A Conversation With David Beasley

Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

Executive Director, UN World Food Program


Chief Executive Officer, InterAction; CFR Member

David Beasley discusses the global food crisis, including how the UN World Food Program is working to respond to increasing global food insecurity as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

WORTHINGTON: Well, good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting with my friend David Beasley here.

I’m Sam Worthington. I’m the CEO of InterAction, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. The audience consists of members of the Council here in Washington, D.C., and then we have people coming in hybrid from other places who are joining us as well.

So David, we were just sitting in the other room. I think my first question to you is how much you’ve been spending on an airplane recently, and as you sort of thought back to this last month of what you’ve been doing, I’d be curious to get your impressions from the different places you’ve been, and also why you find yourself here in Washington. I mean, as you know, this is a time where—at least during my lifetime—I haven’t seen a period of food insecurity at this level in so many places because of—whether it’s conflict, or COVID, or the economic crisis, or other things. And you’ve been sort of witnessing this first time—just curious to get your first impressions.

BEASLEY: (Laughs.) It’s a bad situation out there, Sam. I just landed from—on the airplane I was on a sixteen-hour flight from Delhi, so we were in India, then we were in Japan; Seoul, Korea; Indonesia with the G-20; Rome, and I think we’ve been on—every other place you could imagine because the crisis is truly extraordinary.

Even before Ukraine, when I delivered the Nobel Peace Prize speech in December, I said then that we are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And you think, you’ve got to be kidding me, you know, and then Ukraine comes on top of that. And before that it was Afghanistan, and Ethiopia before that, but the media’s attention span is like this, you know. (Inaudible)—then it forgets about Tigray, then it goes over to Afghanistan.

When I took this role—kicking and screaming because I didn’t want it which is an interesting discussion all by itself. Five-and-a-half years ago when Trump got elected, a group of my friends—Democrat and Republican senators—said you’ve got to take this role. You’re the only one that can talk Trump out of zeroing out foreign aid. And I said, well, look. I don’t need a job, don’t want a job, and I don’t know a whole lot about the World Food Programme. And they said, well, you’ve got to do this, and I said, well, let me talk him out of it, but—at that time we were facing four famines. There were only eighty million people at that time, as we would say, marching toward starvation, and we call that IPC Level 3, 4, 5. You are familiar with that terminology. And so who would want that job? You’re going to be walking into an administration that’s 35 percent of the complete foreign aid for the World Food Programme. The president just will cut the money out, facing four famines; that type of thing. And so anyway, I took this role, and we were able to convince our friends on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, we brought the Democrats and Republicans together, but that was eighty million people at that time.

Right before COVID, the number had gone from eighty million to 135 (million). It’s extremely important to understand this because you begin to see how fragile the world situation really is. And the question, why did it go from 80 (million) to 135 (million)—man-made conflict, number one, and number two, climate shocks.

I used to have several of my conservative friends in the House and the Senate say, oh, Beasley, this—I said, look, you can debate what causing it all you want to, but come with me and you will see how it is changing out there. Well, then COVID comes along. Economic—just devastation among the poor, so the poor around the world—the number went from 135 million to 276 million people over that two-year period. And we thought that COVID would be behind us by 2022, only to see it recycle again, and the economic impact was just devastating—not to get into those numbers right now.

Well, then comes—you had Ethiopia in the middle of that—then Afghanistan, and then of course, Ukraine, a nation that grows enough food to feed 400 million people—from the breadbasket of the world to now the longest bread lines of the world. And so the dynamic impact of that—now, on top of that, you’ve got the fertilizer crisis, fuel crisis, droughts unprecedented, and we can unpack that a little bit over the next forty-five minutes or hour.

But we’re facing unprecedented crisis right now, and if we don’t deal with it strategically, effectively, and timely, you are going to have mass famine, you are going to have destabilization of dozens of nations, and you’ve going to have mass migration. This is not hyperbole; this is reality. And we can get into our experiential data to justify that I just made, so—Sam, I’ll throw it back to you.

WORTHINGTON: Yeah, because we sort of look at this year, and we tend to think of 2022 as, again, the worst year since World War II; you know, confluence of climate shocks, COVID, issues of conflict in broad places, price increases all hitting at once.

Curious if you project it into next year—are we—is the trajectory getting worse, and if so, why?

BEASLEY: It’s going—it’s going to get much worse, in fact. What we were seeing in 2021 has unfolded now to be exacerbated or put on steroids because of the Ukrainian situation. And then the Ukraine situation, dealing with the grain is one thing, but then you deal with the fertilizer crisis—compounded because of the Russia-Belarus situation. And now, you just had China today issue a restriction—a ban, a restriction on urea and phosphates. And this is—the more you dig into this thing—usually you can get into the weeds, and you will—oh, it’s not going to be quite so bad. But the deeper you get into this thing, and the wider you get, you begin to see it’s quite extraordinary.

So our projection right now is you’re going to have a food pricing problem which creates a food availability problem for the poorest of the poor. But over the next six to eight—six to twelve months, a food pricing problem.

Next year you’re going to have a food availability problem if we’re not very, very careful, and we can break that down into the regions. Europe, for example—I think they are coming out with this announcement today—their drought—the heat—is worse than it was in 2003, which was unprecedented.

What we’re seeing in India—so I—I want to be careful how I say this, but we had been talking with India for quite some time because India had about ninety-five million metric tons of reserve grain—rice and wheat. And they had substantial success in production and the storage of the grain. So we were looking to India to really be at the right place at the time. And needless to say, the heat has impacted their wheat production so bad, it’s like a 65 percent reduction of wheat production. This is a nation we don’t feed people; they are feeding themselves. Well, you know, India has made such great progress in the past twenty, thirty years. And so just think about the pressure that could potentially put upon the global system.

