Deep within the labyrinthine complex of huts at the UN logistics base in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is a small office where staff sign up to stay on a cruise ship called the Ola Esmeralda.
For some this is smart, out-of-the-box thinking to accommodate aid workers in a hazardous post-quake environment, for others it is a blazing symbol of excess that shows just how out of touch the UN is from the task at hand.
There is a second smaller luxury ship, the Sea Voyager, berthed in port but also offering air-conditioned en suite rooms to hundreds of staff for a heavily subsidized rate of US$40 a night, including breakfast and dinner.
“It’s the best deal in town,” a UN worker told reporters on condition of anonymity, refusing to comment on stories of late-night partying on the ships but saying the proper rate should be about US$150.
A UN coordinator who started living on the Sea Voyager because her house was destroyed by the quake said she was happy because she had stopped working endless hours and sleeping in her office.
“Obviously, some people are complaining because it is a long way away, 40 minutes by bus, but it’s great, how can we complain, we have air-con, we have food, the mosquitoes are under control,” she said.
The UN lost a record number of staff in the quake and has worked extremely hard since to place Haiti on the road to recovery but there is an obvious danger of perception regarding the bizarre accommodation arrangement.
The UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH has long been viewed with suspicion here by the masses of urban poor and even if there is no other viable solution, it doesn’t look good.
“If the UN is living on a cruise ship, it is the perfect metaphor for how they are viewed here in the country,” said Richard Morse, the 52-year-old owner of Port-au-Prince’s iconic Hotel Oloffson. “If they think quake refugees should be living on cruise ships, then they should get cruise ships for the Haitian people, that’s all I’m saying. Unless of course I am misinterpreting this and they really are better than Haitians.”
Sarah Muscroft, the deputy head of mission for the UN’s Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the reason ships were being used was because member states insisted on safe housing for staff.
“That is the reason why there is a boat here because the member states have basically said you have to have our nationals who work for you in non-prefab buildings,” Muscroft said.
Informed sources said that the 1,200-tonne, 53m Sea Voyager was on a three-month lease that started in the middle of February, while the Ola Esmeralda was on a six-month lease from the middle of last month.
The 11,000-tonne, 140m Ola Esmeralda had two bars, a casino, three restaurants and an outdoor pool back in its heyday as a cruise ship, when it was known as the Black Prince.
At least one bar still operates, providing UN workers with the chance to unwind in a secure environment offshore, well away from the putrid camps where hundreds of thousands of survivors struggle to eke out a post-quake existence.
It is this detachment from the people they are supposed to be trying to protect that infuriates Morse, who said MINUSTAH should just leave if they are not going to help the Haitian poor.
“The UN mandate here is to keep the urban poor in check, that’s their mandate here, their mandate is not to keep the elites from being corrupt, their mandate is not to keep the Haitian government from being corrupt,” he said. “Maybe not everyone can articulate it, but if you sit down in a conversation and you are speaking Creole with some people, you are going to hear them end up criticizing the UN.”
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