OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, this year’s just-announced Nobel Peace Prize winner, has warned that the number of people facing starvation could double next year, to 270 million, if the agency is unable to raise enough money to cope with the crisis.
“2021 is going to be literally catastrophic,” Beasley said to a small group of journalists on Oct. 9, the same day the Nobel prize news was made from Oslo. “We literally will be facing famines of biblical proportions; but we can avert famine if we get the money we need.” Beasley happened to be visiting Burkina Faso during a tour of the Sahel region in West Africa and spoke with reporters at the Thomas Sankara International Airport here in the capital. “There is a cure; we have a vaccine against starvation . . . it’s called food and all we need is money, simple as that.”
“We are desperately short of the monies we need right now,” added Beasley, who specified that the agency needed an addition $5 billion, above its usual requirements, “to keep 30 million people from dying,” in what he characterized as “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
“The announcement,” he noted about the prize, “couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Beasley also acknowledged that the prize would be an important platform for fund-raising and he called on billionaires to help the agency. “It’s a onetime catastrophic human disaster and we need you to step up now,” he said, in a Southern drawl. Beasley publicly announced he had contracted Covid-19 last spring but has recovered.
He was appointed by the Trump administration to run the World Food Program in early 2017. He is a former Republican governor of South Carolina and was recommended for the UN job by Nikki Haley, who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time and a friend of Beasley’s from her days as governor of South Carolina, too.
The United States has always been the top donor to the World Food Program across its 60-year history. US contributions to the agency’s $8 billion budget for 2019 totaled $3,366,688,829, while Germany, the second-largest donor, gave $886,570,600. (The US donations to the agency this year so far total $2,733,214,268.)
The budget covers a spectrum of activities — buying food, providing direct cash assistance and emergency rations, supporting nutrition programs, offering school meals and paying for the UN Humanitarian Aviation Service to deliver goods. The USAID provides the bulk of the agency’s US government funding, but money also comes from such entities as the Department of Agriculture and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
But the aid has also been tangled in budget cuts from other US departments that affect the agency indirectly. For example, the Trump administration’s cuts to Palestine have translated into reductions from the World Food Program to Palestinians. US cuts to North Korea hurt the agency’s level of aid there.
The prize, Beasley said at the media briefing on Oct. 9, was a “message from above,” and he called on the public and international community not to forget about the people of the region. The Sahel, and Burkina Faso in particular, is facing one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in the world, according to the Danish Refugee Council.
One million people have been displaced in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country, because of conflicts fueled by land disputes, lack of access to water and fighting between the military and many factions: volunteer defense militias, jihadists and other armed groups. The areas most affected by fighting in the north are difficult to access, and an estimated 11,000 people face severe acute malnutrition in some parts of the country. Its northern boundary abuts Mali, which has been experiencing various states of conflict since 2011 and hosts a large UN peacekeeping mission.
When asked if Burkina Faso faces a famine, Beasley said that he was “very concerned” about the possibility.
“Access has become a very serious issue in many of the regions of Burkina Faso, and so if we can’t get to people, they are either going to die or they are going to be taken advantage of by outsiders or there is going to be mass migration,” he said. “There aren’t any other options.”
“If we get the access and the money, there is no doubt we will avert famine,” he added.
The World Food Program, which is based in Rome, was awarded the Peace Prize by the Nobel Committee “for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.”
In 75 years, the UN, its specialized agencies, related agencies, funds, programs and staff have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 12 times. The first-ever prize was awarded to Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, in 1901.
“This year they really wanted to make a safe choice; a choice that wouldn’t be as criticized as some of the other laureates have been in the past,” Unni Turrettini, a Norwegian who is the author of the forthcoming “Betraying The Nobel: The Secrets and Corruption Behind the Nobel Peace Prize,” told PassBlue in a phone call from Oslo.
Last year, the committee awarded the peace prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, for resumption of peace talks with Eritrea, but they were later followed by major crackdowns on dissidents in Ethiopia. Turrettini said the prize was widely criticized for being “premature,” as was the awarding of former US President Barack Obama during his first year in office.
“It’s hard to criticize an organization that fights against poverty and hunger, and I think the committee in its reasoning has a point that in order to have a more stable world and work towards peace, we cannot have people who are hungry,” Turrettini said.
While the Swedish chemist and industrialist, Alfred Nobel, established the peace prize for a person or organization that has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” the definition of peace has been expanded to include environmental activists and those supporting nature.
Michael Nobel, a grandnephew of Alfred Nobel and co-founder and chairman of the Nobel Charitable Trust, is known for criticizing some of the choices of the committee, whose members are elected by the Norwegian Parliament. Nobel described this year’s decision as “excellent” and said it reflected a shifting understanding of the drivers of and solutions to conflict.
“This is so obviously something that you could actually justify,” Nobel told PassBlue in a phone call from Stockholm. “The problems of the future will not be related to the peace activists and nuclear disarmament. The real problems are climate change and hunger.”
Nobel told PassBlue that he did not think world peace as such was possible.
While the Nobel Committee has often selected political leaders and become a tool for “Norwegian foreign policy,” according to Turrettini and others, it also has a soft spot for the UN. (The peace prize is the only Nobel announced and awarded from Oslo, while the others are done in Stockholm.)
“Norway looks at the UN as close to a world government as one can get,” and the ideal that “you shouldn’t have these superpowers that control and manipulate,” Turrettini said. (Norway joins the UN Security Council for a two-year term in January 2021.)
But the UN has been battered ceaselessly by another government: the US. Most notably, the World Health Organization has faced criticism and verbal attacks from the Trump administration since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and many others have accused the WHO of aiding China in allegedly covering up the origins of the virus and allowing its spread. The US formally withdrew from the organization in July 2020, and it becomes effective on July 6, 2021. The US said it would redirect the remaining balance of its assessed contributions to the WHO to partly pay other UN assessments, such as to its general budget.
Over the past three and a half years, the Trump administration’s America First policy has taken 20 actions to distance itself from the UN and its programs and agencies as well as global treaties, agreements and conventions. These include quitting the Paris climate accord and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Human Rights Council and Unesco.
A Swedish journalist suggested to Beasley at the briefing that it might have been disappointing that the WHO didn’t get the prize.
“WHO has been a great partner of ours,” Beasley said. “They’ve got a lot of work to do. We were hoping we would get it a couple of years ago, a couple of times and said, I told my team, I said let’s not even think about it and stay focused on our work, and I don’t think this was at anyone’s expense.”
While the agency’s numbers suggest that far more people could be killed by hunger than the novel coronavirus, it continues to struggle to maintain global attention in the midst of the lead-up to the US presidential election, on Nov. 3, and the pandemic.
And when Beasley spoke to the UN Security Council in September, he reminded the members that the “toxic combination of conflict, climate change and COVID-19, threatened to push 270 million people to the brink of starvation” — especially in South Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A month later, his agency was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but Beasley remained focus on the potential famines. “2021 is screaming around the corner and there are no reserves,” Beasley said in Ouagadougou.
“The economic downturn is taking place and the ripple effect for poor countries is devastating. It’s been hard to break through the media today because of Covid and because of Trump, Trump, Trump and things like that. I’m hopeful, prayerful that we can take advantage of the Nobel Peace Prize to raise money to save lives around the world.”
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.