Then you’ve got China, which has bought 150 percent of the—give or take—I’ll have to get Sarah Nekrah (ph) to kind of give the details of this—but 150 percent of a population, 1.2, 3 billion, 1.4 billion people, that they’ve got 150 percent of grain reserves in store now. China has been buying everything they can get their hands on.

Then there was the question that China has been in a lockdown. Their consumption rate, arguably, has been down 15 to 25 percent. So once they come out of the lockdown, their consumption rates will spike back up. And then you start adding all these things together with fuel costs, shipping costs, fertilizer costs, or the lack of fertilizers, and then we can get into—let me get a little more weeds here. The continent of Africa is about 1.4 billion people, 980 million people are fed by smallholder farmers; 70 percent of the population of Africa is fed by the thirty-three million smallholder farms inside Africa. Where are they going to get the fertilizer?

Now on the global scale, they might not use the 1 or 2 percent of the fertilizer, but that 1 or 2 percent in Niger, in Mali, Burkina Faso, and you’re talking about some serious issues facing. So if 70 percent is 980 million, it they don’t get the fertilizers they need, we feed, assist at World Food Program, in Africa alone, sixty-five million to seventy million people. That’s 920 million that maybe we don’t support in that 70 percent. And so, again, as you begin and then break those countries down, out of the Ukraine production, thirty-six countries buy 50 percent or more of their grain from Ukraine and Russia. And if you start doing overlays, then out of that—now with Ukraine the number went from 276 to 345 million people marching to starvation.

Now here’s the troubling number. This is a number that should scare the hell out of you. In that 345 (million) there are fifty million people in IPC Level 4, knocking on famine’s door in 45 countries. So if you want to start looking at which countries go destabilized, potentially have famine, mass migration, start with those 45.

Now overlay those—which of those buy 50 percent of their grain from Ukraine and Russia; which of those buy how much of their fertilizers from Russia, Belarus, et cetera, and then you begin putting the pieces together and realize, all right, these are the countries that could very well not just have famine, but destabilize and create serious, significant issues.

WORTHINGTON: A rather stark picture, and let’s do an overlay of looking at the conflict now. In 2018, you worked on—and this is an important piece of work that came out of the U.N. Security Council, Resolution 2417. And this was the issue of individual states, non-state actors using, in essence, starving civilians as a tool of war. And this—in essence—resolution was to stop this practice and to push against it.

Curious to see how that has worked. It has become politicized since then. How do we move politics out of the area of starving people? And are there other tools that WFP or others have to mitigate in essence this move of using the inability of people to feed themselves or consciously limiting access to food to individuals as a tool of war?

BEASLEY: Yeah. Sam, that’s a broad question that probably will require a little more deliberative discussion, but when I started articulating around the world that food security is a much bigger issue than the people—the leaders were giving it the recognition that I thought it deserved—because I was pretty hard on the media, a lot of my media friends, on the left side and the right side—because when you go back five years ago, 90 percent—when you turn on the television, 95 percent of the coverage would be Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump whether you loved or hated him, you know, then Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit; and COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID; Le Pen, Le Pen, Le Pen, Le Pen, and there wasn’t getting the coverage necessary because we were saying—I was saying three years ago, you’ve got a food crisis that’s developing and coming.

And so when I began and others began meeting with leaders in certain nations, we were able to generate support in the United Nations Security Council. And we actually were able to convince China and Russia to come along in this discussion, which was quite remarkable. (Laughs.) That’s another discussion for another day. And we were very pleased that we were able to elevate the discussion at the United Nations Security Council, positioning to the world what—we didn’t know how bad it was going to get at that time, when we were facing serious issues in several different places at that point in time, particularly in Yemen with blockades, and the Houthis, and the whole nine yards, which we were effectively dealing with.

And do you remember the big 60 Minutes show that Scott Pelley and I did? But that resolution has been a major factor, in my opinion, and, you know, when you look at the Ukrainian situation now, what—has Russia violated these terms, and you see a CNN story where they hid in grain fields or hid in a silo, or a blockade in a port. You know, I’ve been very tough on Russia and Putin, saying, look, Putin, regardless of your views on Ukraine, if you want to declare a war on food security, then keep that port shut because you’re going to bring famine to the rest of the world because these ports are critical.

Most people, you know, think it’s critical to Ukraine alone; it’s not critical to Ukraine alone—40 to 50 percent of their GDP is based on those ports. But when any nation produces enough food to feed four hundred million people, and you take that off the market—and in Russia, you know, I talked to Lavrov last week for about thirty, forty minutes about opening up these ports. And he said, you know, this is not the only problem. You were saying that before the Ukraine war. I said, yes, I was saying that, but you’ve taken it to a whole other level, and the port alone is not creating the crisis. It’s all these things added together. And I said, you’ve got to open up these ports. You have to do this; you have no choice.

Well, we’ll see. Hopefully we’ll have a breakthrough in the next couple of days, but he was making the argument, it’s not our fault. I’m like, look, it is. You are just as much to blame as these other factors, so—but anyway.

WORTHINGTON: Thank you for that, and as you know, sort of food insecurity impacts people differently within different circumstances, and particularly, in most circumstances it tends to be women and girls who are most impacted by food insecurity and issues of protection around them, and sometimes the solution isn’t as simple as just getting food in front of them because there are protection issues associated with food.

