David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, based in Rome, posted a prayer at the top of his Twitter page in early January, reading: “My prayer for 2018: Peace. Our path to Zero Hunger begins with peace.”
The page, @dbeasley1, is a hybrid of personal tweets and professional news about his work at the United Nations agency. His descriptor reads: “Married to Mary Wood. Four children. Follower of Jesus. Executive Director of the World Food Programme.” In the background of his photo is an image of the UN flag.
He has another Twitter account, @WFPChief, which is strictly professional and appears to have no references to religion. On his new Facebook page, Beasley injects his professional activities with news about his personal life, like a family trip to Venice.
A governor of South Carolina from 1995 to 1999, Beasley was nominated for the UN post by another ex-governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who likes to combine feel-good sayings with information about her Saturday night outings and meetings with foreign ministers on her Twitter page.
Haley is the United States envoy to the UN and a member of the Trump cabinet. In a letter she sent in February 2017 to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, obtained by PassBlue, she recommended Beasley for the UN position, signing the letter, “God bless.”
Given that Beasley now runs the world’s largest humanitarian-aid agency, how appropriate is it for him to declare his religious beliefs so openly? Some experts on the UN and those inside the organization who were interviewed for this article said they were uncomfortable by his doing so, while others thought he needed to just be more discreet.
“I’d say that it really does make people uneasy,” said Jean Krasno, director of the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York. The religious affiliation of, say, UN secretaries-general has been clear, Krasno added, but “it was never implied that it would influence their policies.”
The extent of Beasley’s “follower of Jesus” beliefs influencing policy at the World Food Program is hard to gauge, but as soft power it could be subtle. The agency serves 75 countries and is financed entirely through donations, with the US being the biggest donor.
“Religious parochialism could interfere with the UN’s primary mission of providing food aid,” said Ruth Wedgwood, who chairs the international law program at Johns Hopkins University. “The millions of people represented at the United Nations include many cultures and many states. It could be seen as parochial and exclusionary to focus on one religion while excluding others. The moral vocation of feeding the hungry remains essential regardless of the religious choices of persons in need. “
Beasley is operating with a five-year strategy that was adopted by the agency’s board before he came to Rome, so that has not changed. Yet the fact that he is declaring his religious faith in such a public way, Krasno said, suggests he is proselytizing.
“It’s completely inappropriate,” said Krasno, who is organizing the papers of former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Doing so flies in the face of UN norms.”
Personally stating one’s religious credo expresses a “bias” that “verges on the unethical,” Krasno added, “especially as religious tensions run high across the world.”
The religious declaration doesn’t stop with Beasley at the agency. His communications adviser, Gary Karr, says on his Twitter page that he, too, is a “follower of Jesus.” He also writes: “. . . husband, Dad, Comms adviser to @WFPChief. PR Pro focused on quotes, messages, stories in traditional and digital media. Very artisanal.” Karr was Beasley’s press adviser when he was governor of South Carolina.
Karr responded to PassBlue’s request for comment about Beasley’s Twitter page by saying that the @davidbeasly1 account is his “personal Twitter bio” and that Karr’s is “personal and not official” as well.
“On the Executive Director’s personal Twitter bio, it is not a reference to a religion, but a reference that he tries to follow the teachings of Jesus,” Karr added. “He has said for decades, in speeches all over the world and to varying audiences, that whether one sees Jesus as a man, a prophet or a savior, the teachings of ‘love your neighbour’ transcends all religions and cultures. . . . Also, Executive Director Beasley has for decades promoted respect for people of all faiths or of no faith.”
One person who works for the World Food Program and asked to remain anonymous, expressed concern to PassBlue about Beasley’s religious references and “what seems to be a conservative, economic-focussed agenda, where the principles and values upon which the UN was founded are not being heard or felt.”
In Beasley’s holiday message to the World Food Program staff, he said: “The ancient scriptures teach us to love one another. As we reflect on this during the holiday season, I thank you for being a part of the World Food Program family which shares this love and kindness with the hungry and the vulnerable.”
Jeffrey Laurenti, a long-time UN analyst with UNA-USA and the Century Foundation, said that the Christian declaration of Beasley could benefit the UN.
“I would hope he would know where he must draw the line on expressing personal sectarian convictions in order to work successfully with everyone on the global stage,” Laurenti said. “Jesus Christ could appropriately be his inspiration for doing this work, and certainly not a matter of reproach. Indeed, anything that ties conservative religious constituencies in the United States to the work of the UN could help secure the survival of the UN in domestic American politics.”
