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‘2021 Is Going To Be Catastrophic.’ For the Director of the World Food Programme, Winning the Nobel Peace Prize Is No Cause for Celebration

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World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley was in the Niger capital Niamey in the Sahel—a vast sweep of semi-arid land that separates the Sahara from the Savannah—when he got the call from the Nobel Committee telling him the UN agency had won the 2020 Peace Prize. Al Qaeda cells operated to the north, ISIS to the south, and in the territory between the WFP was working to rehabilitate thousands of hectares of farmland. One of the program’s aims was to prevent food insecure locals from falling prey to jihadist groups, who choke supply corridors and use hunger as a recruitment tool.

It was not a situation in which the former Republican Governor had expected to find himself after he left U.S. politics in 2004, and set-up a non-profit. When the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley nominated Beasley for the organization’s directorship in February 2017, “I said, no way, I’m not going to work for the UN,” he told TIME from his home in South Carolina last month, where he was spending the Thanksgiving Holiday. “Three and a half years later, it’s been the greatest job of my life, no doubt about that.”

Read more: The World Food Programme Won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s How the Pandemic Has Made Its Work Even More Essential

Humans have made incredible progress towards poverty eradication over the past two centuries. According to oft-cited (if controversial) chart compiled by the Bill Gates Foundation-funded Our World in Data, some 94% of the world’s population endured extreme poverty 200 years ago. By 2015, that designation applied to about 10% of the world’s people, according to Our World in Data—although development experts have contested its metrics and definition of poverty. In recent years, however, the world has veered off the track from the U.N.’s goal of achieving zero hunger by 2030. In fact, almost 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, up by nearly 60 million from 2014, according to the World Health Organization. The slide does not augur well for a world set to see a population increase of two billion by 2050 and projected to experience more frequent and more devastating extreme weather events driven by climate change. For the first time in a long time, Beasley says, “we’re going backward.”

The pandemic has dramatically accelerated that trend. By June this year, the WFP was undertaking the biggest program in its history, assisting some 138-million people, up from a record 97-million in 2019. Today, Beasley says, there are 270-million going hungry in the countries where the WFP operates. That demands an urgent humanitarian response.

What eventually persuaded Beasley to take the WFP job, he says, was a conversation with his friend Tony Hall, a former Democratic Congressman who had served as chief of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome. “If there’s every god’s work on earth, this is it,” Beasley recalls Hall telling him. In subsequent meetings, both Democrat and Republican Senators assured Beasley of their support for the WFP, no matter what transpired under the then-new executive. And when Beasley eventually got in front of President Trump, he found him receptive. “He got it, so, fortunately, all our budget numbers went up,” Beasley says. He adds that President-elect Biden has long backed the WFP’s work and he also expects to receive “tremendous support from the Biden Administration.”

On Dec. 10, Beasley will accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the WFP. In an interview ahead of his acceptance speech, edited for length and clarity, he told TIME about the impact of COVID-19 on global food security, why 2021 promises to pose a far greater challenge than 2020, and what can be done to mitigate the hunger pandemic.

David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), is seen at the WFP headquarters in Niamey on October 9, 2020.Souleymane Ag Anara— AFP/Getty Images

Why do you think the Nobel Committee awarded this year’s Peace Prize to the World Food Programme?

I think they were doing two things. They were saying thank you to the women and men who put their lives on the line every day to bring peace, stability, and food security. But the second thing is they were sending a message to the world: the hardest work is yet to come for the World Food Programme because the needs of 2021 are going to be so critical that failure to address those needs will result in war, famine, and mass migration.

Even before COVID hit, the world was not on track to meet the UN’s goal of zero hunger by 2030. What’s behind the growth in food insecurity?

It’s heartbreaking. For the past three years, we’re going backward for the first time in a long time. We’ve calculated that pre-COVID, about 60% of the increase in world hunger was conflict-driven. About 80% of the WFP’s expenditure is in conflict zones. On top of that, in certain locations, there were climate extremes: some cyclones, but primarily droughts and flooding. Thirdly, it was due to general governance issues. In my opinion, even with climate extremes, we can end world hunger. But it’s just not doable without the wars being ended.

What kind of impact has COVID-19 had on global hunger, and what are you expecting to come down the line?

