Hold the front page. The European Commission is about to set a new objective. Its latest offering on the fight against global poverty promises "a decent life for all by 2030".
Alas, my excitement on learning about this initiative has already vanished. An institution which is bludgeoning Greece into mass misery can't be taken seriously if it proposes to eradicate hardship outside Europe within 17 years.
The new objective is part of a policy paper which will be issued shortly by Andris Piebalgs, the EU's development aid commissioner. Piebalgs has a penchant for taking credit where none is due. His speeches tend to be peppered with self-congratulatory twaddle about how he is implementing policies that are "unique and pioneering" and how "amazing progress" has been achieved in reducing extreme poverty.
Piebalgs, it should be recalled, was in charge of energy policy with the Commission from 2004 to 2009. During that time, he vigorously promoted the use of biofuels to power Europe's cars. After the World Food Programme and others documented how the EU's biofuels bonanza had exacerbated hunger in many countries, Piebalgs still refused to concede that he was wrong.
His claim that "amazing progress" has been made towards realising the UN's "millennium development goals" echoes that of the European Business Council for Africa and the Mediterranean (EBCAM). That corporate outfit has exulted at how the "miracle" (its word) of halving the proportion of the world's people who live on less than a dollar a day by 2015 was reached seven years ahead of schedule. According to EBCAM, this achievement can be attributed to "the embrace of capitalism" by India and China.
A December 2012 report by UN Women indicates that capitalism hasn't lifted so many boats as corporations want us to believe. It points out that the number of people holding vulnerable jobs in the world now stands at more than 1.5 billion, a rise of 136 million since 2000. And with 81 million children not attending school and 800 million people lacking access to safe water (in 2010), the case for jubilation would appear a little shaky.
Piebalgs' bragging about how generous the EU is to the poor masks the fact that the Union and its governments regularly give a false picture of their aid donations. AidWatch, a coalition of anti-poverty groups, has found that in 2011 about 14% of all aid that the EU tried to pass off as "official development assistance" was not invested in countries categorised as developing. Totalling over 7.3 billion euros, this "aid" went towards spending on such things as debt relief and helping refugees in their countries of arrival. Though important, this expenditure did not involve releasing fresh funds for eradicating poverty in Africa, Asia or Latin America.
The European Commission has arguably committed a more serious offence by trying to disguise military aid as development assistance. Last month, Piebalgs announced that the Union was giving 50 million euros to support African Union troops in Mali. According to Piebalgs, the money would go to "non-military costs" like the daily allowances of soldiers. Does he think we are all fools? Giving aid money to soldiers is by definition military aid, even if it is not used to buy weapons. Guidelines established by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stipulate that military aid - including support for "peacekeeping" operations - cannot be counted as development assistance.
Piebalgs regularly speaks about the indispensable role that the private sector can play in reducing poverty. He has signalled his full support for the G8's "new alliance for food security and nutrition". This alliance puts companies like Monsanto and Diageo in charge of African agriculture. Wherever Monsanto has operated, it has undermined traditional agriculture and biodiversity with its gung-ho approach to introducing genetically modified crops. Monsanto enjoys a near-monopoly in the US, where it has sued farmers who have refused to buy its seeds. Piebalgs is helping it to become more powerful by enabling it to wrest control of African agriculture away from peasants. His attempts to present himself as a champion of African farmers belies how the G8's "alliance" was firmly opposed by associations representing those farmers.
Lust for resources
Before being appointed as development aid commissioner, Piebalgs gave a commitment to address the inconsistency between the EU's commitment to fight poverty and its pursuit of economic policies that harm the world's poor. Not only has he failed to live up to that commitment, the inconsistencies have worsened.
The lust for Africa's raw materials has become more marked over the past few years. France is fighting a war in Mali that is - at least partly - motivated by a determination to maintain control of that country's uranium reserves (so they can be used by Europe's nuclear industry). Advised by mobile phone giants like Nokia, the European Commission has identified cobalt in Congo as an essential material for industry. The idea that a country that experienced the hell of colonial plunder might be given a say in how this resource is used is anathema in Brussels. And I haven't even mentioned the damage done by fisheries "agreements": European vessels are scooping more fish off the coast of Madagascar, one of the world's poorest countries, today than they were in the 1980s.
Nobody should be assuaged, then, by the EU's rhetoric. Far from seeking to liberate Africa or Asia from poverty, policy-makers are determined to keep these continents within their ambit.
•First published by New Europe, 24 February - 3 March 2013.