And I’m curious how, you know, you’ve seen WFP approach the issue of gender and more marginalized populations within, you know—again, peoples who are marching towards hunger, but within that group there are different populations, different groups who are more at risk, and particularly individuals who may need more protection because of food insecurity, and how do you bring in, in a sense, support for them in a way that doesn’t further marginalize them?

BEASLEY: Sam, I don’t think there is an organization on earth that impacts women more so than the World Food Programme. We feed, on average, 130 million people any given day, week, or month. This year it will probably be 150 (million), 160 million if we get the funds that we need.

And so when you go into the most oppressive areas for women—because 80 percent of our operations are in war zones, areas of conflict—but when you go into the more repressive cultures where women have very little rights at all, and little girls can’t even go to school—so we’re now—India is the world’s largest provider of school meals. They do 118 million children per day. I was at one of their programs yesterday, and so if I’m babbling a little bit—so I haven’t had much sleep—(laughs)—last week for hours—but we’re the world’s largest humanitarian operation of school feeding for—outside of a government, and we don’t have a—we don’t implement a program unless girls have equal opportunity.

And even in Afghanistan, when I began meeting with the Taliban, and the Taliban leaders—by provincial areas—explaining to them, and we made—we were making tremendous progress at the primary school level. The upper level is a different discussion.

So we’ve been able to really promote girls in schools—incredible numbers—and everywhere we do that, the marriage rate of twelve-, thirteen-year-olds just drops, teen pregnancy drops, recruitment by ISIS, al Qaeda, all that drops, so so many incredibly good things we do.

And we use these school meals and homegrown school meal program—and then on the cash-based-transfer systems, we do—most people think we just hand out food, but quite frankly, we do over two billion dollars’ worth of cash-based transfers, empowering women, which is over 50 percent of our—of our market share with regards to our operations out in the field in the hundred-and-something countries that we are in.

And so what we found when we empowered women, who—normally the men were handling the money—and in a lot of the cultures, you give the money to the men, it doesn’t get to the children. When you give it to the women, it gets to the children. That maternal instinct is so powerful.

Now what began to happen, violence among women began to decrease, and we’ve got all these anecdotal evidence and studies showing when women handling the finances in these cultures, it was quite remarkable how it shifted in so many—so many sociological ways. Now, on top of all that, we also have extraordinary programs for women and food. For instance, if you want to meet an entrepreneurial spirit, go to Africa with an African woman. Holy mackerel! The entrepreneurial spirit of African women is unlike anything I’ve—oh, not just African; Asian women, African women. It’s amazing what happens.

One of the things that shocked me when I joined the United Nations five years ago—over five years ago was gender parity. You would think that the United Nations would have had gender parity twenty years ago. So I’m at one of my first meetings, and they started talking about gender parity at the U.N. leadership. You might have been at that meeting, I don’t know. And I’m sitting there listening to them talking about gender parity. I’m like, are you kidding me? How long have you been talking about this?

And the World Food Programme at the time was 32 percent women. Now that’s globally, and we’re in cultures like, you know, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and places like that. And so we’ve hired an additional 3,366 more women in just the past four-and-a-half years. And so our numbers have gone from 34 to 42 percent. Extraordinary. But we set goals, we set objectives, we set benchmarks, measurables, and we achieved it with a lot of hard work.

Well, what does that do? Well, we’ve got women now at the top, we’ve got women down at the bottom, and so when a vacancy comes up in the middle, you’ve got equal number of women applying for that job with experience than you do men. But it enlightens our field of operation when you have not just men seeing things in a culture, but you have men and women, whether you are dealing with nutrition issues, malnutrition issues, lactating mothers, yadda, yadda, yadda—so quite a great story with the World Food Programme there.

WORTHINGTON: And you mentioned cash and the use of cash. To me, this has been one of the most fascinating changes of the humanitarian system—this ability to use cash in complex environments and get that—how has that changed the nature of how you work, and so what’s the philosophy behind the idea of getting cash into people’s hands?

BEASLEY: A multitude of things. When I first arrived, I was very reluctant about cash. And I remember—and Jim knows Bob Corker—Bob Corker, you know, the senator from Tennessee. And Bob was like, Beasley, we’ve got to get cash. And I’m like, Bob, my God, I mean, how do you know the integrity of these systems and whose hands this is going to be in? But we’ve now got like eighty million digital identities that we’ve implemented from digital with fingerprints, or eye, face, or whatever the case may be. And cash is a powerful way to stimulate local economies, empowering families and women. But the biggest thing to me is empowering local economies because the last thing we need to do is create dependency, and when we can empower local communities and economies, then we’re now buying more, for example, inside Africa—a billion dollars’ worth of goods and services we’re now buying inside Africa to help stimulate the supply chain, empowering women to buy locally from smallholder farmers locally. It’s a total economic impact. And we can move cash quickly.

Now you can’t do that everywhere. If there’s not a market for commodities, then you can’t do that. And you have to balance that out. And we have teams that assess what modalities should be used in each particular location globally wherever we may be.

And so when I arrived, we were doing maybe sixty-five, a hundred million dollars’ worth of cash. Now we’re, I think, 2.3 billion (dollars) in cash. We’re now—this year we will probably be a twelve-billion-dollar operation compared to where we were, you know, five-and-a-half years ago at 5.8, 5.9 billion dollars. Our goal was to put the World Food Programme out of business when I joined, but, you know—(laughs)—we haven’t been too successful at that with all the conflict, wars, and climate shocks.

