David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. Photo by: Mattias Nutt / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, has a message for humanitarian leaders who chide him for talking up the role of food insecurity in driving terrorist groups such as Islamic State group, Boko Haram, and al-Shabab.

“We’ll do it your way and get $2 billion. Or we’ll do it my way and get $7 billion.”

Beasley spoke to Devex Editor-in-chief Raj Kumar on Wednesday as part of a Devex conversation series with policymakers in global development.

Beasley was nominated to lead the United Nations’ food assistance branch by Nikki Haley, United States President Trump’s U.N. ambassador. Both Haley and Beasley are former Republican governors from South Carolina. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Beasley to lead WFP, which reaches 80 million people with its food security services, just under a year ago. He has spent the intervening months coming to terms with the unprecedented scale of crises facing the world’s largest humanitarian agency dealing with hunger.

“The most striking thing, walking into the operation, was how bad it really was around the world. The other thing that was really quite surprising was, the World Food Programme is really an amazing operation,” Beasley said.

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While many feared the Trump administration would try to cut funding for WFP — as it did with other U.S. contributions to the multilateral system — Beasley convinced the U.S. government to give more last year, raising their contribution from $1.9 billion to $2.5 billion.

After he “got the nod” to lead WFP, Beasley said he met with key members of the U.S. congress and laid out some conditions.

“I’m not going to take this role when we’re facing the worst humanitarian crisis since the United Nations has been in existence. That coupled with the U.S. cutting back its funding? Not a chance,” he said.

“So I extracted a very solid and heartfelt commitment from the Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House. They clearly understood the significance of food security in the world.”

Making his rounds in Washington, D.C., and other donor government hubs, on TV interviews, and in congressional testimony, Beasley — who describes himself as, “not a U.N. kind of guy” — leans heavily on the argument that if countries don’t invest in preventing famine and ending hunger, they will pay for it with the spread of more violent extremism. While some in the aid community have raised concerns about turning humanitarian assistance into a mission to counter terrorism, Beasley’s message seems to be working when it comes to convincing donors to cough up the money.

“It’s one of the biggest problems in the U.N. system,” Beasley said. “The U.N. does some extraordinary things, but they talk a language that the average person in the world doesn’t understand.”

The increasing concentration of food crises in conflict areas is more than a fundraising pitch. WFP spends 82 percent of its money in areas of protracted conflict, Beasley said Wednesday. That represents a dramatic change in role for an organization that three or four decades ago was primarily concerned with providing food assistance in the wake of natural disasters.

“Today it’s a whole different ball game,” he said.

While he speaks about WFP with the zeal of a true believer, Beasley hasn’t given up all of his former skepticism about the U.N. system. He also hasn’t tried to convince his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill that the U.N. deserves their unqualified support.

“I’m not going to come down to Washington and defend the whole U.N. system,” Beasley said. “If I do, I’ll lose my credibility.”

On a few issues Beasley openly criticizes the U.N., even as he leads one of the international organization’s largest branches. When he arrived last year, the WFP chief was “shocked” by what he called the U.N.’s “dark ages mentality on technology.” He thinks WFP is naturally positioned to lead in the creation of a new “platform,” which could be shared among other U.N. agencies and used to add biometric tracking to WFP’s and other agencies’ programs.

“The most important thing that I’m trying to arouse, not just in the U.N. system but the donor countries … they also must understand that they must integrate the private sector.”

— David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme

When the agency runs food operations in difficult environments, it’s natural for people to look for ways to cheat the system and amass more cash or commodities than they are supposed to be allotted, Beasley said.

“With biometric alignment, we can reduce duplication between 5 and 25-30 percent … it pays for itself to be digitally and technologically sound in every location,” he said, adding, “the WFP should own that sphere because we are the biggest in terms of ‘out there’ in the world, impacting people. That platform needs to be designed in such a way that it can be shared.”

There is an urgency to those savings and efficiency-generating improvements. Beasley worries that the food crisis response institutions that exist today — both in terms of funding levels and workforce deployment — are inadequate to deal with the scale of global crisis the world is likely to face in the near future.

“What happens if we have a massive volcanic activity in this region, and another massive operation over in this region? Are we prepared? The answer is, not to scale up to that degree,” Beasley said.

“We have been internally preparing the structure we need to be able to go to that next level,” he added.

In order to achieve both the funding and operational step changes necessary to build a food security operation fit for a world in crisis, Beasley sees the private sector as a vital partner.

“The most important thing that I’m trying to arouse, not just in the U.N. system but the donor countries … they also must understand that they must integrate the private sector,” Beasley said.

His vision is that the U.N. system, donor agencies, NGOs, private companies, and local governments with “skin in the game” partner together to come up with a “holistic approach for a country.”

“This is one of the biggest problems I see. When I was a governor, I’d come in and I’d see a problem, and I wasn’t concerned [about] which is the proper agency,” Beasley said.

“Many of the silos of funding within governments, much less multiple governments, they’re designed for a 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s mindset … How do we use every humanitarian dollar as a development opportunity,” he said.

Later on Wednesday, Beasley joined World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to sign a new joint strategy for breaking down barriers between humanitarian and development assistance, and enhancing their collaboration in fragile and conflict-affected countries. The framework aims to combine the World Bank’s “analytic and financial expertise” with WFP’s “unparalleled operational footprint.”

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“Today signals an end to the siloed way of doing things and the beginning of WFP and the World Bank working closely together — regardless of who gets the credit — to fight hunger and poverty and increase stability and sustainability,” Beasley said at the signing.

The WFP chief takes an executive’s approach to change, with targets, benchmarks, and management plans. He balks at those who say they are serious about achieving the lofty Sustainable Development Goals, and yet offer little in the way of a roadmap to getting there.

“If the Sustainable Development Goals are real and you believe in them, then show me your plan to get there. Show me your management plan to get there. I hear some of these countries talking about zero hunger by 2030. It’s the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever seen,” Beasley said.

Conflict-affected countries aren’t going to achieve the SDGs unless they end the wars and conflicts, he said. Beasley thinks the international community should try to “take one conflict and fix it,” instead of playing “whack-a-mole” with an ever-growing list of complex wars and crises.

“If we could end the wars and the conflicts, I have no doubt we could achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. But at this stage, I don’t see it,” Beasley said.

“Our plan is, we’re going to try to raise 2 [or] 3 billion more dollars,” he said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.