After COVID, the number of people we projected to be marching to the brink of starvation went from around 135 million to 270 million. That’s a brutal number. As economies contract, particularly western economies, that has a ripple effect through the Middle East and Africa. Then there are the unintended consequences of decisions made in a vacuum. At the peak of the COVID crisis in May, you had 1.6 billion kids out of school—370 million of those missed out on school meals. For many of them, the school meal is the only meal they receive in a day. So they are now going to be more vulnerable to not just COVID but also measles, cholera, diphtheria, and malaria. You won’t believe how many ministries of health, or presidents or prime ministers I’ve had to call and say: if you shut down that port, or this distribution point, or that border, I’m not going to be able to get the food in.

Conflict leads to food insecurity but presumably, it works the other way around too. Has the pandemic made future conflict more likely?

Yes, it goes both ways. For example, when you lock down a country, if you don’t have a safety-net program in place and parents can’t feed their kids, you’re going to have riots and destabilization. We’ve already had riots in some places—we’ve been able to come in and calm things down. Or you’re going to have mass migration. In Syria, for example, our surveys show that people will move two, three, four times in Syria before they will actually leave. But if they don’t have food security and some degree of peace, they will do what any mother and dad would do to find food and peace for their children: they’ll leave. Our research shows that for every one percent increase in hunger, there is a two percent increase in migration out of that country. Another thing that’s rampant in, for example, the Sahel, is that extremist groups will use hunger as a recruitment tool. If they can cut off access, then they use food to recruit. I’ve had a lot of mothers tell me their husbands didn’t want to join Boko Haram but they didn’t have any food for their children and were starving to death. I’ve got areas right now that we don’t have access to in Burkina Faso and other places where extremists are recruiting.

How good a job did the international community do this year in insulating the least food secure nations from the impact of the pandemic?

The international community did an amazing job of averting famine. We raised about $8.4 billion; then economic stimulus programs and deferral of debt helped avert famine this year. But our numbers for 2020 were based on mostly robust 2019 budget forecasts, so there was plenty of extra money for emergency reserves. I’m really concerned about 2021 because we’ll need almost double that. Altogether we need US$15 billion to assist some 138 million people in 2021. This includes about 30 million people, mostly in conflict-affected areas, who are already in a bad state. If we cannot reach them for any reason—funding or logistics—they risk paying the ultimate price. Assisting these 30 million people alone for one year will cost about US$5 billion. The other 10-billion goes into stabilization and food security in locations where we’re presently operating. Meanwhile, COVID has not run its course—in fact, to the contrary. Economies have contracted. Remittances are down. The equivalent of 495 million full-time jobs has been lost, with lower-middle-income countries the hardest hit. So, 2021 is looking catastrophic.

How quickly does the WFP need to set up these social safety nets, and how do you convince donors to finance it when their own economies are contracting?

We’re talking about months, not years. In Yemen, the worst humanitarian disaster on earth today, we will have famine conditions in the next few months in my opinion. The number one donor we have is the United States. European countries are doing their part. But the Gulf States are just not stepping up. The Gulf States need to pick up this tab. If they do, then it takes the pressure off the western donors to put money into East Africa, the Sahel, and elsewhere.

I don’t see the donors passing big tax increases on to their people. So then the question is how are you going to take the money you have and be more strategic with it? It’s like the Titanic, you’ve got spilled wine on the carpet in the ballroom, you got a broken tile in the bathroom, and you’ve got an iceberg out front. Which one do you think you outta focus on? You need to focus on famine, destabilization, and mass migration.

How can we build greater resilience in the global food supply chain?

The world has built some amazing systems in the past 200 years. But a pandemic like this exposes how fragile and vulnerable any system can be. It particularly exposes the vulnerability of low and middle-income countries. As economies level out, it’s about going back to improved business, not business as usual. We’ve got to strengthen the supply chain, strengthen food security systems. It’s not sufficient just to provide aid in developing countries. It needs to be sustainable so those countries are not so vulnerable to a supply chain disruption. It’s one of the things that I’ve really challenged the United Nations on, as well as donor nations: you’ve been in some of these countries for 30 or 40 years and you have nothing to show for it? Don’t you think at some point you need to step back and say, what do we need to be doing differently? One of the things I’ve been pushing donor nations on is to act more strategically and comprehensively. When you start looking 50 years out: the world population, climate change, destabilization, mass migration, lack of food, these are very serious issues that have got to be thought through. Right now, though, it’s all hands on deck because of COVID. We’re just dealing with putting out fires.


Correction, Dec. 9

The original version of this story misstated World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley’s political experience. He is a former governor, not a former congressman.

The original version of this story misstated the year the UN targeted to achieve zero hunger. It’s 2030, not 2020.

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Write to Joseph Hincks at joseph.hincks@time.com