WORTHINGTON: And you’ve talked about—and I know you’ve had a strong interest in this—but obviously the solution to this problem is not going to be feeding more—feeding more people. It comes down to the ability of people to feed themselves, the whole concept of long-term agricultural growth, resilience to climate shocks, and so forth. And curious to see how you see the World Food Programme relating to sister agencies like the FAO, or UNFPA, or others—or other entities on the side of the production—agricultural production, and can you, through your work, accelerate that? You mentioned buying more locally and so forth. Curious to get your thoughts on the sort of more positive spiral here.

BEASLEY: You know, I haven’t met a beneficiary yet that liked just getting food and sitting around. I haven’t met that person. And the women in Africa, for example, they don’t want outside support, but when crisis hits, they have no choice. But what they want is sustainability and resilience where they can take care of their own families.

And this is one of the things that I think the Western societies have struggled with. The systems that were designed fifty, sixty years ago—you have a humanitarian silo, and you have a development silo. And the two historically don’t talk to each other. Well, the systems—the world is completely different than it was back then, and so we developed this concept called the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus where—because the beneficiary doesn’t care whether it’s called, you know, a humanitarian dollar or a development dollar, and I will guarantee you that a congressman or a president doesn’t care what it’s called. They want to know how are you most effectively using that dollar.

So I would ask donor nations, including USAID—because I know you ask any congressman or senator—if you want me to achieve A, B, C with this dollar—I call them strictly humanitarian—but if I can also do that dollar D, E, F without additional costs, would you be opposed to that? I haven’t met anybody in the congress of any nation around the world that would be opposed to that.

And so one of the things that we’ve been pushing is resilience. Let us take that same dollar—because the beneficiaries want to improve their community, they want to take care of themselves—so water harvesting, and building small dams, and reservoirs, and canals. In fact, in the last five, six years, we—when I say we, our beneficiaries—if you want to talk about climate change, who is greening up earth? The World Food Programme—we have rehabilitated—“we” meaning our beneficiaries—over three million acres of land that they have rehabilitated with food-for-asset type programs. In many of these places, they don’t need our help anymore—109,000 small dams—I’m talking about small dams, not big dams—holding ponds, reservoirs; 29,000 kilometers of water canals, irrigation lines. I think 81,000—or 79,000 kilometers of feeder roads that beneficiaries are doing.

When Ukraine crisis hit, had we been doing more resilience programs versus just handing out food and handing out money, had we been doing more resilience programs in the last ten years, when a crisis or shock like Ukraine hits, it’s not going to be nearly as negative, and devastating, and costly had we been doing these programs. This is one of the things I’ve been trying to wake up the United Nations and the European and particularly the Western donors is these types of resilience changing lives versus just saving lives is critical.

One of the things I ask the U.N. when I would go to a country, I’d say to a U.N. operation, I’d say, how long have you been in this country, you know? And some of them would proudly say thirty, forty years, and I would say, well, maybe it’s not working quite so well, then. Maybe we need to back up and reevaluate what we are doing. How do we put ourselves out of business in each of these countries so that we’re no longer—so we’re no longer needed? But again, as I said earlier, we’re going completely in the wrong direction right now, and it’s not because of the programs; it’s because of the crises that we’re facing.

WORTHINGTON: Maybe just the last question to you before we turn it over to the members in the room and listening in.

You know, one could listen to the beginning of this conversation about the number of food crises happening out there, the number of people and individuals moving towards a sort of path towards starvation and so forth. And yet our members are asking you, you know, at the beginning, you know, do we know how to solve this? Do we know what to do? And curious to get your answer on that, and what’s getting in the way?

BEASLEY: Yeah, the United Nations and the world leaders came up with the Sustainable Development Goals, like one was end hunger by 2030—very noble goals, and quite frankly, very achievable. When you consider that two hundred years ago when the world’s population was 1.1 billion people, 95 percent of the people on earth were in extreme poverty.

Well, now less than 10 percent, so we have built programs and systems that have been put in place over time that is delivering more wealth, sharing more wealth than any time period in world history. That’s wonderful news. The bad news is we still haven’t reached that 10 percent. And as I tell my young millennial friends, I said, don’t tear down what’s helping the 90 (percent) to reach the 10 (percent). We’ve got to continue to fixate on reaching that 10 (percent).

Sadly, though, we’re now going backwards for a variety of reasons as we were just alluding to. The general hunger rate—chronic hunger—had dropped substantially in the last twenty-five, fifty years, particularly with India and China. And it dropped down to 650 million. Now it’s back up to 810 million, and as I was mentioning earlier, that shock hunger rate, those who are marching to starvation, has gone from 80 (million) to 345 million. So we’re completely going in the wrong direction, but it’s war, conflict, climate shocks.

And again, I think in the next year we’re going to see those numbers even go further. If we enter into a global recession—which I’m not an economic expert, but what we’re facing with the fertilizer crisis, lack of food, it could get—numbers could even go up higher and higher.

But honestly, I think it’s solvable. And the key to solving it is not the United Nations. I think setting the goals and doing what we do is great. It’s not charity; it’s the private sector. We’ve got to empower the private sector in multiple ways—at least three ways as we see at the World Food Programme: one, yes, we would love to have your money, that’s great, but that’s not the long-term solution. But that’s one—especially right now when the billionaires made so much money in COVID—my God, help us out right now. We’ve got a problem.

