Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, former US defence secretary, former head of Ford Motor Company, is struggling with a major dilemma - whether to go public with some of his politically incorrect thoughts about the failure of political leaders to get to grips with grinding poverty that still blights the lives of more than a billion of the world's people.

If he does go public, he is likely to deliver stinging rebukes to both rich and poor countries for their failures and to claim that the impressive targets for defeating hunger, illiteracy and poverty set out in ringing international declarations like the Millennium Development Goals are bogus and never likely to be met because of a failure of political leadership.

Although he is now 87 and getting frailer physically, McNamara remains in great shape mentally and is seething with anger and frustration that so little progress has been made against ingrained poverty.

He has sent some of his frank comments to various friends asking for their views about whether he should air them in Tokyo at the start of next month during the third Tokyo International Conference on African Development, or Ticad 3. One of the friends has advised that Japan probably will not want to hear such frank comments, even though McNamara's facts and judgements are correct.

His dilemma is that McNamara has always operated as one of the insiders of the magic circle of World-Rulers.Inc: to speak out now might be seen as a betrayal of his old friends; but to stay silent would mean that his dream of a world without poverty would continue being betrayed – along with the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

McNamara had a glittering career. President John F Kennedy described him as the smartest man he ever met. President Lyndon Johnson asked him if he would be his vice presidential running mate, but McNamara declined.

At the World Bank, McNamara turned a medium-sized institution lending $1 billion a year into the giant leader of the development world, with annual lending of $12 billion a year. Equally important, he put issues like poverty and rural development - and indeed African development - on the world agenda for the first time.

The former World Bank president, it might be said, has a vested interested in the issue of poverty. Exactly 30 years ago at the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Nairobi, he used his presidential speech to call for the campaign to tackle the terrible wasting disease of poverty.

He defined "absolute poverty" as a condition of deprivation that "falls below any rational definition of human decency."

Even before going to the World Bank, the then defence secretary McNamara made a stirring speech declaring that peace and stability in the world depended more on raising the living standards of the poor than on spending money on arms.

Thirty years on, McNamara feels betrayed. He has told friends that the plethora of programmes, such as the Millennium Goals, the New Economic Programme for African Development - or Nepad - and Ticad, are little more that empty slogans that have no hope of being fulfilled.

Take, for example, some of the Millennium Goals: as to halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015, there's "not a hope in hell," McNamara has told friends; reducing the portion suffering from hunger, that may be possible; ensuring that children everywhere will be able to complete primary education, "not a chance"; reducing child mortality by two thirds, "no way". McNamara feels that both rich and poor countries are to blame.

On the side of the rich countries, they promised to increase official development assistance or ODA. The figure of 0.70 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) was cited as the target for governments to provide in aid.

The Millennium Development Goals assume an increase in ODA. But the hard reality is that ODA is not likely to reach 0.70 per cent or even 0.50 per cent and it will be a miracle if it reaches 0.30 per cent. "Just absurd," is the way that McNamara has described the 0.70 per cent development dream.

A few small European countries have distinguished themselves by being overachievers in ODA. Denmark gave more than 1 per cent, Norway 0.90 per cent and Sweden 0.70 per cent, according to recent figures.

But the problem is the big countries, notably the US Washington recently announced with great fanfare that it was increasing its aid by 50 per cent - but this was a jump from 0.10 per cent, the lowest of the low, to 0.15 per cent.

McNamara said scathingly to one friend, "50 per cent of nothing is nothing." President George W. Bush has fixed ideas of who should benefit from aid, so the really poor countries should not get too excited too soon.

The average figure for all OECD is 0.22 per cent. McNamara in private conversation uses words like "shameful" and "a disgrace" that countries with per capita incomes of an average of $26,550 can only spare $63 per capita in aid. In the case of the US, its income is $34,280 and its aid is a mere $39.

But McNamara is equally disappointed with the failure of developing countries, especially the elite, politicians, economists, academics, journalists alike. With some notable exceptions, they have not bothered to try to raise the living standards and opportunities of the poorest members of their society.

Meeting Deng Xiaoping when McNamara went to Beijing to negotiate the entry of the People's Republic into the World Bank is still etched deeply in his memory, even though it took place almost 25 years ago. Deng told the World Bank president: "My development objective is to quadruple the GNP of China from 1980 to 2000."

At that time, there were probably only a handful of economists in the west who thought that could be done. Deng told McNamara: "We are poor. We will make mistakes. We need your assistance, we need your technical and financial assistance. But whether we get it or not - and he shook his finger in the Bank president's face - whether we get it or not, we will achieve our objectives."

China did, and because of its huge population, the numbers of really poor people in the world fell sharply. But other countries have not displayed the vision or the determination of China and Deng.

McNamara laments particularly that not a country in sub-Saharan African has expressed the same determined sentiments - that they would like World Bank help, but come what may they will win through.

Better health

Domestic savings rates, even in countries like Uganda and Ghana, which the World Bank has billed as minor stars, are too low to make a dent in the targets for defeating poverty. Savings rates in sub-Saharan Africa in 2001 were 17.3 per cent, in China, 40 per cent.

Even the giant well-endowed South Africa has not come anywhere close to achieving the goals it must achieve to advance the welfare of the mass of its citizens.

Its GDP per capita growth rate should be between five and seven per cent to provide better education, health, housing and employment opportunitie