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The World Food Program’s Freelance Diplomacy

David Beasley’s unsanctioned mediation efforts in Khartoum rankle U.S. and U.N. diplomats.

David Beasley, Abdalla Hamdok, and Abdelaziz al-Hilu attend a World Food Program visit.
David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (right), claps as then-Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (center right) and Abdelaziz al-Hilu, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North leader, join hands during a visit organized by the World Food Program in the conflict-affected remote town of Kauda, Nuba Mountains, Sudan, Jan. 9, 2020. Nariman El-Mofty/AP

On Oct. 30, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), was scheduled to fly to Khartoum, Sudan, for an ambitious diplomatic mission: Get Sudan’s military leader to sit down and talk with the prime minister he deposed less than a week before. The aim was to resolve one of Africa’s most intractable political crises following a military power grab last month that derailed the country’s shaky transition to democracy.

But the trip was abruptly canceled after the U.N. special representative in Khartoum, Volker Perthes, caught wind of the initiative—which was neither sanctioned by the United Nations nor coordinated with key diplomatic capitals—and asked Beasley to postpone his travel plans.

The rebuff came amid mounting irritation among top U.N. and Western officials over what they view as diplomatic freelancing by the former South Carolina governor, who has been pursuing an unofficial role as peacemaker in Sudan. Beasley’s proposed mission also ran counter to demands from Sudan’s protest movement leaders, who have been calling for restoring civilian rule before any negotiations with the military occur and for excluding Sudan’s coup leaders from participating in a future government.

On Oct. 30, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), was scheduled to fly to Khartoum, Sudan, for an ambitious diplomatic mission: Get Sudan’s military leader to sit down and talk with the prime minister he deposed less than a week before. The aim was to resolve one of Africas most intractable political crises following a military power grab last month that derailed the country’s shaky transition to democracy.

But the trip was abruptly canceled after the U.N. special representative in Khartoum, Volker Perthes, caught wind of the initiative—which was neither sanctioned by the United Nations nor coordinated with key diplomatic capitals—and asked Beasley to postpone his travel plans.

The rebuff came amid mounting irritation among top U.N. and Western officials over what they view as diplomatic freelancing by the former South Carolina governor, who has been pursuing an unofficial role as peacemaker in Sudan. Beasley’s proposed mission also ran counter to demands from Sudan’s protest movement leaders, who have been calling for restoring civilian rule before any negotiations with the military occur and for excluding Sudan’s coup leaders from participating in a future government.

“The World Food Program’s freelance attempt to engineer a negotiated settlement in Sudan have been broadly seen as ham-fisted and damaging by the diplomatic and U.N. community,” said Jonas Horner, the senior Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Other insiders suggested Beasley’s involvement hampered U.S. President Joe Biden’s own diplomatic efforts to negotiate a solution to the crisis. “By introducing a new mediator or interlocutor and creating doubt as to what the actual U.S. position is, both of those things have been net negatives for U.S. diplomacy,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The WFP director’s moves unfolded just days after Sudan’s military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power in Sudan on Oct. 25, detaining the country’s caretaker prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and undoing the countrys fragile democratic transition. The coup set off a flurry of diplomatic initiatives by the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and other key powers aimed at restoring civilian rule in Sudan. Those efforts were dealt a blow on Thursday, when Burhan unilaterally appointed a new sovereign council and named himself chair, undermining diplomatic efforts to resolve the current crisis.

Soldiers welcome Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan during his visit to the army corps after the Sudanese army foiled a coup attempt in Khartoum on Sept. 21.

Soldiers welcome Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan during his visit to the army corps after the Sudanese army foiled a coup attempt in Khartoum, Sudan, on Sept. 21. Sovereignty Council of Sudan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This raises some concerns that the window for political dialogue has been closed or is about to shut,” Perthes, the U.N. special representative, told the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door meeting Thursday. “I have also explained in my discussions with Lt. Gen. Burhan and other military leaders that a ‘completion of the coup’ would close the window for a political solution and probably lead to the loss of international support.”

There is broad agreement among the international community and Sudanese civil society groups on the need to restore a civilian role in Sudan’s governance, and Hamdok has seen his popularity, waning before his ousting, growing among the mass numbers of Sudanese protesters that have taken to the streets in the coup’s wake. A “significant portion” of those demonstrators “are against any form of negotiations with the military,” Perthes said.

Several diplomats familiar with the situation expressed concern that Beasley and his staff’s activities had the potential to weaken the pressure campaign, emboldening the military to believe it can get a better deal working through Beasley.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson didn’t directly address Beasley’s diplomatic efforts when approached for comment but appeared to allude to it in referencing “third-party proxies.”

