Politics & Policy

The U.N. Love Boat

The World Food Program's staff stay in "good shape" to help Haiti.

In a story posted last week on Fox News’s website, George Russell laid out one of the most outrageous examples of poor judgment and profligacy seen in recent years from a U.N. organization. As Russell reports, two passenger ships (the Ola Esmeralda and the Sea Voyager) have been rented by the World Food Program — a U.N. humanitarian-relief organization — for $112,500 per day for the purposes of “accommodation for many of the U.N.’s international staff” off the coast of Haiti. The ships are also available to NGO workers and dignitaries such as Brazilian president Luiz Inacio da Silva, who recently visited the impoverished and earthquake-ravaged island. The total cost of renting these ships is projected to be over $10 million for the first 90 days. U.N. staff call one of the ships the “Love Boat.”

Sensing that the news might not be received well, WFP quickly pulled down its own article (complete with pictures) about the ships. Russell preserved the story, however, and does a wonderful job of exposing the many questions surrounding WFP’s decision to rent these ships. Among the highlights:

‐WFP is being overcharged, because the projected expense is millions of dollars more than what the ships would have been likely to earn through normal operation.

‐The Ola Esmeralda is owned by a Venezuelan company with close ties to Pres. Hugo Chávez.

Also included in the story is a revealing insight into the U.N. mindset. Russell asked Edmond Mulet, special representative in Haiti of the U.N. secretary general and head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) in the country, about the decision. Mulet’s answer, spread through several quotes in the story, was shocking: “It is the least we could do for them. They are working 14, 16 hours a day. The place was pulverized. Living conditions are really appalling. . . . [When] oxygen masks come down in a falling plane, the first thing you do is put them on yourself. You have to be in good shape in order to help the Haitians.”

Apparently, a visit to the Lido Deck is just the thing for staying in “good shape.”

Russell reports that if the two boats are fully booked, the cost to WFP is $181.81 per passenger per day for the Sea Voyager and $154.25 per passenger per day for the Ola Esmeralda. But U.N. staffers get to stay on the ships for $40 per day, and those participating in the U.N. peacekeeping mission get to stay for $20 per day. So WFP, even if the ship is full, provides each U.N. “passenger” a direct subsidy of up to $161.81 per day. But WFP doesn’t really pay for it, of course; the taxpayers in the countries who contribute to WFP do. In 2008, the U.S. gave over $2 billion to WFP — about 40 percent of its total budget.

And as if that weren’t enough, American taxpayers pay roughly a quarter of the expense of U.N. operations and staff salaries — expenditures that include a Daily Subsistence Allowance for U.N. staff of $244 dollars. Reasonable people might wonder, given that their daily allowances would more than cover it, why WFP is not charging U.N. staff the full cost of staying on the ships rather than $40 or $20 per day. Such is the regard U.N. agencies have for our hard-earned tax dollars.

This is just the latest in a series of missteps by WFP. For instance, according to a March 2010 report by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia, “up to half of the food aid intended for needy Somalis is routinely diverted,” and WFP food-aid delivery was dominated by three individuals (and their families and associates) linked to “arms sales and insurgent connections.” A February 2010 story, also by Russell, detailed how WFP’s relief effort in Afghanistan was inflated, with some outside experts saying that “some of the costs are more than 100 percent higher than they need to be.”

Since the U.S. is by far the largest contributor to the World Food Program, Congress should take a keen interest in its activities in Haiti and elsewhere.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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