Formed in 1961, the World Food Programme was an experiment at the suggestion of outgoing US President Dwight D. Eisenhower to see if the newly formed United Nations could deliver food aid. The project was thrown immediately into handling a series of crises, beginning with a 1962 earthquake in Iran that killed more than 12,000 people and disrupted food supplies. It quickly proved effective and has gone on to foster food resource networks, including school meal programs, all over the world.
Beasley is proud that the World Food Programme has contributed to a radical change in society over the last 100 years, as we’ve moved from a world where poverty and hunger were the most common experience to one where they affect only a minority. We talked to him about the organization’s evolving mission, and the role that corporations and businesses play.
How have you shifted the focus for the World Food Programme? What are your top priorities?
In the humanitarian world, WFP is considered the best of the best. We have special expertise in logistics and supply chain, so when there’s a crisis or an emergency—for example, Cyclone Idai in southeastern Africa in March of this year—the entire humanitarian community relies on WFP to get food and other essentials to people quickly. One of our top priorities is to maintain this leadership, to continue to improve our emergency preparedness and operations. We’re working harder to make our operations more efficient by decentralizing decision-making and streamlining how our Rome headquarters helps and supports our teams on the ground.
We are also putting additional resources and emphasis on programs that can help foster economic growth and transformation. When I was Governor of South Carolina, I worked hard to transform the state’s economic production from textiles and agriculture to high-tech manufacturing. Government played a role, not to dictate outcomes, but to create pathways for businesses of all sizes to grow. We’re applying that same philosophy at WFP: Our Food for Assets programs help put people to work on infrastructure that enables agriculture and other markets to flourish; our school feeding programs keep children in school so they can learn and be prepared for the future—and in many areas we also use locally grown produce for the food itself. I could go on and on.
As economies get stronger, they also get more resilient. That means the people need less international aid. Research suggests this work contributes to the ability of a region or country becoming more stable politically, and a more stable country is a more peaceful one. Conflict is a major driver of increased hunger, so the more we can do long-term work that fosters peace and stability, the better off the entire world is.
How are the issues the same as 1961 and how are they different?
That’s a nearly 60-year time frame in which the world’s population grew from about 3 billion to about 7.5 billion, but the number of hungry people has declined from more than 1 billion to about 820 million. That’s a huge achievement. A lot of factors went into that success, including the free-enterprise, capitalist system that has created so much wealth globally. Whatever tweaks people might want to make to that economic system, there’s no doubt in my mind that the economic growth it creates has reduced hunger in major proportions. We’ve seen hunger go up in the past few years, though, and that’s largely because of conflict.
Today, it’s not enough simply to feed people, though of course in an emergency like a cyclone or a war that’s what we do. We have a dual mandate—to save lives, but also to change them, through development that can make countries stronger. The goal is focused more on the long term, on the root causes, and how we create a strategic transformation that enables a community, region or country to succeed on its own. That’s the core philosophy behind WFP’s motto: saving lives, changing lives.