2023 Vandenberg Prize recipient David Beasley
WGVU’s Patrick Center spoke with David Beasley, recipient of this year’s Vandenberg Prize from the The World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. Beasley is the former Executive Director of the U.N.s World Food Programme
David Beasley: Well, you just approach it, you just jump in and go at it and do it because you can sit there and talk about it all day, but when you consider the simple fact that, I know at the United Nations World Food Programme, we reach 160 million people last year. Well, that's a big number. But actually, every one of those people are people with names, little girls, little boys. And, you know, a starving child in Grand Rapids or a starving child in Chad, those are those are our brothers and our sisters and so, you just pick it up in and go at it. And so, you fight., you put in everything you can. But that spirit that comes from places like Grand Rapids, it was leaders in Grand Rapids that ignited that spirit of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan and NATO and brought together leaders in the United States Senate and the House that ended up funding the programs like for the World Food Programme. They're saving lives around the world and it is everybody together, Dems and Republicans coming together united in that spirit. And that's the spirit that changes the world. That's the spirit that that has made America great. And we need that spirit back again in America.
Patrick Center: You’ve been walking the city. You mentioned the connections. How special is it for you to be here and to also be the recipient of the Vandenberg Prize?
DB: It’s very special because a lot of the support bases that I've been able to build upon comes from this city way, way back like Vandenberg, Senator Vandenberg, who was an incredible person and Gerald Ford and then see their statues as you walk around the city. But this morning when I was walking around, I ran across accidentally Helen Jackson Claytor, an African activists and civil rights back in the day. And I was just reading her, no obit, but celebrating her success story of how she, you know, fought to end racism and things she did. And I was wondering how much she may have influenced Gerald Ford and how much she may have influenced Vandenberg or vice versa with regards to how people in the community from diversity, but yet equality and they respect each other's diversity because God made us diverse and that was a quote. One of the quote she had is God made is diverse, but harmony by our unity, that typified her life and what she believed in. And so when I think about Grand Rapids, yeah, you everybody knows about Gerald Ford, everybody knows about Vandenberg, but how many people know about an activist like Helen Claytor? And so it's that spirit that brought extraordinary change in United States Congress that caused America to be the shining light, city on the hill, so to speak that I've seen firsthand. We reached 160 million people last year and that was a 14-billion-dollar budget. Half of that came from the United States. And that came as a result of the men and women who influenced the leaders in the United States Senate and the U.S. House like Gerald Ford, like Vandenberg, like Claytor that put the money up to give to the World Food Programme that I was the executive director for. So it all works together. It's the tapestry of life and how the fabric works. Washington isn't the solution to this to all of our problems. It’s Grand Rapids and Columbia, South Carolina and Charleston, West Virginia. That's the heartbeat of America.
PC: The U.N. and the Food Programme, I've had an opportunity to go to the website to watch you, listen to you speak. There's also a theme that food brings peace in the world. The importance of that and the mission.
DB: The Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognized the World Food Programme. I took that scene public in a very aggressive way because I saw firsthand when you when you're out there in 80 or more nations feeding hundreds of millions of people, you see the reality on the ground. You see the division, the war, the conflict. And I saw that food can be a weapon. The peace versus food being weaponized to bring war and conflict. Food is critical to peace. Hunger brings about war and conflict. And so the Nobel Peace Prize Committee clearly understood that. And that was their declaration. And awarding us the Nobel Peace Prize was the World Food Programme is bringing peace to the world by food security and so it’s essential, what we're talking about, and you get that spirit from places like Grand Rapids is it's really quite remarkable.
PC: Can you express or paint a picture of the places where you have been and how dire it is, what it looks like and how important to create that change or to create that peace? How do you people to understand visually if you're not in that place where you have walked, how do you get that message across to people?