Two is our internal effectiveness and efficiency—how the private sector can make us more strategic. Three is talk to the Wall Street investors and say, we are willing to come into these countries and invest over a longer period of time and have less return on investment to bring systems into place that will allow transparency, ethics, et cetera, so that we can end poverty in these developing nations. And I think this is an area of great opportunity where I think we have a generation of CEOs around the world today that are much more social-responsible oriented, but I think they’ve got to go from just giving money now to thinking more how do we—how do we change the workforce culture, the politics of a nation in terms of transparency, environmental regulations, lack of corruption, et cetera, et cetera.

But anyway, Sam.

WORTHINGTON: So I’m going to turn over to the members in the room to see if there are any questions. Just to remind you that this conversation is on the record, and I’m going to open to the first question here in Washington before turning online. So I’ll do it with the lady right in the middle there first.

Q: Thank you. My name is Toby Gati, and I worked in the Clinton White House and in the State Department and then a private law firm.

My question to Mr. Beasley is I admire everything you’re doing, and you’re trying your hardest. Your language—let me be blunt—for me, it gets in your way and I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case.

For some, this crisis is an opportunity, not a problem, and if the goal is to destabilize parts of the world, increased immigration to Europe to pressure Ukraine for concessions—let’s stick to Ukraine—and the goal to get what you want for yourself with Chinese buying, you know, huge amounts of grain, then you need to think differently and respond differently.

So my question to you—and I think you talked about this on 60 Minutes—you did anyway—you have to have a plan to clear the mines of the Black Sea. You have to have a plan to provide military escorts. You have to get Turkey involved.

So, to me, this is a state of emergency but not a humanitarian state of emergency. This is a crisis of the international political and military system.

So how do you engage countries which don’t always think about compassion and, you know, what is best for its own people but think about in great power terms, in terms that a lot of countries—that the humanitarian community doesn’t think about? So—

BEASLEY: Sam, you’ve—I don’t hear well, so I’m—

WORTHINGTON: Yeah. I think the key here is, obviously, the humanitarian system in and of itself is not going to do this. There has to be this broader engagement with both great powers, militaries, the politics around this. And what are you doing, particularly in countries who don’t think, you know, humanitarian lens? You know, what is your conversation with China? What is your conversation with, you know, difficult places in terms of—or, the Middle East would be another, and so forth? Are you able to use some of the diplomacy of the World Food Programme to address this?

BEASLEY: Yeah. And, obviously, we’re on the record so I got to be—I can’t say but so much in this regard.

But I do try to utilize the press as much as I possibly can to elevate an issue, to bring about a public awareness. I did it with—in Yemen, particularly in 2000 and, I think, late ’17 when the coalition had a blockade on Hodeidah. And so I couldn’t get the attention and so we—60 Minutes, Scott Pelley, we did a hell of a story that just awakened the American people and we did it again, actually, with the Port of Hodeidah with 60 Minutes that elevated that issue because we couldn’t get the world’s attention.

When Ukraine—when Russia began the invasion of Ukraine everybody was focused on this one little part, and I was, like, holy mackerel, here’s what’s coming down the road. And so I couldn’t get anybody’s attention.

So I got Scott Pelley. I said, Scott, you got to help elevate this issue so the world begin to understand that the food crisis that’s coming. Because the Nobel Peace Prize speech gave me an opportunity to elevate the issue around the world only so much, and then when the Ukraine crisis hit on top of Afghanistan, on top of, you know, Ethiopia, and here’s the breadbasket of the world and no one was really focusing on it, and so I, literally, went to Hodeidah—I mean, not Hodeidah, Odesa—with Scott Pelley and I met—actually met with the military and had a very, very frank conversation about this. I don’t want to get in all the details of that.

But when I met with the military and they’re, like, we can’t open the port, I said, well, then it’s over. They said, what do you mean it’s over? I said—and we got missiles flying overhead while we’re sitting in these meetings. And they said, what do you mean it’s over? I said, do you not understand? Your economy is 50 percent exports. Russia doesn’t have to fire another shot. All they have to do is maintain the blockade. You’re done. You’re over with. You become Moldova, and the West will become leery and it will fade away, and the world needs this port to be open for the good of humanity around the world, for commodity—you know, this is—Lavrov was making the argument to me that, well, the Odesa port alone. I’m like, look, it’s not just that grain, 60 million metric tons that are, basically, shipped out of Ukraine alone. It’s the commodity market that’s so fragile now.

And so I was making the argument to Ukraine you’ve got to allow us to bring the pressure to bear on Russia to open up these ports because the world needs it when you analyze out all these other factors that are not just Ukraine related. And this is one of the issues that we struggle with. You know, the world’s attention span, the media, it’s all about—you know, this social media system today it’s all a matter of a few days or a few hours.

And another thing, I think, the U.N. struggled with—and Sam and I have talked about this before—is that a lot of times the U.N. uses language that most people don’t understand. Now, I’ve gotten rebuked a few times by friends, you shouldn’t say that. And I’m, like, well, if I say it your way the people are not going to understand what’s going on.

I said, let me say it my way, sensitize the American people, the European people, and that’ll create a reaction allowing the political leaders to step up and bring pressure to bear, as we’re trying to do in this situation to get the African leaders, because we’re on the phone. I’m calling leaders around the—in Africa and saying, look, you need to call Russia because here’s what’s coming down six months from now. Here’s what’s going to happen twelve months from now. And a lot of leaders don’t see it that way.

But when you lay it out in front of them and they see the bigger picture and realizing—I remember talking to Mr. Museveni. I said—he didn’t really get the correlation about why it was important on Yemen if we could get Yemen resolved.