“Given our ongoing access to both civilian and military leaders in Sudan, the United States has elected to engage such leaders directly rather than working through third-party proxies,” the spokesperson said in an email response.

“We have been consistently supportive of international mediation efforts that were in line with our stated goals and strongly support the efforts of the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) Volker Perthes to engage key stakeholders to encourage a resolution. The United States believes that international mediation efforts should be coordinated and that SRSG Perthes, through his good offices mandate, should harmonize efforts of the U.N. system.”

Others, however, have suggested Beasley is simply filling a diplomatic vacuum. They indicated that the international response to Sudan’s latest political crisis was muddled and weak, diluted by multiple overlapping efforts from various parties, including the United States, U.N. officials, and the African Union, to find a way to negotiate themselves out of the crisis.

The account of Beasley’s diplomatic activities is based on interviews with more than two dozen U.S. and U.N. officials, diplomats, and experts. It provides insight into how the U.N.’s premier food agency and recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize has been transformed by Beasley into a global diplomatic and political force.

Through his job at the WFP, the former U.S. governor and unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate has refashioned himself into a foreign-policy practitioner—and potentially set himself up for possible senior appointment in a future Republican administration.


In the international aid world, crowded by lifelong U.N. bureaucrats and staid career humanitarians, Beasley stands out as an outlier. The South Carolina native and one-time Democrat climbed through the Republican Party’s ranks and forged close ties with other GOP power brokers from the state, many of whom went on to play influential roles during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration: Nikki Haley, Trump’s envoy to the United Nations; Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff; and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key Trump ally in the Senate.

Beasley has also developed a vast network of contacts among foreign officials and world leaders, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, through his Christian activism and his promotion of political reconciliation and business opportunities, inviting lawmakers and their families to his farm in South Carolina and meeting with foreign dignitaries at National Prayer Breakfasts.

As chief of the U.N.’s food agency, Beasley has been a tireless salesman, making regular appearances on TV and Twitter in conflict zones from Afghanistan to Yemen, taking photo ops with world leaders, and nudging rich countries and billionaires to give more money. A devout Christian, Beasley sometimes incorporates his personal faith in public addresses, blurring the lines among humanitarian assistance, religion, and politics in his role at the United Nations.

Beasley declined to comment for this story.

In response to a lengthy list of questions, the World Food Program’s spokesperson, Greg Barrow, said “as the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, WFP always stands ready to support governments, partners, and U.N. agencies to use humanitarian and development assistance to strengthen peace and stability.”

Nearly one-quarter of Sudan’s population is food insecure, according to WFP figures. The number could rise if the political crisis derails plans to revive Sudan’s stagnant economy.

“WFP feeds over 10 million people in Sudan,” Barrow said in an email. “We are already in a situation where we need to mobilize more resources to feed rising numbers of hungry people and over the next 6 months WFP is facing a shortfall of more than US$300 million for its operation there. If there is an upsurge in conflict and instability, millions more may suffer.”


Beasley attends a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the World Food Programme in 2020, in Rome on Dec. 10, 2020.

Beasley attends a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the World Food Program in 2020, in Rome on Dec. 10, 2020. Rein Skullerud/WFP via Getty Images

Beasley has a knack for drawing headlines. In recent weeks, he has been jousting on Twitter with billionaire Elon Musk, after the entrepreneur responded to a challenge from the WFP chief to commit his billions of dollars to the cause of ending world hunger. Musk said he would sell $6 billion in stock if Beasley could demonstrate how that money would end world hunger.

“Congratulations, Elon!” Beasley tweeted in response to news that Musk’s personal wealth grew by more than $36 billion in one day after rental car giant Hertz planned to order 100,000 Teslas. “1/6 of your one day increase would save 42 million lives that are knocking on famine’s door.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tapped Beasley to take the WFP’s helm in 2017, passing over several other seasoned humanitarian experts in the hope that having a Trump ally in the United Nations corner could prevent the U.S. president from drastically slashing funding to U.N. food programs.

In the end, U.S. financial contributions to the WFP actually grew after Beasley took the helm, the result of Congress’s support, which resisted White House efforts to rein in funding for humanitarian assistance.

Since his appointment, Beasley has grappled with surging hunger crises around the world that were exacerbated by aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic. Although Beasley is widely viewed in Washington as a Trump-era U.N. appointment, he has cooperated closely with the new Democratic administration, including some of Biden’s top foreign aid and diplomatic officials. He has met with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) chief Samantha Power and spoken on panels alongside her discussing the humanitarian crises in Yemen and East Africa.


