The worst-kept secret in Haiti ...
By Andrew Gully
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 United Nations 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 subsidised rate of 40 dollars a night, including breakfast and dinner.
"It's the best deal in town," a UN worker told AFP on condition of anonymity, refusing to comment on stories of late-night partying on the ships but saying the proper rate should be around 150 dollars.
A UN coordinator who started living on the Sea Voyager because her house was destroyed by the quake told AFP 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 Organisation 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 told AFP that the 1 200-ton, 175-foot Sea Voyager is on a three-month lease that started mid-February, while the Ola Esmeralda is on a six-month lease from mid-March.
The 11 000-ton, 140-metre (460-foot) long 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 criticising the UN."
Megan B, a medical officer on the Sea Voyager described on her blog site on February 16 the first arrivals for the floating hotel.
"15 UN people came aboard for the night. They were so excited just to be able to take a shower, and have water that stayed warm.
The following Sunday she wrote: "Most of the people spend time in the bar, and do that each night. After working all day in Haiti, so would I. These people like to party. That is for sure."
Muscroft said the UN was well aware of the problems of perception but admitted: "In reality it's quite difficult to make sure that that is at the forefront of what we're doing all the time." - Sapa-AFP