I said, do you realize if we could take a billion dollars’ worth of humanitarian aid out of Yemen because we can end that war and we could put it into development in Uganda, in Sudan, in South Sudan? And the lights start coming on, because the pressure being brought to bear systemwide so all these things are adding up.

But I can go for probably—from Syria border crossing and how we’ve messaged on that, the Hodeidah port. I could keep going on and on. But anyway. Anyway.

WORTHINGTON: Thanks. So let’s move to a question online.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Missy Ryan.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me?


Q: OK. Great. Thanks so much for taking my question and I appreciate the conversation today.

Just to identify myself, I’m a reporter with the Washington Post. I cover national security.

David, good to talk to you. My question for you is there’s been some debate in the current food crisis, especially given the prominence of the United States as a funder for humanitarian aid, about the wisdom of continuing with the cargo preferences, the shipping preferences that apply to emergency food aid or humanitarian food aid.

And I’m wondering—and there’s, as you know, a couple of legislative proposals to prompt the administration to waive those preferences and some NGOs getting involved in that, and I’m wondering what your perspective on this is. Do you think that the cargo preferences should be waived and, if so, how? Thanks.

BEASLEY: Well, every dime we can save saves children’s lives, and we’re hoping Congress will resolve that issue. (Laughs.) Let me leave it at that.

WORTHINGTON: All right. As an NGO, pushing on that one. So thank you for that answer.

So I’ll move over here and then we’ll work our way around.

Q: Yeah. Jim Slattery. Good to see you, Governor, Ambassador.

I’m curious—my friends in Ukraine tell me, you know, we’ve got about a 20-million-ton grain storage issue there right now with last year’s crop, new crop coming on.

What more can you tell us about the alternative routes out of Odesa? Then you have other routes out of Odesa to move this grain. Is it realistic? And I am encouraged to know that you’re talking to Lavrov and is there anything more you can tell us about the prospects of some kind of an agreement with the Russians on moving this grain out of Odesa?

By the way, I really appreciate the work you’re doing. I can’t imagine the schedule you’re keeping. It’s unbelievable. But thank you for your service.

BEASLEY: Jim, thank you.

Yeah. I had no idea when I took this job, you know, that—you know, people ask, how are you doing? I say, well, personally, life’s great. My children are great, my grandchildren. Professionally, it’s hell out there right now. It really is. It’s just there’s no end in sight and it’s getting worse and worse and worse.

But Ukraine. Ukraine, generally, depending upon the year, would grow about a hundred to a hundred and ten metric tons of grain, barley, wheat, everything. About 60 percent of that is, generally, exported on an annualized basis. So that’s 5 million metric tons that move to the ports, through the ports, because 95 percent of all their grain production that is exported is by the ports, and the whole infrastructure is designed for major train systems coming into place.

You’re talking about three thousand or more train car loads per day that get loaded and unloaded for shipment around the world, those 400 million people that are fed by that so-called 60 million metric tons of grain.

Now, the reason I created watch the birdie—that was Odesa, Odesa, Odesa—I wanted to get the world’s attention through Odesa to put the pressure on everyone. It wasn’t just on Russia. I was trying to create the pressure on everyone to realize you got to get these ports open because it’s not just going to be Ukraine that’s going to suffer. The whole world is going to suffer, particularly on top of everything we’ve got going on.

So 60 million metric tons, generally, is shipped out through the ports. The capacity to move—because you think a train-car load about three trucks worth of loading. So do the math. Nine (thousand), ten (thousand), twelve thousand trucks would be needed per day of which you got days of waiting in line to cross borders. You would need forty (thousand), fifty thousand trucks. You can’t do it. You can’t achieve those numbers.

We’re moving—we, meaning the international community, and we’re very involved with moving as much grain as we can outside is while at the same time trying to do everything we can to stimulate local economic opportunity by buying locally to feed locally with the smallholder—well, farmers. They have some big farms in Ukraine, as you well know. We’re able to move about a million, million and a half, metric tons a month, so 20 (percent), 25 percent.

We’re looking at alternative routes. To do what you need to do—and this is the question that the West has to decide—if it doesn’t resolve the port issue and Russia completely controls all of the ports, then Ukraine is a landlocked country and, therefore, you’ve got to then redesign its entire infrastructure to move grain, primarily, to Europe in other ways.

Well, the rail system, you’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars over extraordinary amount of time.

Now, come to the moment. There are 50 (million) to 60 million metric ton capacity storage in silos. You got—I don’t know the exact number—somewhere around 25 million metric tons are still in these silos. Why? Obvious. The ships aren’t moving, right. And so to get those silos empty we got to get the ships moving.

Well, the problem is the farmers are harvesting now, July and August, for the wheat, and so the harvest will be down a good percentage. But still, as I’ve been telling my friends in private, you’re kicking the can down the road if you don’t resolve this port issue right now.

OK. Let’s say we get the silos empty enough to fill in what’s going to be grown in the next two months. Well, you got the fall harvest coming for maize. So you need to go ahead and address this issue one way or the other and resolve it one way or the other and make some permanent decisions because it has to be made. Kicking the can down the road doesn’t resolve anything, and so those ports have got to be open.

I am cautiously optimistic. (Laughs.) I’ve been that way before on things. But I do think the parties are close to a solution. I’ve been trying to ask, don’t try to complicate this. I mean, it’s either you open up the ports or you don’t. Let’s don’t get five hundred other issues involved. Let’s keep it simple. Let’s get the ports operational. We got to demine.

