By Nancy Spitler
Photography provided by United Nations World Food Programme

David Beasley spreads the gospel of ending world hunger

Ask David Beasley what he brings to his position as executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, and he doesn’t hesitate.

“Energy,” he says. “Passion.”

“Titles will only take you so far. It’s the heart. I’ve heard it said that ‘Pharoah had the title, Moses had the testimony.’”

He repeats: “Pharoah had the title, Moses had the testimony.”

You almost begin to hear the cadence of a Southern evangelist. And then he begins to roll out the numbers:

“We’re feeding 115 million people a day. And I need to raise $1 million per hour 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now, it’s almost $2 million to $24 million a day. If I can get it up to $36 million — ” He pauses. “We were raising $16 million a day when I started, assuming Trump was not going to zero out the budget.”

It was a daunting position to be in when Beasley took the position in March 2017, knowing he was not only executive director but chief fundraiser as well. President Trump had announced his intention to severely curtail U.N. funding, so Beasley went to work behind the scenes, making the case to Democrats and Republicans alike that it would be more cost-effective to fund hunger relief efforts than to deal with the much more expensive aftermath of mass migration, destabilization, war and conflict.

“I worked every angle, from senators and congressmen to family members and friends in the administration. Back door, front door, side door. I came in from every which way. I made the case and I talked common sense language.

“We doubled our money with the Trump administration.”

When we talked, Beasley was in a brief break between working on crises building in Yemen and Palestine and Ethiopia and Syria and North Korea and Venezuela and DRC, the Sahel, Afghanistan. “It’s percolating big time,” he says.

What if That Were My Child?

Beasley and his wife, Mary Wood, live in Rome, the home office of the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian operation. But he doesn’t spend as much time in Rome as he does on an airplane, going from one hunger hotspot to the next, trying to bring attention to a problem of enormous immensity.

The passion is evident in his voice as he talks about what he sees in his travels, and it’s clear that what motivates him more than anything are the children.

“Right now, there’s so much crisis around the world,” he says, “so much starvation, so much destabilization. You’re out there in the field, and you see that little child, under the most unbelievably catastrophic circumstances that the average American would be clueless about. … The spirit of those children inspires you not to slow down because, what if that were my child?

“That’s the way I look at it. Every single human being is created in the image of the Almighty. I’m gonna love my neighbor. … That neighbor is not just in Greenville, but in Yemen and Syria and Baghdad.”

The World Food Programme is the hunger relief arm of the United Nations. They go into countries in the developing world — only when they’re invited — under two different types of circumstances. The first is natural disaster, the second is conflict. The common thread in those two is the disruption of food distribution patterns.

“That’s the way I look at it. Every single human being is created in the image of the Almighty. I’m gonna love my neighbor. … That neighbor is not just in Greenville, but in Yemen and Syria and Baghdad.”

Currently, the agency operates in more than 83 nations, trying to stave off hunger in a world increasingly torn apart by conflict. Beasley has described the agency as “one of the biggest supply chain networks on the face of the planet.”

In addition to providing food, the World Food Programme has initiatives to help communities become more resilient, offering education on how to produce better crops, how to find markets for produce they’re growing, and how to strengthen children’s nutrition. They provide more than 17 million meals for schoolchildren in more than 50 countries.

“We have contracts with nongovernmental organizations in almost every country we work in,” says Steve Taravella, one of WFP’s senior media spokespeople. “We partner with other organizations to get the job done — local organizations who have deep roots, who we can rely on to distribute food.”

These aren’t hot meals being delivered. “We’re providing food to help people get by until longer-term solutions can be found, staples like lentils and peas and cooking oil and salt,” says Taravella. “In times of real emergency, like after an earthquake, we fly in with HEB  — high-energy biscuits.”

In 2021 the agency is expecting to feed more people than at any time in its 60-year history, possibly up to 129 million. The pandemic has only heightened the hunger crisis worldwide.

When Beasley talks about the people and communities he visits, you have the sense that these pictures have been burned indelibly into his memory.  “You go into a crisis area where hundreds of thousands are fleeing for their lives, and they’ve watched their loved ones killed, burned alive, tortured, whatever it might be — and I have the footage to show that,” he says. “We scaled up from a few thousand to a million people in a matter of months. When you sit down and talk with the people, it’s just heartbreaking. It just tears you apart to think that there are still human beings on Earth doing this to other human beings.”

In October of 2020, Beasley accepted the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the World Food Programme, awarded “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”

He used that day and his formal acceptance speech in December 2020 to further amplify the message he repeats day in and day out: “Famine is at humanity’s doorstep. For millions and millions of people on Earth. Failure to prevent famine in our day will destroy so many lives and cause the fall of much we hold dear.”

He went on to say, “We believe food is the pathway to peace.”

