U.N. officials hope former South Carolina governor, David Beasley, can persuade his D.C. friends to spare the food agency from the White House budget axe.
Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley will be sworn in next week as the executive director of the World Food Program, placing the first Trump administration appointee at the helm of a major U.N. relief agency at a time when the president seeks deep cuts in funding for humanitarian causes, three senior U.N.-based diplomats told Foreign Policy.
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is gambling that the appointment of Beasley — who has no experience running a major international relief operation, or with the United Nations — will help dissuade the administration from cutting a large portion of the more than $2 billion it contributes each year on the agency to help fight hunger around the world.
In making his case for the new job, according to U.N. advocates he reached out to, Beasley has highlighted his Christian faith, and an extensive network of lawmakers around the world. Most important, perhaps, are his personal relationships with a trio of powerful South Carolina politicians who hold the U.N.’s financial fate in their hands: Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees U.N. funding; and former congressman Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget chief, who has targeted the U.N. for some of the steepest cuts in the federal budget.
Appointing Beasley offers the “best shot possible for the continuation of American contributions,” said Catherine Bertini, who ran the WFP from 1992 to 2002.
“He knows all the right politicians in Washington,” said Peter Yeo, the head of the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group, who recently met with Beasley. “He felt that because he knows so many policy makers in D.C. he could be an effective champion for continued U.S. funding for the World Food Program.”
But the appointment has alarmed some diplomats and good governance advocates, who succeeded last year in opening up the race for the U.N. Secretary General to broader international competition. They have since decried the lack of open competition for other top U.N. jobs, which despite efforts at reform still seem to be doled out among the big powers.
At a time when the U.N. is facing its the worst food crisis in decades, with more than 20 million people facing famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, it is irresponsible to appoint an inexperienced political appointee to the top job, many say.
“This is part of the crisis of leadership and legitimacy of the international system, when the decisions are made on the basis of politics and money and not on who can do the best job,” said Bill Pace, the executive director of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, who helped run a campaign to open the race for secretary general to a broader field of candidates.
The United States has long had a lock on running the food program, and is the largest donor by far; Germany, the next biggest, contributed nearly $890 million in 2016. Berlin mounted its own push for the top job, fielding at least two experienced candidates. Angela Kane is a veteran U.N. official who headed Turtle Bay’s management and disarmament departments, and Martin Kobler is the U.N special representative in Libya.
The Germans hoped that Trump’s threat to dramatically cut humanitarian assistance, combined with the fact that its candidates have a lot more experience in the U.N. system, would give them an edge. But the U.N. seems to have feared that breaking the American hold on the top job would simply accelerate Washington’s financial retreat.
Turtle Bay is beset by fear that the Trump administration is going to “cut, cut, cut” deep into U.N. humanitarian programs like WFP, Bertini said. The quickest way to make those worries come true, she said, would have been to snub the Trump administration and reject their favored candidate for the top job.
“It would provide a great excuse” for the administration to proceed with the cuts, she told FP.
Beasley, a one-term governor of South Carolina from 1995 to 1999, is best known for having called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the of the state’s capitol building, a move that may have cost him reelection but earned him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage in 2003.
In the early stages of the the presidential campaign, he offered enthusiastic praise for Trump’s candidacy, though not a formal endorsement, introducing him at a South Carolina political rally back in November, 2015, as the “man who will make America great again.”
When he was initially approached for the job, Beasley had reservations. “Why would I want to go to the U.N.?” he asked himself, according to an individual who recently met with Beasley. But he said his wife convinced him it was an important job.
In meetings with potential supporters of his bid for WFP chief, Beasley noted that the work of the World Food Program conforms with his Christian faith. According to an interview with a Seattle-based organization called Centered that promotes Christian leaders, Beasley said he has brought lawmakers in Guatemala together to resolve their troubles through prayer.
Beasley edged out at least three other American candidates, including Andrew Natsios, a former chief of USAID with vastly more experience in running major relief operations, and Jim Butler, a former senior official at the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization. The FAO head, Graziano da Silva, is responsible, along with the U.N. Secretary General, for selecting the head of the World Food Program. Anthony Banbury, a former top U.N. official who ran logistics for U.N. peacekeeping missions and headed the U.N. response to the Ebola crisis, also threw his hat in the ring but did not land an interview.
But officials say Beasley has had a virtual lock on the job since Haley, a close political ally, told Guterres in their first meeting at U.N. headquarters that Beasley was America’s man.
In a February 27 letter to Guterres promoting Beasley’s candidacy, Haley wrote that the food agency needs “a leader who can efficiently manage a major enterprise while showing genuine concern for each one of the 795 million people suffering from hunger around the world.”
“I, personally, have seen those qualities in our nominee, as have numerous members of the U.S. Congress, international leaders, and important figures in international development and humanitarian aid,” she wrote.
Haley’s promotion of Beasley initially rankled top officials in the State Department and the White House, who wanted to present the U.N. chief with a list of three potential candidates, according to a source in the Trump camp.
“The White House wasn’t saying no to Beasley– they just wanted to play fair by giving three names. Tillerson insisted on not picking just one,” said the official, who discussed the campaign on condition of anonymity.
“But Nikki has been pushing for Beasley independently of State and the White House. And since Nikki is pushing directly with the [Secretary General], it makes it difficult” for him to say no, the official said.
Beasley’s qualifications for the job remain hard to divine. An effort to reach Beasley through an aide was unsuccessful.
An organization he founded, the Center for Global Strategies, describes its mission as integrating “peoples worldwide into the global economy by connecting them with experienced professionals and coaches to establish cross-cultural ties of friendship, investment, trade, exchange of ideas, peace and understanding.”
The web site describes a number of trade and business-related initiatives in the developing world, including a 2007 program to promote tourism in Sudan. But it only begins to list its activities in the humanitarian field following Trump’s election.
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