david beasley kneels and smile at a child wearing a blue ball cap

In the field with David Beasley

World Food Programme executive director, former governor, double-alumnus brings home Nobel Peace Prize

David Beasley was in Niger when the news came: The World Food Programme had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Normally loquacious, always quotable, he was suddenly at a loss for words.

As the WFP’s executive director, Beasley had every reason to be proud that October afternoon. The international humanitarian organization delivers food assistance and other aid to nearly 100 million people a year, and this was a huge honor. But he was in the West African nation’s capital, Niamey, to meet with senior officials, and he had spent that morning in the field, which in that part of Niger can be an intense experience.

“I literally was just out in a very dangerous area where we had access issues because of Al Qaida and ISIS,” he explains. “I’m in a mindset, fixated and focused on a very difficult situation, and all of a sudden somebody comes busting into the room, ‘Nobel Peace Prize! Nobel Peace Prize!’ I’m thinking, ‘What are you doing busting into the room while we’re having a meeting?’ But then I was like, ‘OK, well? Who was it?’” He laughs reliving the moment. “They said, ‘We did!’”

It was a well-deserved acknowledgement of the organization’s approximately 18,000 staff worldwide. It was also a rare opportunity: a platform to elevate the WFP’s mission, a microphone to amplify its message. Beasley was supposed to fly to Ethiopia that night, and then to WFP headquarters in Rome — he estimates two thirds of his working hours are spent “in the air” — but 16 hours in the air would be 16 hours of missed opportunity.

“I said, ‘The last place I need to be right now is on a plane. I need to be in front of a camera taking advantage of this award,’” he explains. “Because that’s what the Nobel Peace Prize committee was doing. They were giving us a chance to showcase the need around the world.”

His team made a snap decision. Instead of Ethiopia, he would reroute to Burkina Faso, a shorter flight than Addis Ababa. He could talk to CNN, ABC and the BBC from Ouagadougou before resuming scheduled business.

He reflects on it now: “What if I had been in Rome, wearing a suit, versus out in the field, where there’s extremism, hunger, conflict? I think the Almighty was ahead of me, putting me in the right place for a moment such as this.”

But that doesn’t mean the former South Carolina governor, two-time University of South Carolina alumnus can’t get flustered, caught flatfooted. “When my people got me on camera I said, ‘You know, this is the first time in my  life I’ve been speechless,” he says. “I was just like, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow.’”

High standard, high hopes

If you’re from South Carolina and of a certain age, you remember David Beasley, politician — longtime state legislator, mostly as a Democrat; one-term governor, by then a Republican; media magnet, occasional lightning rod, comfortable in front of a camera or a crowd but not afraid to take politically risky positions.

Running for a second term as governor, Beasley gambled on an anti-gambling platform, opposing the state lottery, which was established despite his crusade. He advocated, unsuccessfully, for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome, only to see it moved, and later removed, by his successors. He left elected office in 1999, and electoral politics in 2004, after a failed primary run for U.S. Senate.

But Beasley didn’t exactly drop off the radar.  In 2003, his efforts to take down the Confederate flag earned him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. A year later, he co-founded the Center for Global Strategies with law school alumnus Henry L. Deneen, ’81, who had previously served as chief legal counsel for Beasley’s administration. The mission? To integrate developing communities into the global economy via investment, market solutions and a message of peace.

His approach has been, ‘Of course we need to provide food to help these people, but we also need to help them get on their feet. We need to be tackling the obstacles to that.' And he has been groundbreaking in his willingness to go down that road.

Jon Brause, director of the World Food Programme's Washington, D.C., office

“Ever since I was governor, I’ve been doing behind-the-scenes peace work around the world,” says Beasley. “I’m not interested in titles as much as I’m interested in achieving objectives, and one of my life commitments is to bring peace, to help the poor and the needy. Love thy neighbor, as we would say.”

Except when his name was floated for the top position at the United Nations’ World Food Programme, he was apprehensive: “A friend — as I would call him, one of my left-left-leftwing friends — called and said, ‘Would you be interested in a senior role at the United Nations?’ and I said, ‘Uh, well ... No!’”