Around the Dinner Table

David Beasley grew up in the small South Carolina town of Lamar in Darlington County, along what has been branded as the “corridor of shame.” Like many small Southern towns of the time, there was a white school on one side of the tracks and a Black school on the other side.

“My home was a cotton field away from the school, so I walked until I was old enough to drive.”

In 1970, Lamar’s schools were integrated under federal court order, and the resulting violence was “the worst outbreak to occur since the United States Court last October ordered the ‘immediate’ dismantling of Southern dual school systems,” according to the New York Times.

Beasley remembers the time: “There were riots, protests, that lasted weeks on end. Great violence. The white school became a 99 percent Black school because the white students left the public school and began private schools.”

Beasley’s mother was an English teacher at the high school and a fierce advocate for public schools and for civil rights. The Beasley children stayed in public school.

Beasley and his brothers, Rick and Wes, were all athletes, playing multiple sports. Most of the Black athletes at the high school didn’t have cars to return to evening practice after school, says Beasley, “so it was either ride the bus and don’t play ball, or what do you do?”

So, Beasley and his family offered rides, bringing teammates who didn’t have transportation back to the Beasley home for a couple of hours. Beasley’s mother would feed the whole group, they’d go back to school for practice, and then the Beasley carpool would give them a ride home.

“I went from a dinner table of all whites to a dinner table with as many Blacks as whites. It really impacted my life. I don’t care what culture, what religion — but when you sit and have a meal with folks, it changes things. It really opened my heart and my eyes to reality.”

Running and Walking

When David Beasley decided as a college junior, at the ripe age of 20, to run for the South Carolina House of Representatives, the first thing he had to do was register to vote. His father, himself a former member of the House, had convinced him that he would have a shot at running against the entrenched incumbent Gary Byrd, a farmer from Society Hill.

He went home over Christmas in 1977 to tell his mother he was running for statewide office. You might understand why it took her by surprise. “I had never voted before in my life,” Beasley says. Besides, he had come to Clemson in 1975 with a plan. He was majoring in microbiology and looking toward medical school.

His mother was not amused. “My mother is the ultimate caregiver for people — a warrior for justice and what’s right,” Beasley says. “She chewed me out. ‘It’s dirty, it’s corrupt, it will get to you.’”

Beasley says he argued back: “If no one good gets involved, what do you think’s gonna happen?”

“I was an idealistic young man — wanted to make the biggest impact,” Beasley says. He had considered his options: “If I’m a ball player, how many people can I help? If I’m a doctor? If I could build a better system that would perpetuate beyond my life, that would help an infinite number of people. That’s how I rationalized it.”

His father advised him to look up Doug Jennings ’78, the president of Clemson Young Democrats, for some guidance and campaign advice.

Jennings, a political science graduate, remembers Beasley as a smart but fun-loving Kappa Sigma fraternity boy. He was surprised when Beasley showed up at his apartment, announcing his intentions to run in the spring of 1978 and asking for some pointers.

From Bennettsville, South Carolina, Jennings had volunteered on several campaigns, knocking on doors and handing out Pug Ravenel flyers.

“We were starting out that day literally from ground zero,” Jennings remembers. “I might have thought I knew what I was talking about, but I didn’t know much more than David. I was so eaten up with politics — I used to collect bumper stickers and brochures from candidates every time I would see one and drop it into a little suitcase I had. When David came over, we dumped it out on the kitchen table and started looking through Dick Riley brochures and Pug Ravenel brochures.” The pair cobbled together a David Beasley brochure.

“The first person I ever voted for in my life was me,” Beasley says, “and I only won by three votes.”

“My mother is the ultimate caregiver for people — a warrior for justice and what’s right.”

Beasley threw himself into his campaign, leaving Clemson on Thursday afternoons to drive to Bennettsville and Darlington. “I would miss my Monday classes, go to classes Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and go back,” says Beasley. “I think I got a 4.0 that semester.” He was clearly in his element.

“David was full of energy, full of enthusiasm,” says Jennings. “He knocked on doors all over this district. He would knock on somebody’s door, go into the kitchen, sit down and have a glass of iced tea with them. Usually when he came out of there, I would think he had that vote.”

The hard work paid off, and Beasley beat an entrenched incumbent in the primary. But Gary Byrd, who had come up short, didn’t accept the defeat at the ballot box.

“Back then,” says Jennings, “the Democratic Party’s executive committee was the final governing entity on primary election challenges. It consisted of political appointees from the 46 counties. Gary Byrd had been around a while. He loses, files a protest in Columbia with Democrats on the committee, and they were going to conduct a hearing.”

Beasley, with a flair for the dramatic, announced he would walk to Columbia for the hearing. It’s not just down the street. It’s a 95-mile walk.

“Nobody believed him, but he did,” Jennings continues. “That was the story on WIST and the news organizations — this young guy who has just beat an old incumbent for the House has walked to Columbia for the protest hearing. He prevailed at that hearing and turned 21 and was sworn into the House. That was a pretty cool story.”

