UN World Food Program: Interview with David Beasley – Economy
David Beasley, 66, ends his term as Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) on Tuesday. For six years, the Republican and former governor of South Carolina headed what is probably the most important organization in the fight against world hunger. Due to global crises, he was unable to prevent the number of people affected by acute food insecurity from rising from 80 to 345 million. The WFP had more money at its disposal than ever before.
SZ: Mr. Beasley, how would you describe the state of the world in terms of food security at the end of your term?
Beasley: She’s in crisis mode, she’s really in trouble. And I don’t think it’s going to get any better anytime soon. On the contrary, it will only get worse.
What are the reasons for that?
Our global system is under severe pressure. Conflicts, wars, Corona, climate change led to sharply rising prices and a debt crisis in many poor countries. The number of people who don’t know where their next meal will come from is constantly increasing.
However, food prices have recently fallen.
The fact that Ukraine can export its grain via the Black Sea has calmed the markets, but the situation remains unstable. I fear that global grain production will fall this year. India is struggling with extreme heat and flooding, and the harvest forecast in Argentina is poor. Fuel prices are high, fertilizers are either unavailable or very expensive. Poorer countries have had to devalue their currencies, and it will be even more expensive for them. When you add it all up, it becomes clear: This is going to be a difficult year.
For this you collected the record sum of 14.7 billion dollars with the UN World Food Program 2022. A good sign, right?
In 2017, President Donald Trump actually wanted to cut the US commitments. What happened next is what I call the miracle of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Congress and the White House are in Washington. We managed to convince Republicans and Democrats to increase aid payments. The United States recently contributed almost half of the budget. Germany also significantly increased its payments to a whopping $1.7 billion. In 2022 we had more than twice as much money available than six years before. This enabled us to stabilize the situation in many countries. But I’m afraid it won’t go on like this.
The world turns away?
We are currently having difficulties with financing. We are currently cutting aid supplies to Syria and Afghanistan due to lack of funds. I’m even more worried about 2024. I don’t know where the money will come from. All major donor countries in the West are struggling with their finances. Anyone watching the budget debates cannot expect the aid budgets to increase. On the contrary.
What do you say to politicians who would rather raise pensions and build new roads at home than save people from hunger in distant countries?
If they don’t want to do it out of the goodness of their hearts, then they should do it for their national financial and security interests. Because they have to pay anyway, the only question is when and how much. I liken it to damage to the roof of my house. If the water trickles through, I’d rather pay the $1,000 repair than wait until the house is flooded at some point. Then I have to restore the walls, replace the flooring, carpet, curtains, tables and chairs. That will cost you $100,000. Germany was a perfect example of what happens when you ignore the crises. The country faced more than a million Syrian refugees in 2015. The admission of the people, the integration et cetera cost the state many billions of euros. If it had been ensured beforehand that Syrian refugees in the region, for example, had enough to eat, it would have been many times cheaper. Because people don’t want to leave home. But they do it when they are not safe and can no longer feed their children.
Which countries would need to do more to solve the problem?
It is unsustainable in the long run that the USA and Germany and a few other countries continue to provide the majority of the funding. Other states must take steps forward. I am thinking of China, for example. The US gave us $22 per capita last year, and China less than a cent per capita. It is a great success story of how China has fought poverty and hunger at home. Now it’s the second largest economy in the world and should help others break out of it. Instead, China is compounding the problem by buying up whatever food it can get from world markets. Its warehouses currently hold 55 to 60 percent of the world’s grain reserves.
Why is China doing this?
China has recognized the importance of the food issue. If there is no food, revolts and demonstrations follow. Western democracies, too, need to understand that they are not entirely immune. Due to the very difficult situation on the fertilizer market, food could also become scarce in Chicago or Munich. China is here ahead of the wave and preparing for a scarcer world Groceries before. The rest of the world cannot bury their heads in the sand.
What’s the problem with fertilizers?
Production is too concentrated in Russia. No matter how you feel about Russia – we need these fertilizers. Half of the world’s population can only eat because there are fertilizers that stimulate plant growth. At the same time, we have to free ourselves from dependence on Russia and, for example, bring production facilities to Africa. This is an absolute must. Because there, 70 percent of the food used locally is produced by local small farmers, who also depend on fertilizers. Today, however, these are either not available to many farmers or are far too expensive. In Africa there is a risk of a significant decline in harvests.
How can the worst be prevented?
First: End the wars! Then we can also solve the food problems. The Russian war in Ukraine must end. Its consequences are getting worse. Secondly, sufficient money must be made available for emergency aid. Otherwise we will face famine, mass migration and a rise in terrorist groups like the Islamic State. And third, we need to change the way we provide aid. The old system of sending aid alone is not a long-term solution.
How can people be empowered to help themselves again?
We carry out so-called resilience programs to increase resistance to external shocks. Germany in particular supports this, for example in Niger. When the Ukraine crisis hit, 80 percent of the village communities there that took part in the programs did not need any additional help. That affected half a million people and saved us $30 million. For example, we build water systems for communities, with a well, a photovoltaic system to generate electricity for the pumps, it costs $37,000. As a result, a village can then take care of itself. Two years after one such build, I visited a village and met a resident who carried more pride and confidence in her new life than Wall Street executives. She grew vegetables, corn, fruit. She said: “We can support ourselves now, we can sell some things in the market, we can buy medicine with them. Also, I just paid for my son’s wedding.” That was so wonderful.
Why isn’t this done more often?
Because we need additional funds in addition to the acute help. I try to hammer that into our donors, because after these self-help programs the following happens: migration goes down, the number of pregnancies and child marriages goes down, far fewer people join extremist groups and the need for help in the future goes down. Above all, we empower women and we green the planet. In the past five or six years, we have recultivated 1.58 million hectares of land as a result.
You flew from one crisis region to the next for six years. What did that do to you?
Some said to me: I had the greatest job in the world, I was able to save millions of people from starvation. That’s true, on the one hand. But I don’t go to sleep at night thinking about the children we saved. Rather, my thoughts are with those we couldn’t reach. We don’t have enough money, we have to decide which people get food and which don’t. Which children are alive and which are not. It’s hard, it wears you down.
Most people in the Global North know little about all the crises. What message do you have at the end of your term?
I would like to say to Europe: Expect a new wave of refugees from Syria at the end of the year if the food problem there is not solved quickly! The situation is very serious. And to the world at large, I say: there are more than $400 trillion in assets on the planet – we should be ashamed that children are still starving.