He laughs now, quipping that he didn’t want a job period. But even before he hung up, he remembered a conversation with his wife, Mary Wood Beasley, who had encouraged him to take on more humanitarian work. How he tells it: “I said to her, ‘I know you’re not asking me to get back involved in Washington politics.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m just asking you to pray about it before you just say no to anything.’”

And so, pray he did. Beasley’s Christian faith was front and center when he was governor, and it’s still a motivating factor. But he also made calls, beginning with former Democratic congressman from Ohio, Tony P. Hall. After two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives, Hall had served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, which includes the WFP. He knew the organization inside and out. He knew the job. He also knew Beasley.

“The job takes a lot of charisma, a lot of stamina,” says Hall. “It takes somebody who understands how to put coalitions together, who can go into different parts of the world and understand people. I felt that he would be a natural. As far as the issue of hunger, that he could learn. And he’s a quick learner.” Hall also appealed directly to Beasley’s faith. “If there’s ever a job that’s of the Lord, it’s this one,” he told him. “You can do a lot of good.”

Others echoed what Hall said. Beasley carped about bureaucratic red tape —“My knee-jerk reaction was more about the U.N. system, from an outsider’s perspective,” he admits. “I had a high standard and high hopes for the U.N., but my limited knowledge of the U.N. was that it was not being as effective as it should be or could be” — but his associates countered. The WFP wasn’t the ill-fitting suit he feared. In fact, it might be a perfect fit.

“Everyone was telling me, ‘Oh my gosh, the World Food Programme is different,” Beasley says. “‘They’re efficient, they’re strategic, they get it done, they’re not bureaucratic.’ And a lot of people said, ‘You know, you’re the only one who can talk the U.S. out of cutting funding. And if you don’t, we’re going have destabilization, war, conflict and mass migration.’”

Miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue

Taking the executive director position was still a big decision. It meant relocating to Rome, a tough sell for a family-oriented man from Darlington County, South Carolina, even one as well-traveled as Beasley. It also meant tackling a massive global issue at a time when U.S. foreign aid was in jeopardy. Four nations were facing famine in 2017, and the very country that established the WFP back in 1961 was threatening to slash funds.

“Trump had just taken office, and everyone was assuming he was going to zero out the budget,” says Beasley. “So, there I was being asked to take on this role, with the largest donor, the United States — at about $1.9 billion, or about 35 percent of the budget — talking about pulling out. Who would want that job?”

He laughs, but the predicament was not lost on him. Far from it. He initially offered to “make some calls” and “see what I can do,” but it didn’t take long before he was leveraging connections in Washington. He calls his first big achievement, which would help avert famine in those four nations and preserve U.S. investment in the WFP, “the Miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

“We were able to bring both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue together, from the White House to the Capitol, and we were able to bring the Republicans and the Democrats together,” he explains. “Though they are, in fact, fighting on everything, when it came to strategic foreign aid and the United States’ national security interests, the Republicans and the Democrats laid aside their differences.”

The keywords are right there: “strategic foreign aid,” “national security.” The need to feed is paramount, he says, but so is the need for sustainable economies in the developing world. Resolving the two problems together, he argues, can help resolve conflict, and in turn resolve one of the hot-button issues of the day, mass migration.

“Before a person will leave their country, they will move three, four, five times inside their homeland,” he explains.

“If I’m feeding a Syrian in Syria, in a war zone, it costs me about 50 cents per day. That same Syrian in Berlin or Brussels? The humanitarian support package is 50 to 100 euros a day. And they don’t want to be there! Same thing would apply whether someone is fleeing Iraq or Honduras or Guatemala. But if we can be there for them, giving them a better way, you end migration by necessity. Migration by choice — now that’s a pleasant debate, that’s a good discussion.”

Jon Brause, director of the World Food Programme’s Washington office, says it’s a welcome strategic shift, and one that offers a window on Beasley’s relationship-building philosophy.