Those are issues that we can resolve. Demining the pathways, what Turkey will do, what Russia, what Ukraine—on observations and, you know, on the ships, and we’re working on who’s going to be the first ship coming in. And, of course, the WFP is the major supplier. We buy half of our grain from Ukraine, so this is a big issue to us as we face going forward.

Now, we’re buying in the marketplace right now, which as you—just FYI, our operational expense increase is $74 million right now more per month—per month—because of fuel costs, shipping costs, and food increase—purchasing.

WORTHINGTON: All right. We’ll move back to online for a question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sabeeha Quereshi.

Q: Hello, everyone. Can you hear me?


Q: Thank you so much, and thank you, David Beasley.

I have been in the humanitarian space for almost fifteen years, both in global health as well as a humanitarian policy advisor for USAID, and I think I, myself, like many individuals who have been in this space for so long and really, like, die for the cause are now starting to feel incredible fatigue, coming out of the pandemic.

And so what we’re witnessing right now is kind of three tiered issues, which is, one, donor fatigue; two, workforce and worker fatigue from the U.N. to country ministries to local NGOs alike; but then, lastly, there is this hindrance at that last mile of work on the country level.

I’ve worked in Syria. I’ve worked in South Sudan, and oftentimes, it’s our own regulations in terms of legal ability to work with state and nonstate actors in order to get to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in those areas, and you start to see where donor fatigue meets worker fatigue meets that last boundary of being able to reach the most vulnerable.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts, both in terms of World Food Programme but also across the humanitarian space, in terms of how we collaborate in order to—(inaudible)—address these areas in a critical kind of inflection point in the work that we do.

BEASLEY: Well, donor fatigue is a heck of an issue, as you can only imagine, and it’s an issue that we deal with. And so you’ve got to really think through what’s the messaging to overcome this donor fatigue that you’re faced and you, obviously, get the question.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s liberal or conservative in a lot of places because you’ll get a taxpayer in Germany or the United States saying, why should I send money down to Guatemala or Chad when I’ve got school needs here, health care needs here, road infrastructure needs here?

And I’m, like, well, let me just give it to you straight. If you’re not going to do it out of the goodness of your heart, you damn well better do it out of your national security interests because let me tell you what’s going to happen and let me give you the anecdotal evidence on how it’s going to cost you a thousand times more.

And just to give you a couple examples, one is in Syrian war. You had a couple million people migrated into Europe. Germany spent $125 billion for a million refugees over five years. Do the math. That’s $70 a day. That’s not even getting to the war cost.

We feed a Syrian in Syria for $.50. And guess what? The Syrian does not want to be in Berlin. But if they don’t have food for their children and any degree of peace, they go do what any mom and dad would do for their family. They go find some degree of peace and food.

It costs a lot more. There are no free lunches in this situation. I can go into Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and begin to give you those numbers. The Washington Post did an article about the United States spends $3,750 per child in shelters along the border per week. We can feed a child—(laughs)—down in Guatemala and Honduras for a dollar, $2, a week.

Now, tell me, Mr. Conservative Taxpayer, what would you rather do, one (dollar) to $2 or the $3,750?

Now, that doesn’t even get into all the other issues. But when you start getting into destabilization on top of famine and then mass migration, the cost is extraordinary.

Now, let me tell you how I use the donor fatigue as to bad actors, whether I will be talking to the Houthis or talking to others that Elliot (sp) and I worked on before—(laughs)—from before, or, let’s say, in Syria or the Taliban.

I say, look, I don’t have enough money to feed everybody that we need to feed right now. I don’t have it. So my donors want to make sure that every dollar we do spend is maximized. So if you are willing to play games with us, I can tell you that these are the children that will pay the price because if I can take that same dollar and feed five children here but I can only do three here because of all of your politics.

And so it’s been amazing how that works because whether it’s the Taliban or Houthis they get it. But you got to talk straight with them. You can’t give them this U.N. lingo, you know. You got to talk, I mean, heart to heart with them to let them understand.

I remember in—and I caught some early grief about this—I made the decision to terminate for a million people inside Yemen—a million people—cut off a million people. It wasn’t a money problem. It was a—the transparency, the absconding with the food, stealing, this type of stuff. And they didn’t think a U.N. agency would just say we’re going to do this. You know, I came in and said, I’m not going to be part of condoning because what you’re doing is you’re taking food from children over here and you’re stealing it over here. I’m not going to do it, and we cut them off. Whew! Well, within about three weeks we had it resolved and we were able to feed the people in the way they needed to be fed.

So it’s tough sometimes. Believe you me, it isn’t easy. But we pray about it, work on it, and then make the tough decisions we have to make.

That’s one of the hard—one other last thing on this. I remember Scott Pelley asked me—at the end of a television show he said—and he says, Governor, you’ve got the greatest job on the planet, saving the lives of people.

And I said, Scott, I do. I really do. But I will say something to you, Scott, that you haven’t thought of and it’s going to bother you. And Scott looked at me, like, what could that be.

And I said, Scott, I don’t go to bed at night thinking about the children we saved. I go to bed at night heartbroken for the children we couldn’t save. And I said, Scott, when we don’t have enough money we have to choose which children eat or don’t eat, which children live or which children die.

I said, how would you like that job? And Scott just looked at me like, oh, my God. I never thought about that.

I said, yeah. And I said, when you think there’s $430 trillion worth of wealth on the planet today and any child in the world dies from hunger, oh, shame on us. I don’t care what party you’re affiliated with, left or right. That’s just wrong.

Anyway, let me get off my high horse.

WORTHINGTON: So the gentleman up here had a question.

Q: Thank you, David.