For years, the United Nations had been pressing to secure a U.N. aid corridor into rebel-controlled territory in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces, the strongholds of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which was participating in talks between rebels and the government.

With the fall of longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, toppled by a wave of popular protests, Beasley took advantage of the new leadership to press for open humanitarian assistance access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile. He got it.

In October 2019, Beasley flew to the Nuba Mountains and danced with locals to celebrate the resumption of aid. It was the first time in seven years that aid was permitted in Sudanese territory under rebel control. In January 2020, Beasley accompanied Hamdok on a visit to the Nuba Mountains, where they met with Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. It was the first visit to the region by a senior Sudanese official in nearly a decade.

The outreach resulted in the March signing of a preliminary peace pact between Burhan and Hilu, one that enshrined the notion of religious freedom in Sudanese politics.

“At the World Food Program, we use food as a weapon of peace,” said Beasley, who signed the declaration as a witness at a March ceremony in Juba, South Sudan, with Burhan, Hilu, and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit. But follow-up talks foundered on the issue of religion.

Hilu, who represents many of Sudan’s southern Christian and animist communities, had previously insisted the new Sudanese government formally embrace a secular identity, a position that was rejected by the country’s Muslim northern leadership. The two sides agreed on a compromise that explicitly promoted freedom of religion in the declaration. But when talks regarding a formal peace agreement resumed, Hilu reneged on the compromise language and insisted the agreement include an explicit reference of the term “secularism.”

The issue emerged as a critical stumbling block in the talks, which sputtered and stalled over the summer.

“It was a serious sticking point,” said one U.N. official.

Several diplomats have expressed concern that one of Beasley’s top aides, Gavin Gramstad, played a role as unofficial advisor to Hilu and encouraged the Sudanese rebel leader to persist in his demand to include the term in the final agreement. “[Gramstad] thought it was a good negotiation tactic,” the official said.

Gramstad—a former Republican congressional aide who once ran a refugee camp for Sudanese refugees from the Nuba Mountains on behalf of Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse—told associates the demand would give the rebel leader greater leverage in the talks.

Gramstad did spadework for Beasley and previously worked closely with the Trump administration in its push to secure Sudan’s recognition of Israel, several former U.S. officials and a former U.N. official said, helping to fashion a humanitarian assistance package that included a provision of $20 million from USAID through the World Food Program to sweeten the deal. Sudan signed the Abraham Accords in January, joining the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in recognizing the state of Israel—an eleventh-hour diplomatic achievement for the Trump administration.

Gramstad declined a request to comment and referred questions on his role to WFP’s spokesperson.

Beasley speaks during an interview in Rome on Oct. 9, 2020.

Beasley speaks during an interview in Rome on Oct. 9, 2020. Gregorio Borgia/AP

But it is Gramstad’s diplomatic efforts in the days and weeks following Sudan’s coup that have rattled U.S. and Western diplomats who felt the WFP team was muddying the waters by opening a new diplomatic backchannel on already sensitive negotiations.

Gramstad was in Khartoum at the time of the coup and has since been engaged in discussions with Sudan’s key political figures in search of a political settlement. Diplomats said Gramstads activities have largely played out in secret, fueling a series of unsubstantiated rumors in Khartoum, such as Gramstad being a Biden administration emissary seeking to broker a deal that would preserve the military’s interests at the protest movement’s expense. Diplomats said they sought and received assurances from U.S. officials that Gramstad has no link to the U.S. government’s policies, and it remains unclear whether Beasley and Gramstad actually formulated a detailed peace plan, as rumors portend.

But Gramstad was laying the groundwork for Beasley’s diplomatic mission to Khartoum late last month when Perthes urged him to hold off, citing fragile diplomatic conditions on the ground.

Conditions have only worsened since then. Earlier this month, Sudanese authorities detained three senior members of the ousted coalition shortly after they met with Perthes. The coalition, known as the Forces of Freedom and Change, were also excluded from the new sovereign council announced by Burhan. The announcement dashed hopes that the interruption to Sudan’s democratic transition could be reversed. Diplomatic efforts by Western powers and the African Union to get Burhan to back away from the power grab stalled. The United States has paused $700 million in financial assistance to Sudan since Burhan’s coup and could inflict more economic reprisals if Burhan digs in his heels.

“The prime minister remains under house arrest,” Perthes told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. “There are ongoing arrests of political and civil society figures and protesters in Khartoum and other parts of the country. And we see a series of dismissals and new appointments of mid- to senior-level government appointments by the military, with some of the replacements being affiliated with the former regime that was overthrown in 2019.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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