“David Beasley is a peacemaker, number one, and a humanitarian, number two, and that was a little bit of an awkward fit,” says Brause. “Because in the U.N. mind, you don’t blend peacemaking with your humanitarian efforts. He says, ‘Well, you can’t do one without the other.’ And I believe that, too. We have to stop pretending that we can navigate in between the conflict to help people. If the conflict continues, you’re back there tomorrow. You’re back there again and again.”

Yes, the WFP still provides tremendous food assistance worldwide — to the tune of 15 billion rations per year, 17.3 million meals to school children in more than 50 countries, 4.2 million metric tons of food delivered overall in 2019. But the record-breaking $8.46 billion dollars raised in 2020 is also financing land rehabilitation and water harvesting, and is used to bolster entrepreneurism, even in some of the most fragile parts of the developing world.

“His approach has been, ‘Of course we need to provide food to help these people, but we also need to help them get on their feet. We need to be tackling the obstacles to that,’” says Brause. “And he has been groundbreaking in his willingness to go down that road.”

'We are all brothers and sisters'

Of course, being executive director of the WFP is about more than fundraising, strategizing and meeting heads of state. “Going down that road” can be a very literal journey, whether Beasley is in a remote part of West Africa or a war-torn region of the Middle East. He needs to meet the people the WFP is helping — and who need help — and he wants to understand the contributing factors.

“David and I visited Syria together last year, just days before COVID closed global travel,” says Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF. “We visited villages in Idlib, close to the lines of conflict. Just like being a good governor, he brought a real connection to the people we met — a businesswoman, a prominent male farm owner, a disabled boy, families lining up for food. David connects on a deeply personal level.”

According to Beasley, that’s a direct result of his upbringing in Darlington County, South Carolina, at the height of the civil rights movement. When the desegregation of the public schools in his hometown of Lamar made national headlines — when protestors were turning over school buses and most white families were enrolling their kids in new private academies — his parents stuck it out.

We’re facing famine of biblical proportions. If we don’t receive the funding that we need, you will have famine, destabilization and mass migration.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme

“My mother and father kept us in the public schools, stayed with it, and that’s where I developed some of the greatest relationships in my life, relationships that helped shape me as to how I see people — that we’re all equal, we’re all brothers and sisters, and I’m no better than you,” he says. “I think growing up like I did prepared me for going someplace like Chad, or anywhere, and realizing, ‘These are our brothers and sisters. They’re suffering, we’re suffering.’ I consider it an honor to know these people. They teach me a lot about life. They have very little but yet they have hope.”

Beasley has hope, too — you can’t do this work without it — but the developing world is in a precarious place. Exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was tough. And 2021 may be far worse, which only underscores the importance of the Nobel Prize and the platform it provides.

“The Nobel Peace Prize committee was sending two very clear messages,” he says. “One was a matter of fact: ‘Thank you, World Food Programme, for your men and women who put their own lives on the line every single day to bring peace and stability to people who are on the brink of starvation.’ Number two was a prophetic message, and that is, ‘Your hardest work is yet to come.’”

He’s no longer speechless like he was in Niamey. The Nobel Prize was a gift, and David Beasley wants to make the most of it. The numbers roll off his tongue.

“When I arrived, there were 80 million people on the brink of starvation,” he says. “That’s not people going to bed hungry — that’s a whole different population. These are people that don’t know where the next meal is coming from and are struggling to survive. That number spiked, pre-COVID, to 135 million people. Because of COVID, that number is now at 270 million people that are on the brink of starvation.”

He lets the statistics sink in, then doubles down. He preaches compassion alongside strategy, but he’s also after money. This is about feeding people, he reminds donors, but also enabling them to feed themselves. The WFP aims to feed upwards of 138 million people in 2021, and it’s in everyone’s interest to pony up.

“We’re facing famine of biblical proportions,” he says. “If we don’t receive the funding that we need, you will have famine, destabilization and mass migration. The reason we didn’t have it the last three years was because our donors stepped up — donors like the United States and the American taxpayer — and said, ‘We care.’”

Banner image by Claire Nevill, WFP