As diplomats congregate for the United Nations General Assembly, delegations from some of the poorest countries in the world are spending extravagantly in New York City while their homelands struggle, NBC 4 New York's I-Team has discovered.
“The lavish spending is just endemic of autocratic politics as a whole,” said Alastair Smith, a politics professor from New York University and co-author of “The Diplomat’s Handbook.”
He believes the U.N.’s Manhattan address has become a distraction from the intended work of the General Assembly.
“They are here for the shopping, the food the wine, the dining. If it was in a less attractive place, I'm sure fewer people would want to come as hangers-on,” said Smith.
On Monday, I-Team cameras found several visitors with the U.N. delegation from Swaziland walking out of high-end retailer Bergdorf Goodman. The women had Bergdorf Goodman shopping bags, though they said the items inside were just gifts.
According to U.N. data, nearly 70 percent of Swazi people survive on less than $2 a day. The nation has one of the highest AIDS rates: 18 percent of the population is HIV positive.
Despite those struggles back home, numerous members of the Swaziland U.N. entourage are staying at the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the I-Team has learned.
Also staying at the Mandarin Oriental were members of the delegation from Togo. According to one U.N. report, 2.4 million Togolese citizens live on less than $1.25 a day.
Diplomats from Gabon were staying at the Plaza Hotel, where rooms go for a $1,000 to $15,000 a night.
Nigeria’s delegation is keeping five vehicles parked outside the Pierre Hotel where the cheapest room is about $800 a night – or roughly what most Nigerians earn in two years.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, where rooms are between $800 and $9,000 a night, the I-Team found the delegation from Mali, a country where 4.6 million people are battling starvation. A recent U.N. report found Mali is the third poorest nation in the world with a poverty rate near 87 percent.
To be fair, not every poor nation spent so much for hotel accommodations: Members of the Tanzania delegation were found staying at a DoubleTree hotel in Midtown.
Although it may be unseemly for diplomats from poor countries to live ostentatiously during their stays in Manhattan, advocates for business point out there is an undeniable upside to much of the diplomatic extravagance – the boon for New York City’s local economy.
"I don't think it is really up to us to moderate the type of spending that comes from other countries. That's their business,” said Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “What I'm concerned with is the economic impact on this city. I like the money. I want the money!"
None of the permanent missions to the UN from Togo, Swaziland, Gabon, Mali or Nigeria returned calls or emails relating to this story.
Nonprofits that monitor developing nations are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the issue of third world rulers spending lavishly abroad.
The group “100 Reporters” is actually holding a contest asking New Yorkers to snap photos of UN diplomats spending ostentatiously.
By one estimate, the ruling classes of third-world nations divert as much as $1 trillion from their developing economies to spend and invest the funds in the U.S. and other Western nations.
“The real underlying motivation for the movement of so much money out of developing countries is the hidden accumulation of wealth,” said Raymond Baker, executive director of Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog that monitors capital flows into and out of impoverished countries.
“This is about getting rich secretly and not having to distribute those funds locally,” Baker said.