Beasley’s election did necessitate leaving Clemson and transferring to the University of South Carolina. He says that even at that point, he was still planning to go to medical school — that is until he realized that medical school labs conflicted with the legislative session. The law school, however, was only a couple of blocks away, and he could work out his class schedule.

“I thought, ‘I’ll get a law degree and then come back later for med school.’”

Beasley became the youngest person at the time to serve in the S.C. House, then the youngest majority leader in the U.S. and the youngest chair of the education committee in the U.S.

Learning From Losing

In 1991, Beasley switched political parties in preparation for a statewide run. Jennings explains the switch: “There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between a conservative to moderate Democrat and a middle-of-the-road Republican.”

With his youthful enthusiasm, seemingly endless energy and confidence that may have bordered on cockiness, Beasley ran for governor in 1994 against entrenched Republican Arthur Ravenel Jr. in the primary and Democrat Nick Theodore in the general election.

“A lot of us didn’t think he could do it and told him he’d lost his mind,” says Jennings. “Time after time, he’s proven us wrong. And showed us that if you believe in something and work hard enough and do it the right way, you can achieve those goals.”

In 1996, after several episodes of racially motivated violence, Beasley came out in support of removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse dome and faced significant backlash. The issue is thought to be a major factor in his defeat for a second term.

The night the election results came in and it was clear he had lost, Beasley asked his team three questions: Did we do what was right? Did we do what was right when it was right to do it? And when we did what was right at the right time, did we do it the right way, not out of bitterness and judgement and condemnation and hatred and division but out of love and compassion and unity?

The answer to all three questions came back in the affirmative.

“Then we’ve been successful,” he told his team. “End of story. Don’t hang your head. You can look in the mirror and say we did what was right.”

As a result, Beasley received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award — but that didn’t mean losing was easy. “Losing an election teaches you a lot about yourself, what’s important in life,” Beasley says.

Beasley spent the next 10 years with the Center for Global Strategies, a nongovernmental organization that pursues bridge-building initiatives. It was a time for developing relationships with government leaders from different parties and different countries, “to learn how to work together, pray together, be together,” as Beasley puts it.

Another Clemson alumnus, former governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, was one of several who recommended Beasley for the position at the World Food Programme. In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, she touted Beasley’s reputation in business “for honesty and integrity that carried over into his career in public service” as well as his more recent work, where he “honed the skills of international diplomacy, with an eye toward lifting up the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.”

A Clemson Degree … Finally

This spring at the May graduation ceremonies, David Beasley finally got something he had missed out on — a Clemson degree. President Clements and Board Chair Smythe McKissick presented him with an honorary doctorate of humanities in recognition of “his life’s work bridging political, religious and ethnic boundaries to champion economic development and education.”

Beasley joked that he was taking the spotlight away from his son Ross, who was graduating that day with his bachelor’s degree in political science, but as he did with the Nobel Prize, he used the occasion to share with graduates and their families that when he took the World Food Programme job four years ago, there were 80 million people at the brink of starvation, a number that had spiked to 135 million right before COVID-19. This year, he said, that number has spiked to 270 million because of the economic ripple effect of the pandemic.

He ticked off the time with his fingers: “Every 4-5 seconds, someone is dying from hunger. We don’t have to pit COVID [against] hunger. We can do both.”

He went on to recount an interview with Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes when Pelley said to him, “Governor, you’ve got the greatest job on Earth — saving people.”

“I said, ‘Scott, I really do. But I’m gonna say something to you that you haven’t thought about. I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved; I go to bed weeping over the children we didn’t save. When we don’t have enough money, our teams, we have to choose which children eat, which children don’t eat. Which children live, which children die.’ I looked at Scott, ‘How would you like that job?’

“Scott looked at me in horror and said, ‘Oh my God, I never thought about it.’”

Beasley noted that at the height of COVID-19, the average net worth increase for the world’s 2,800 billionaires per day was $5.2 billion. “All I need to address the millions that are knocking on the door of famine is $5 billion,” just one day’s increase.

He started winding up, and the same evangelical rhythm snuck back into his voice: “You see, we have a cure; we have a vaccine for COVID-19 now. We have a vaccine for famine, for hunger. It’s called food. And we also have a vaccine for the world’s greatest problem of hatred and war and conflict and divide. And that vaccine is love. It’s the most powerful weapon on Earth. Love your neighbor as yourself. The ancient translation is actually ‘love your neighbor as your equal.’

“Can you imagine what would happen,” he asked, “if we started treating everyone as our equal? You would end discrimination, racism, hatred, war and conflict. Imagine what we could do with the 14-15 trillion dollars we lose because of war to put it to helping the poor and the needy.”

Beasley gave no benediction, no amen. But he did finish with one more question: “Can I count on you to dedicate your lives to helping people?”

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