About a week before Americans and friends would gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, a convoy of trucks rolled to a stop in the war-ravaged Tigray region of Ethiopia. Humanitarian workers began to unload hundreds of tons of food. Fighting and instability had made the work dangerous, but now sacks heavy with wheat and split peas and vast containers of vegetable oil were being sorted and sent directly to the region’s hungry.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian organization on the planet, had organized the effort. Estimates suggest the deliveries would help 67,000 people.
It was a significant achievement against hunger, yet David Beasley, an American from South Carolina and the agency’s executive director since 2017, finds it hard to take comfort from one success as he thinks of how many more people still need help.
At the end of 2022, the WFP is on track to provide food, medicine and support to 153 million people in at least 80 countries, many of them dealing with war and famine. That’s the most people in the program’s 60-year history.
“When I took over, my goal was, ‘What can I do to make the World Food Programme no longer needed?’” Beasley told ShareAmerica in phone interview from the agency’s headquarters in Rome. “We still have a lot of work to do.”
The WFP has grown under Beasley’s watch to become a $10 billion annual effort with more than 22,000 staffers as conflicts, climate change and soaring food prices have exposed the planet’s most vulnerable communities to compounding hardships. Donor countries provide the funds to keep the work ongoing, and more than half of that money comes from American taxpayers. By late in 2022, Americans had channeled $5.4 billion into the program for the year. Over the past decade, they’ve donated about $25.1 billion.
Some may wonder why the United States continues to send so much money abroad when the country has its own needs at home.
“The answer is really a simple one,” Beasley says. “You should do it out of the goodness of your heart, but if you’re not going to do it for that, then you better do it for your national security interest and your financial interest because if you don’t, it will cost you 1,000 times more on the back end.”
For example, he says, Germany spent $125 billion helping Syrian refugees who had fled to the European country over five years, or about $70-a-day per person. The WFP can support that same person in their home country for 50 cents a day. Moreover, he adds, most refugees would prefer never to become refugees in the first place, if they had the tools and support needed to live a secure and sustainable life at home. “So I ask the taxpayer, which would you rather fund?”
Beasley, now 65, has spent his life involved in public service. Beasley was 21 years old in 1978 when he was first elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives as a Democrat. Exactly 100 years earlier, Beasley’s great-great grandfather had been elected to that same seat. During his final term as representative, Beasley switched to the Republican party, and at age 37 he became the governor of South Carolina.
In 2017, he was tapped to lead the World Food Programme after then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley joined others to recommend him for the post. The work he did immediately turned heads. In 2020, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the agency, which was recognized for its efforts to stabilize the world through food security and humanitarian work. His five-year term was extended during the Ukraine crisis and is now set to expire in April 2023.
Facing today’s realities
Russia’s war against Ukraine has complicated the job. Much of the grain that arrived in the Tigray region, for instance, had likely come out of Ukraine, a “bread basket” that supplies about 50 percent of the grain the WFP distributes around the globe. Early this summer, with Russia blocking ships from leaving the Black Sea port of Odesa, the world’s hungry were in deep trouble. So Beasley flew to Odesa and joined a campaign to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to let the ships out. The United Nations eventually brokered a deal with Russia called the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Soon after, the Ikaria Angel set sail with food bound for Djibouti, where it was unloaded and dispatched to Ethiopia. Another ship, the BC Vanessa, took grain from Odesa to Afghanistan, with a stop first in Turkey to be milled into flour.
The shipments weren’t just good for the hungry, Beasley says. They were good for everyone, since the influx of grain helped to stabilize world commodity markets, which makes food cheaper for all.
Beasley knows that charity alone will never solve the problem of world hunger. For that reason, the agency he leads also works to make communities and farmers more resilient to climate change. Specialists provide towns with access to clean water and teach techniques that can help farms thrive. The social reach is enormous, too. “If you want to impact women around the world,” he says, “no operation on the planet does that more than the World Food Programme.”
Over the summer, Beasley saw the effects that WFP initiatives were having. He went back to Africa two years after the WFP had helped install a community water well and irrigation system. Desert wastelands had been transformed into lush, green fields bursting with vegetables.
“I’ll never forget this one woman, Biba,” Beasley says. “I asked her how her life had changed, and she says, ‘Well, we’re no longer dependent on you.’” The community could feed itself and had enough of a surplus to sell vegetables on the open market. That allowed residents to buy medicines and clothes for their children.
“Oh my gosh, when you hear that,” Beasley says, “you just want to break down, you’re so happy.”