies and lifting restrictions on capital movements only very slowly. The countries most obedient to "the Washington consensus", such as Argentina and Russia, are often those that have come to most grief. At best, the recommended policies, while pulling millions out of poverty, increase inequalities within countries, thus plunging millions more into deeper misery.
The UN report provides a dossier that allows argument over interpretation and significance, but not over the facts. More than 13 million children have died through diarrhoeal disease in the past decade; each year, over half a million women, one for every minute of the day, die in pregnancy and childbirth; more than 800 million suffer from malnutrition. Hunger and disease are the true weapons of mass destruction and there can be no doubt about their existence. Those who thought Saddam Hussein was worth overthrowing just because he was a tyrant - regardless of what stories were spun to the British and American publics - should understand that these are greater tyrants.
How sincere are President Bush and Tony Blair in their stated intentions to fight this particular war? If you are British and centre-left, you may want to believe that insincerity is confined to US Republicans. But both men, to different degrees, subscribe to the belief that the main salvation for the poor lies in liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. Even if they were willing to defy western interests and allow the battle for markets to be fought on equal terms, their view is at best mistaken, at worst a fig leaf for economic colonialism. Without good food and water supplies, health services, transport, education and so on, the people of developing countries will remain unattractive to private capital, except on crippling terms. To say the private sector can build such services, as it did in 19th-century Europe and America, is piffle; western countries were not then competing both for markets and for capital against other highly developed nations. This is a job for governments, for a coalition of the willing that is ready to devote to world poverty a fraction of the energy that UK and US leaders so happily devoted to war.
Caravans for the people!
Somebody once calculated that, if all the demand for motoring and parking in London were to be met and if traffic were to be kept moving even in peak hours, it would be necessary to demolish every building in the capital and give the entire space to cars. Now that the government has returned to the old policy of "predict and provide" for roads, with its £7bn widening programme, this possibility deserves serious thought. We have a housing shortage; we also have a growing passion for hypermobility. Would a significant number of people give up their houses if they were guaranteed unrestricted movement in habitable vehicles? Governments have had sillier ideas, such as putting John Prescott in charge of housing and transport, or deciding to build more airport runways so that we can all fly twice as much in 30 years' time. Margaret Beckett, whose affection for caravans is well known, could be put in charge of this new policy.