Franklin Moore. I’m a retired USAID person.

I’m going to ask you a question—you’ve kind of touched on it—and that is about diversification of supply chains. And in 2008-2009 when there was a food security issue, one of the things that Rome learned was that it needed to engage in markets more and part of the cash—part of the reason for cash is that it does open markets and it helps those 980 million small farmers in Africa, who are currently losing 20 percent of their crop because there aren’t markets, to have markets.

So my question is in the coordination of that, and globally now we have the Global Alliance for Food Security, which is a G-7 World Bank thing. The G-20 is involved in ag market information systems. Is there or will there be a further attempt from an, I will say, Rome-based—and when I say Rome-based institutions I will talk of four.

So, for me, there’s FAO, IFAD, World Food Programme. But there’s also the Committee on World Food Security, which brings together an interesting group of people to discuss.

Should we be looking to that to help us further work on the diversification of markets and the diversification of supply chains both for food and for agricultural imports?

BEASLEY: The simple quick answer is yes, absolutely, and that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to do. But I think it needs to be taken to a whole another level for a variety of reasons, particularly climate change taking place and how it’s going to impact markets in the future.

But as I was mentioning earlier—as you said, I touched on it—we’re now buying extraordinary amounts of grain inside Africa, and I’ll meet with leaders and we’ll talk about—you know, pricing is a big issue. Obviously, you want to feed as many people as you possibly can and so I’ve actually gotten approval from my board that in certain time frame geographical dynamics if I can help stimulate the economy here and I may have to pay a little bit more—not much, but a little bit more—give me that ability to do that so I can create market opportunities over a certain time period.

And so we’re buying now—oh my gosh, I know Africa alone is around a billion dollars; globally, what we do from the United States and now what we do from many countries around the world like Ukraine, Turkey, et cetera, et cetera. But this is a very important issue what you’re talking about. Not even getting into the nutritional value of diversified crops that need to take place with—particularly down in southern Africa where the colonizers brought in maize for carbohydrates, for energy.

Well, you know, we know is one degree of temperature, I think, is it 15 percent reduction in maize production. So how do we take advantage of this? How do you take advantage of any crisis to do something special with it? And so using millet, sorghum, different types of agricultural products that we want to take advantage of that are more nutritious in value, grow better in the heat, resistant type thing, better seeds, better fertilizers, all these different factors of which we’re all in this together. But it needs more and more attention.

I think what’s happening today with this Ukraine crisis, really, has elevated food security in a way that I hope we will not let the moment pass us by because we’ve got to do some dynamic changes in assistance. Not even getting into food waste. I mean, I had planned to really zero in on private sector and food waste my last year, but it’s just been crisis after crisis. (Laughs.) You know, you’ve got to pick your fights.

WORTHINGTON: So I think we have time for a quick question online, and if you can make it short. Then we’ll bring it back to David.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from Tami Hultman.

WORTHINGTON: Can’t hear you, Tami. You’re muted.

(No response.)

OPERATOR: It looks like we’re having some difficulty with that line.

We’ll take the last question from Katherine Hagen.

Q: Thank you very much. What a wonderful session this has been.

I’ve been working with the Global Social Observatory supporting something called the Scaling Up Nutrition movement and one of the challenges that we’ve been addressing in that context is how you combine private sector engagement that is global with domestic and how you create an environment that supports empowerment for economic development in the food security arena that combines both of those.

I know that you’ve been very much involved in those kinds of issues at the World Food Programme and I appreciate what you’ve been doing on that, and I’d like you to comment a bit more on how you combine the approach of what the multinational food industry can be doing with the domestic industry issues that are important for empowering both healthy and nutritious and self-sufficient agricultural development at the domestic level.

WORTHINGTON: So I think the question here is, obviously, there’s broad—there’s a global food system, multinational system, and so forth, and you get down to the question then at the ability, especially in Africa, of a smallholder farmer to be empowered to grow nutritious food and so forth, and is there a relationship between that local-national level of food security and the global food systems out there and are you doing something in that space to make it more effective.

BEASLEY: Well, I mean, yeah, we are, and that’s probably a longer discussion as we deal with smallholder farmers in a multitude of ways. It’s one of the things that we’re also talking to big conglomerates, big corporations, to come into these countries.

As I was alluding to earlier, don’t come in to just displace but how do you actually come into a country and integrate. And that might mean you are a little bit less efficient for the first few years, but you can’t just come in and politically displace workers, smallholder farmers, because that’s the bread and butter of the economy and the way of life. So how do we integrate that in countries.

Two, I know what we do a lot of homegrown school meals when we want to change nutritional habits. Children—you get in Guatemala they got all the calories in the world but they got all the wrong calories. So how do we use homegrown school meals to change—bringing in the mothers and—because they’re the key, and then we will buy from them if they grow these particular vegetables and then bring them to the school and then we’ll begin changing. Because if you change the habits of what the children eat you’ll change the cultural habits, as has happened in Africa, especially over the past few hundred years, and how do we now move in the right direction with more nutritious products.

And, again, we can get a lot longer discussion on that. I know we’re running out of time. And so maybe we’ll get into the weeds of that a little bit later.

WORTHINGTON: Well, thank you today for all the members who joined this hybrid meeting, and apologies to those we didn’t get to your question in this.

And please note that the video and the transcript will be up on the Council on Foreign Relations website in time, and just—also please just join me on—I don’t know what stop it is, your visit—on the way, and good luck on Capitol Hill as you testify, and so forth.

So thank you, David Beasley, for joining us this afternoon. (Applause.)



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