Head Of World Food Programme Says Most Don't Know How Dire The World's Hunger Problem Is
The United Nations' World Food Programme, the globe's largest humanitarian agency, received the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last year for its efforts to combat hunger and to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon in war-torn areas. This executive director is former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley. He says the 60-year-old program helped more than 100 million people worldwide last year.
The program has a budget of nearly $5 billion and about 20,000 workers. But in a break from speaking at a symposium on world hunger Friday in Columbia, South Carolina, Beasley said he does not believe most people are aware of the daunting task his organization faces in addressing world hunger amidst wars, climate change and corrupt governments.
David Beasley: When you turn on the television the last few years, it was just dominated with Trump, Trump, Trump, whether you loved or hated it, it doesn't matter. Now, it's COVID, COVID, COVID. A very important issue there, but at the same time, I'm assisting now 120 million people. During COVID, 4.5 million people died from COVID. At the same time, I had 16.75 million people die from hunger. I have nations and hundreds of millions of people that are on the brink of starvation. Since COVID, the number of people marching toward starvation has risen from 135 to 270 million people. How many people on earth even know that?
Gwendolyn Glenn: Well, you have been traveling lately. Tell me, what are you seeing and where some of the places you have been going lately?
Beasley: Well, I have been all over the place, from Afghanistan as well as Venezuela, Haiti, Ethiopia. Eighty percent of our operations are in areas of war and conflict. So we're on the ground. We see what's happening. And I can tell you it is very, very bad. We're literally looking at a thousand people dying per hour, as we speak, from hunger.
Glenn: Now, you mentioned Haiti. You know, they just had a massive seven-point-something magnitude earthquake. Then a tropical storm came in. And you have gangs that have been blocking some of the aid and putting it on the black market. What are you doing there in Haiti?
Beasley: I met with the prime minister last week. I was in Haiti last week where the epicenter of the earthquake was near Les Cayes. And so we're feeding a million some-odd people there. But because of the gangs now, it's hard for us to move the supplies from Port-au-Prince where the ports are into those areas where they're already remote and the infrastructure is very, very difficult. You add the corruption, it's so heartbreaking to see what's happening in Haiti.
And here I've got trucks being stopped and blocked by gangs. And as I met with the prime minister as well as the international leaders saying that I've got to have access to reach these people. You've got to provide the security necessary to make certain that our goods, food are truly getting to the people that are in need right now. They've really got their backs against the wall with all the things coming down on them at one time.
"Please don't underestimate how many people may be suffering in your hometown, in your home state. Reach out to those neighbors and see what you can do."
Glenn: Well, let me ask you this: I understand that you have said that you need about $6 billion in terms of extra spending and you're calling on billionaires in the U.S. to give more and private citizens. What's your message in terms of people in South Carolina — and also North Carolina — in terms of supporting the work that the World Food Program does?
Beasley: Please don't underestimate how many people may be suffering in your hometown, in your home state. Reach out to those neighbors and see what you can do. But don't hesitate to get out of your comfort zone because people all over the world, because of the economic ripple effect of COVID, it's put a lot of people in true trouble.
So please look first locally. To the billionaires. All I need is one day's worth of your net worth increase to reach the 6 billion people that are now in what we call IPC level for knocking on famine's door because of the COVID ripple effect and climate extremes.
Glenn: And let's switch gears and talk about the Nobel Peace Prize that the organization received. There were some who were saying that they thought that maybe it should have gone to a lesser-known organization. For those who say that, what do you tell them in terms of why your program was deserving of this?
Beasley: The Nobel Peace Prize saw what the World Food Programme and our 20,000 women and men who put their lives at risk every single day out there in the field, bringing peace and stability and security — using food as a weapon of peace, whereas extremist groups may use it as a weapon of war and division and recruitment. And so the World Food Programme understood that without food security, there will not be peace. They're tied together.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee was sending a very clear message to the world that things are going to get tough because of COVID and conflict and climate change is a call to action. And that, in my opinion, was the greatest message of the Nobel Peace Prize committee.
Glenn: And how is it changed things — or has it changed things — for the organization?
Beasley: This Nobel Peace Prize has sensitized the world to the fact that hunger is a grave issue and that the World Food Programme is in fact the No. 1 leader in ending hunger around the world.
Glenn: And no organization is without its criticism. And shortly after you took over, there were surveys done where some workers talked about harassment, sexual assault and bullying and those kinds of things. What has happened under your leadership to tackle and address some of those issues?
Beasley: We have been so aggressive and I have appointed already over 2,750 additional women. We've changed rules and regulations and policies so that we can actually go after those that have done the harassment or the abuse. And I tell people, if you don't want to respect who you work with, get out of our organization. We don't need you.
Glenn: What do you worry about at the end of the day?
Beasley: You know, at the end of the day, we don't celebrate the people we reached. We weep over the children we could not reach. And when we don't have enough money, we have to choose who eats and doesn't eat; who lives, who dies. How would you like that job?
Glenn: Hard decisions.
Beasley: Yeah, very hard decisions.
David Beasley is a former governor of South Carolina and now is executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.