David Beasley has led and expanded the U.N. World Food Programme through extraordinary challenges, the latest being the war in Ukraine, earning bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill and seeing the world’s largest food aid organization win the Nobel Peace Prize on his watch.

Then-President Donald Trump named Beasley to the job in 2017 at the same time the Trump administration was proposing to slash U.S. food aid, threatening to undermine the former GOP governor of South Carolina even as he took the helm at WFP. The United States has long been the top donor to the world’s largest food aid program and traditionally nominates its executive director.

But Beasley proved so successful at building WFP — and in winning support for food aid globally — that President Joe Biden in 2021 gave in to bipartisan congressional pressure and agreed to an extension of Beasley’s tenure.

Under Beasley, WFP’s total funding has grown to $10.6 billion this year from $5.6 billion in 2016. And its U.S. contributions have nearly tripled to $5.9 billion in 2022.

While in Washington recently, Beasley sat down with Agri-Pulse to talk about some of the lessons he’s learned as WFP’s executive director.

Agri-Pulse: Has the United States changed its mindset when it comes to global food aid? 

“I think the United States government has truly stepped up in substantial ways in the last few years, but there's more work to be done. I think the crisis that we're facing today has been a wake-up call to many of the leaders. Of course, we took advantage of the crisis to enlighten leaders in the United States that this is a very serious issue. It's not a one-time, one-off. This is a long-term issue.

“And the more we can do now, the better the world is going to be. It's evolved. The United States has provided the leadership worldwide. But more so today than maybe any time period. … And to think that we've gone from a billion dollars of food aid to now, this year, just from the United States alone, it will be … between $5 and $6 billion in a time when Congress is so contentious and so divisive. It's quite a remarkable thing to see how the Democrats and the Republicans will put aside their differences when it comes to global food security and the nutrition of children.”

Agri-Pulse: The membership of Congress will be turning over again, and there are many new members calling for more oversight of government spending.  

“But we faced that before … when I agreed to take this role. You had a new Congress, a Republican-controlled House and Senate. You had the Tea (Party) and the Freedom Caucus. … I knew many of them and sat down and said, ‘Let me explain. I know you have questions about ineffective foreign aid, but let me talk to you about strategic, effective foreign aid and what it means in the national security interests of the United States and the financial interests of the United States.

'If we are in fact strategic and effective, it will save taxpayers’ dollars. It will save our taxpayers billions of dollars, because if we're not there strategically, you end up with mass migration, destabilization of nations, and famine. And that's a thousand times more expensive. There's Option A and Option B. And Option A is, say, $5 billion. Option B is $100 billion. There's no option C here. Because if you ... do nothing, you're going to pay for it with millions of people at your border.’

“And so, when I would meet with the leaders and go through the numbers and show them what we do and how we do it, it was not a hard sell. It's just a matter of getting a congressman to sit down and have enough time to go through it.”

Beasley also recounted reaching out to Trump, whose first budget proposal in 2017 called for zeroing out the main U.S. food aid program, Food for Peace.

“President Trump was going to zero out the budget, and I worked with his staff, his team. And he and I sat down, and he got it. And so our funding in the Trump administration — when everybody thought it would just collapse — went from $1.8 billion to $3.8 billion. So we brought together both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. I call it the miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Beasley used that experience with Trump to prod the Biden administration to do more.

“Biden gets elected, and then I started with a sense of humor, joking with my Biden friends in the White House, ‘Surely you're not going to do less than President Trump on international food security. … Trump did $3.8 billion, surely you're not going to do less than that?' And they look at me like … 'that's not fair.'”

Agri-Pulse: While WFP funding has increased, isn’t the governance of recipient countries important, too?  

“The dollars are important, but the thing that's even more important is the structure and systems in place in many of these countries. When I took this job, and I would go to some of the countries … I would ask in-country teams and these countries, how long have you been here, 30, 40 50 years? I'm like, maybe it's not working? Maybe you need to step back? Maybe you need to reevaluate what's taking place here. Why is the country not taking ownership of its own issues, so that we don't continue to throw billions of dollars, throw good money after bad?”

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Beasley believes WFP needs encouragement from major donors like the United States to hold recipient nations accountable.

“In my opinion, this is critical that the donor nations like the United States and Germany and Europe and France, etc, etc., No. 1, must give us more flexibility to do what we think is necessary to create resilience and sustainability so that we don't have to continue to be there over and over and over again. And that involves nutrition programs (and other efforts). And so it's critical that pressure be brought to bear on the host nations, that they themselves take ownership for their own issues. And I think when you have limited dollars, the nations that should get the highest priority are those nations that are willing to take ownership and have skin in the game, so to speak.

“Countries where we were able to implement resilience programs — those villages, those regions in those countries — have required substantially less additional funds, because they're taking care of themselves.

Beasley talked about some of his success stories, including getting countries to take over school feeding programs that the U.N. had managed.

“You can go to many countries … where we started the program and we transitioned out, wherever the government took the complete ownership of the program and is now implementing it as we trained and taught. And there's several countries like that. And that's ongoing.

And because of the UN's work, some low-income countries were better positioned to deal with the impact of the war in Ukraine on food supplies and prices, Beasley said. "Particularly in the last year, (as) Ukraine hit and crisis hit the countries where we were able to implement resilience programs — those villages, those regions in those countries — have required substantially less additional funds, because they're taking care of themselves.”

Beasley described an area in Chad where he recently heard a local female leader talk about the impact of irrigation infrastructure that WFP had installed.  

“They formed a cooperative. We put in water wells, an irrigation system. And she stood there so proudly. She said, ‘Mr. Beasley, Look, we're growing all our food now. We don't need your help. We're feeding our village. But now we're selling food into the marketplace, and we're buying our children clothes and medicines.’ And she says, ‘And I just paid for my son's wedding.’ 

“That free entrepreneurial spirit, you can't get it at Harvard Business School any better than … an African woman who has been given the tools to take care of their own family. That's what I love.”

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