High Life at the U.N., Far From Home

Cars of the Nigerian delegation parked outside Nello’s on New York’s Upper East Side, a popular eatery where a plate of pasta can go for $200. / PHOTO: Chad Bouchard for 100Reporters

While international media focused on hot news surrounding Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea and Kashmir during the United Nations General Assembly that closed in New York Tuesday, another story was unfolding outside the East River compound.

Throngs of diplomats, an estimated 50,000 this year, filled midtown for the annual meeting. Sleek Mercedes Benz sedans with diplomatic plates were parked two-deep around the city’s swish landmark hotels; the Plaza, the Pierre and the Waldorf-Astoria.

The New York Palace Hotel, where suites run anywhere from $900 to $9,000 a night for a lavish triplex, was ringed with limousines displaying the flag of Benin, where three out of four citizens live on less than $2 a day.

Entourages of diplomatic spouses and family members dropped in on 5th Avenue shops. WNBC television, the NBC affiliate in New York, discovered wives from the Swaziland delegation stepping out of Bergdorf Goodman, laden with bags.

In the evenings, world leaders were entertained at glamour-packed events sponsored by multinational corporations, including pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. and, last year, PepsiCo. Afterward, visiting officials found their way to upscale eateries like Cipriani’s and Nello’s, where a single plate of pasta can fetch more than $200.

Your Money is Good Here

New Yorkers are accustomed to well-heeled visitors from abroad, and business leaders say they have no business questioning the provenance of any cash that comes their way.

“Kings, queens, the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, the foreign minister of Israel, they all come here,” said restaurateur Nello Balan, who owns the eponymous bistro.

The small Madison Avenue landmark is famous for drawing heads of state during the UNGA season. Balan said the two-week busy season launches a lucrative time of year that doesn’t fall off until January. Though he appreciates the attention from high-level diplomats, he’s not concerned about the economic or political conditions in his customers’ home countries.

“I am from Switzerland, so I understand neutrality.”

Nancy Ploeger, the president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, is likewise geopolitically blind.

“My concern is not with making comments on other countries and the way that they handle their own internal issues.”

She welcomes the estimated 50,000 U.N. staffers and dignitaries, who spend over $1 billion in rentals and services.

“For those people who consider it distasteful regarding all the spending and so forth, the entire U.N. presence in New York is critical to our economic vitality as a city” she said.

“With the spike in business for me and the Chamber, it’s all about jobs.”

But the spectacle of officials living it up outside the U.N. sessions has sparked reaction in their home countries.

Photographer Jonan Basterra sparked outrage in Spain when he snapped a picture of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy smoking a cigar outside Radio City Music Hall. Spain announced more cuts and austerity measures last week in its 2013 budget.

In Malawi, the Nyasa Times reported that the country was sending a “huge delegation,” at a total cost of more than $1 million. The average yearly per capita income in Malawi is about $900.

Corporate Sponsors

In recent years, companies—urged on by the U.N. —have begun to host official events where diplomats can mingle. For the companies, the events also offer a chance at high-level exposure to key decision makers.

Jim Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, attended the 2012 South-South Awards—whose members include the planet’s poorest nations—at the luxury Waldorf Astoria hotel on Sunday before the General Assembly. He said the invitation-only awards banquet had a guest list of more than 800, who enjoyed filet mignon while listening to a rock band.

“It felt corrupt from beginning to end.”

It turned out, he said, that it had been funded by Chen Feng, the chairman of HNA Group, the holding company for Chinese airliner Hainan, at a price tag of more than $1 million. Chen accepted an award on behalf of the company for a program to provide cataract treatment in China and Africa.

The entertainment roster at the event was Grammy-encrusted, including a set from former Eagles guitarist Don Felder.

Paul said deep-pocketed businessmen and multinational corporations have increasingly sponsored these side events, with a notable increase just in the last two to three years.

Global Policy Forum program coordinator Lou Pingeot says the U.N. is reaching out to businesses more and more as a way to cope with its financial woes. Two U.N. entities, the U.N. Global Compact and the Partnership Office, are largely responsible for forging “implementation partnerships” with the business community.

But Pingeot is alarmed by what she sees as a shift in development strategy, with corporate strategy and language even seeping into official U.N. documents.

Pingeot quoted an example from the U.N.’s International Business Coalition for Education, which states that “companies will benefit by educating consumers, so they can earn a higher income and accumulate more disposable income to spend on products and services.”

Talking about development in terms of business and investment could mean dismissing initiatives that are not strictly profitable, she said. With diabetes and obesity on the rise in developing nations, companies like PepsiCo, she said, make strange bedfellows for the U.N.

“At some point you have to realize that it’s a little bit schizophrenic to try to find the solution in those companies that may be causing the problem to begin with,” Pingeot said.



Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo

Diana Jean Schemo is president and executive editor of 100Reporters, and the founder and co-director of the Double Exposure Film Festival and Symposium, the United States' only investigative film festival.