But bringing “Jesus as his ‘personal savior’ into the boardroom [of WFP],” Laurenti added, “would be a huge problem because even most Christians internationally don’t express their faith in that very Southern evangelical way — and four-fifths of the world do not profess Christianity at all.”
Beasley had no experience running an international food-aid agency when Guterres picked him for the UN position, though he had led trade missions overseas as governor. His appointment last year to the UN “alarmed some diplomats and good governance advocates,” Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy wrote at the time, because of Beasley’s inexperience and the push by Haley for Guterres to choose Beasley in a field of more experienced candidates.
Nevertheless, Beasley arrived in Rome in April 2017 as the world contended with four famine threats, which have been averted for now: in northern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, all conditions related to war and drought. “It’s been like drinking water out of a fire hydrant,” Beasley said in an interview when he first took the UN job.
The agency was conceived in 1961, when George McGovern, as director of the US Food for Peace Program, proposed a multilateral aid program providing “shared relief,” as Laurenti put it, for the hungry overseas and for US and other Western farmers to unburden their surplus crops. Its first executive director was Dutch, Addeke Boerma, and its maiden food drop occurred in northern Iran, after it was struck by an earthquake: 1,500 metric tons of wheat, 270 tons of sugar and 27 tons of tea were sent to survivors.
Besides delivering food, the agency has evolved to giving cash and coupons to feed people while enhancing local economies. Catherine Bertini became the first American — and woman — to head the agency in 1992, leading the way for US takeover of the executive director’s office since then. As of Jan. 15, 2018, the US had donated $2.5 billion to the agency; the other top donors are the European Union, at $1.2 billion, and Germany, $925 million. In November, Beasley told the agency’s board that the US contribution did not drop, despite such possibilities under the Trump administration, because of strong support for the agency in Congress.
During his term as South Carolina governor, Beasley proclaimed his Christian faith publicly, which Haley did as well in that role. Beasley had originally been a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party in 1991, saying that the Democrats’ policies were bad for families and for America.
He lost his second run for the governorship partly because he had recommended moving the Confederate flag from the State House dome. (It was moved elsewhere on the grounds and permanently removed by Haley in 2015.) After he left the governor’s office, Beasley received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2003 for his flag-moving recommendation.
In 2005, Beasley founded the Center for Global Strategies with Henry Deneen, a South Carolinian who was Beasley’s chief legal counsel when he was governor. The center, its website says, is a “nonprofit organization connecting businesspeople to international initiatives.”
The website promotes the work of a crisis-pregnancy organization in Macedonia, called A Beating Heart. It is described as the “first and only pro-life crisis pregnancy center in Macedonia” that is “dedicated to counseling and helping women while promoting the value of life and the baby’s right to be born.”
The roots of Christian-professed leaders running the UN food agencies hark back in recent times to Tony Hall, an American politician who has had an illustrious career fighting global hunger, having been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize several times. For advice at the World Food Program, Beasley has turned to Hall, who is also a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and was the US ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome under President George W. Bush.
Hall and Beasley got to know each other working on the annual Washington-based National Prayer Breakfast and are close friends. The breakfast is connected to the Fellowship Foundation, a national group well documented for its influential political members and secretive meetings. Its mission is to, in brief, “adhere to the teachings and precepts of Jesus.”
Another member of Beasley’s inner circle at the World Food Program is also a protégé of Hall: David Austin worked for him when he ran the Rome agencies; Austin, too, is a member of the Fellowship Foundation, a connection that also makes some World Food Program staff members queasy.
Throughout Beasley’s political career, he fit the Republican ideal of shrinking government. When he was governor, he made “Putting Families First” the theme of his administration as it returned “power to the taxpayers,” so much so that he bragged that the “average homeowner in South Carolina pays no school operating taxes” while he also drastically cut welfare in the state.
Beasley has obviously taken a quantum leap from South Carolina politics to ending world hunger, and he may be the first to admit how complicated that goal is when trying to influence world leaders, as he referred to attendees at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he was interviewed.
“If we can end the conflicts, we can end world hunger,” he said, without mentioning specific crises, like Yemen. That war, led by Saudi Arabia and aided and abetted by the US, is edging into its fourth year, brimming with human catastrophes.
But the US — Nikki Haley — and others on the UN Security Council have been steering the war off the Council agenda. If Beasley knew why the Council remains so passive about the conflict and its toll on Yemenis, he didn’t dare say.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.