Leaders of the world's richest countries staged a piece of grand political theatre in the Mexican city of Monterrey last week. They won press headlines hailing a new commitment to tackling the global gulf between rich and poor.
The United Nations International Conference on Financing Development ended with a declaration labelled the 'Monterrey consensus'.
But nothing agreed at the Mexican conference will bring about a reduction in global inequality. The Monterrey consensus is likely instead to increase the numbers living in miserable poverty. George W Bush was the star of last week's performance. First he found a pop star, U2's Bono, to wheel in to the White House.
Hours later Bush announced the first increase in the US aid budget for over a decade before jetting off to Mexico to soak up the plaudits thrown at him. The European Union also upped its aid budget in time for Monterrey. Most of the world's press proved as gullible as Bono, and obliged the politicians by printing stories about a new wave of help for the world's poor. If that was the stage version, what was really going on down in Mexico? Bush and his key allies were buying some important political goodwill and ramming through more of their neo-liberal agenda. And all for a few dollars more...
Bush has an important agenda in his 'backyard', Latin America. Mexico's president, the former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox, is an ally in Bush's regional plans. These plans include a continent-wide free trade agreement, and a series of regional economic and military programmes.
Fox's domestic popularity is flagging. He wanted a successful Monterrey conference to boost his standing at home, and on the regional and world arena. Bush was happy to oblige.
The Monterrey conference also took place at a time when Bush was coming under pressure to shore up international support for his 'war on terrorism'. A growing number of governments, with the usual exception of Tony Blair's, are distancing themselves from Bush's plans for more war. There are voices in the US establishment that argue strongly in favour of winning allies for the US 'war on terrorism'.
If a small US gesture could be presented as helping tackle world poverty and win some political brownie points, well, that was surely worth a few bucks. The Mexico conference deliberately shifted the focus away from the key demand of anti-poverty campaigners – the urgent need to cancel all foreign debt. Instead global 'poverty reduction' is now supposedly being tackled through the framework of the Monterrey consensus.
This is intimately linked to the wider agendas of the US, other rich countries and the global institutions they control. The terrible trio of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation were all present in Monterrey.
Bush did talk of increasing the US aid budget by $5 billion a year by 2006. This will still leave US aid spending at pathetic levels, and way, way below the long established UN target of 0.7 percent of national output. Former US president Jimmy Carter proved less gullible than some others, pointing out that 'with President Bush's commitment carried out, we'll be giving 12 parts out of 10,000 of our gross national products. That's tiny.'
And any new money that does come out of Monterrey is not 'aid' to the poorest in the sense that most people would understand that term at all. 'We must tie aid to political, legal and economic reforms,' said Bush. So the tiny increase in US aid will only be given to countries that submit to the ruthlessly pro-market policies of the IMF, WTO and World Bank.
Paul Ladd of the charity Christian Aid explained that the aid was 'a public relations gesture designed to deflect criticism. 'It seems to be a down payment for poor countries agreeing to open their markets to US goods'. Last Saturday's Guardian carried an article about the stringent new rules imposed on countries receiving US aid. Right next to that report was an article about Bush's demand for $27 billion to fund fighting abroad and security at home.
All in all, the US is spending an extra $370 billion on war over the next five years. The reality is that the Monterrey consensus is an extension of the infamous 'Washington consensus'. This was a dismal neo-liberal recipe of privatisation, opening economies to the multinationals and public spending cuts. It is precisely the recipe that has helped create the very poverty that Monterrey was supposed to be about tackling.
It has caused deep crisis – and spectacular resistance – in Argentina. The theatrical performance in Mexico may have won world rulers a few days of good press.
The reality is that global poverty will continue to get worse, and that more people will die as a result.