DB: I've traveled to more heartbreaking places probably anybody on the planet. I've seen more starving children, dying children, as a result of war conflict, hunger, these types of things. I see what happens when people don't really care for one another. I see what happens when leaders don't care for the poor, don't care for the needy. That's what is distinguished America and so many ways because we have cared for the poor and the needy. When you think about the simple fact that 200 years ago when the world's population was 1.1 billion, 95% of the people on the planet were in extreme poverty. 95% think about that today. Less than 10. So we have built systems and programs, organizations that are sharing and helping more people than in any time period in world history. And that came from American ingenuity and the American spirit of love your neighbor, care for the poor, help the needy, because we, the United States, is the number one funder of international strategic aid. And so I see what happens when a nation doesn't do that. And so, because of that spirit, great things have happened. But at the same time in the United States, if we back down off that commitment. And so when I try to talk to leaders in Congress, because you get this comment, whether it's the United States or in Germany or the UK or Canada because I speak to the parliaments around the world, you'll hear this why should I send money down to Guatemala or Chad or Syria or Sudan when we get funding needs here for bridges and education and health care and things like that? And I say that and that's a very legitimate question. But let me explain it in 3 ways; one, if you’re not going to do it out of the goodness of your heart that you care for the poor, the needy, regardless of where they are, then you better do it out of your financial and or your national security interest because it will cause you 1000 times more if you don't address and help the people where they are because 3 or 4 things will happen if you don't; one, you'll end up with starvation and death. You'll end up with destabilization of nations and mass migration which cost of 1000 times more. And then I'll give anecdotal evidence of exactly what I'm talking about. And that's not hyperbole, hypothetical, theoretical, it's reality. What it cost to help people in their home country who don't want to leave versus you wait until destabilization and mass migration take place and it costs 1000 times more and the politics, as we know, are just too tough to deal with when nothing happens.
PC: There's a 2030 strategy to end hunger. Is it doable? What are the strategies to make it happen? What are the challenges that need to be overcome?
DB: When I took this role in 2017, there were 80 million people marching to starvation. The technical terms IPC 3, 4, 5. 80 million out of the world population that time about 7.6 billion. So I'm thinking I could put the world food programme out of business. We're not needed anymore. 80 million? We can get that done. So as a former United States governor, we like to set goals, objectives, benchmarks, measurables, and execute. I'm thinking we'll do it, well, 2 years later the numbers 135 million driven up because of conflict and climate shots. That was before COVID. COVID did economic devastation and supply chain disruption around the world. The number goes from 135 to 276 million people. That's before Ukraine; The breadbasket of the world. Now country with the longest bread lines in the world. The numbers now 350 million people marching towards starvation. So will we end hunger by 2030. Absolutely not. Will not happen. Is it achievable? Absolutely. If we can end these wars, even with the climate shot, we have enough ingenuity, creativity and financial support out there to do so. But we got to end these wars, whether you talk about Ukraine or Sudan or Afghanistan, I can go on and on. 80% of our operations at the World Food programme were and are in areas of conflict. And so until you in these conflicts, you will not end hunger. Period. But it's doable. Otherwise, no doubt in my mind.
PC: If we take conflicts out of the equation, that seems to be something that is man made since the beginning of time, Climate issues and technology.
DB: At the world food programme, I tell a lot of my friends on the left and the right on climate, say look, you can debate what’s causing it all day long. But what you can't debate is whether it's changing. We're out there on the ground, all over the world. We see it changing. We’re seeing more droughts, more flash flooding. More this, more of that. And people being more displaced. The displacement of people is increasing substantially and more people were displaced, for example, in the last couple years because of climate shocks, than conflict, which is extraordinary. So it's happening. Now while the World debates mitigation, the poorest of the poor need adaptation and we've got programs for adaptation. We've got programs to come in and rehabilitate the land because people don't want to leave their home. And I can tell you, for example, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, in the Sahel with just so desolate, if we can come in there in spite of droughts and flash flooding and implement the programs that we have in fact implemented and scale it up and allow adaptation, people will not be starving. Number one. Number 2, they will not be migrating away. I've seen it firsthand. And let me give you another example. Just in this year alone when the shock of Ukraine happened. The fertilizer, the pricing of food and a lack of availability of food in certain places because of the Ukraine supply chain disruption, in places like this where we implemented resilience, programs, development, program's rehabilitating the land in those villages where we implemented those programs when the Ukraine crisis hit, 80% of all those villages did not need additional support. It saved, for example, like 30 million dollars in just those places. So we've got solutions out there and I can go from country to country like Pakistan, with the floods and all over the world and show what happens when we provide resilience programs so they can capture water or contain the water, whatever is needed in a particular place because every place is unique. And so it's doable. Very doable.
PC: David Beasley, executive Director UN World Food Programme. Also this year's Vandenberg Prize recipient. Thank you so much for your time.
DB: Well, thank you. It's great to be in Grand Rapids.