More than $1 million spent on Ethiopian rental property considered 'important diplomatic tool'
Taxpayers have spent more than $350,000 on upgrades to a rental property for New Zealand's ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union in Addis Ababa.
A further $695,000 was spent over three years on the operating cost of renting and running the Official Residence of Ambassador Bruce Shepherd, which include utilities, taxes, maintenance and security.
Information received under the Official Information Act revealed it cost a total of $1,047,941 for the period between June 2013 and July 2016. This equates to more than 17 million Ethiopian Birr, the local currency.
In comparison, a six-bedroom, 16-room modern villa in Addis Ababa is selling for 8 million Birr, less than half what the Government spent on someone else's property.
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Aside from the official residence, New Zealand is also picking up the tab for the country's embassy that is situated in a "commercial" apartment in an American-owned Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has confirmed that money was also spent on renovations to the hotel apartment to "make it fit for use", but they did not disclose the amount.
It's unclear how much the total cost for renting the apartment is, but according to the hotel's website, rooms are available from US$558 (NZD$774) per night and apartments from US$250 (NZ$344) per night with a minimum stay of a month.
For that price, you get access to amenities including a large swimming pool, mini-golf course, tennis and squash courts, and a fitness centre.
The hotel also has six eateries where you can purchase modern cuisine ranging from Salmon Teriyaki to Lamb Madras and Classic Risotto.
However, MFAT insisted the cash spent on a home for Shepherd in Addis Ababa was money well spent.
Because the property is rented, its operational cost was at least $300,000 more than MFAT-owned properties in New York ($389,878), Paris ($354,768), Los Angeles ($393,283) and Honolulu ($130,970).
"In Addis Ababa, it is extremely difficult to get property that provides a level of amenity and security sufficient to enable the Official Residence to operate effectively.
"Because of that, the sum included the upgrade of the property to ensure it was compliant and provided a safe and secure standard of accommodation," an MFAT spokesman said.
A request for images of the inside and outside of the property was refused to 'protect individuals' privacy.' Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee was unavailable for comment.
ACT leader David Seymour said he doesn't have a problem with the money being spent as long as it can be justified.
"The expenses involved is fine as long as we can see the benefits New Zealanders get from having an embassy in Africa," said Seymour.
The government's Safe Travel website warns of a high security risk in Addis Ababa due to the threat of terrorism. There is an extreme security risk in the border areas with Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan and Eritrea, with kidnapping, armed conflict and civil unrest among the concerns.
The most expensive rental bill picked up by the ministry over the three-year period was for the London residence of UK High Commissioner, Sir Jerry Mateparae - the former Governor-General's base has an annual operating cost of $1.38m.
Our permanent representative to the World Trade Organisation, David Walker's rented Geneva residence cost $1.15m, with Hong Kong ($1.08m) and Beijing ($1.06m) followed close behind.
"Official residences are important diplomatic tools. As well as providing a home for the Head of Mission and their family, they are also a key space for representational activity, business conferences and meetings," the official response read.
"Having New Zealand represented overseas does have a cost … but successive governments have taken the approach that it would be far more costly to be isolated," the spokesman added.
The same logic was applied when the government confirmed it had shelled out almost $11m on a plush New York apartment for New Zealand's permanent representative at the United Nations in 2015.
Gerard van Bohemen calls a three-bedroom condo in 50 United Nations Plaza home - the 278-square-metre Manhattan pad features three bathrooms, views of the East River and is a stone's throw away from the UN.
MFAT's property portfolio is significant - the department manages over 300 properties across 50 countries of which around 30 per cent were owned, and the remaining 70 per cent were leased.
The department's budget is subject to parliamentary approval, and its spending is reviewed each year by a select committee.
International relations expert, Auckland University Associate Professor Stephen Hoadley, said posting diplomats overseas was an expensive, yet necessary exercise.
"New Zealand officials in country can command local attention to New Zealand needs better than sending emails or episodic visits," Hoadley said.
"Diplomacy thrives on mutual trust, and daily person-to-person relations build that trust - both ways," Hoadley added.
New Zealand's Embassy in Addis Ababa is found in an office at the city's Hilton Hotel and was opened by Sir Jerry Mateparae in May 2014. It is the third diplomatic mission in the African Union behind Cairo and Pretoria.
Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the African Union and has the highest number of diplomatic missions in Africa.
University of Canterbury international relations expert, Jeremy Moses, said the establishment of an Ethiopian base was part of New Zealand's attempt to get votes as it made a play for a spot on the UN Security Council for the 2015-16 term.
"The commitment to Africa that was signalled through the creation of [ Addis Ababa] was an important part of the campaign … what it does signal is a longer-term commitment," Moses said.
"Often in those Security Council campaigns, you get states making promises of additional aid or other types of short-term commitments. What I think New Zealand is trying to say here is that it's committed to relations with Africa on a broad scale."
As of May 31, MFAT had 233 staff stationed at New Zealand posts overseas.
- Sunday Star Times