Jun 12, 2022 - World

Scoop: Senators derailed Biden from dumping World Food Program head

David Beasley

World Food Program chief David Beasley. Photo: Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden White House was angling to replace David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, before an extraordinary bipartisan intervention by senators convinced the president to support extending his term, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The potential change at the top of the Rome-based United Nations agency, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, could have complicated the WFP's ability to raise money and deliver food at a critical moment for global hunger.

  • A global food shortage and skyrocketing prices — exacerbated by Russia's war in Ukraine — has threatened the worst hunger crisis in decades, with especially devastating impacts in vulnerable regions like the Horn of Africa.
  • Beasley is warning that up to 323 million people are "marching toward starvation," with 49 million "knocking on famine's door" in 43 countries.

Behind the scenes: Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, was nominated to his job by former President Trump in 2017 for a five-year term — but did not have strong support inside the Biden White House.

  • Beasley did, however, have broad — and bipartisan — backing in Congress, where he earned respect for his fundraising skills and willingness to travel to war zones.

Driving the news: The war in Ukraine and global pandemic have added a new degree of difficulty to the WFP's normal challenges — delivering food where fighting is fierce and droughts are persistent.

  • Millions of Ukrainians are facing food shortages: Germany's agriculture minister accused Russia on Friday of "deliberately using starvation as a weapon."
  • At the same time, the WFP needs to keep open the port in Odessa, where Beasley has visited several times, to facilitate the export of Ukraine's wheat and cooking oil to a world struggling to feed itself after COVID-19 shocks to supply lines.

What they're saying: "I urged that he strongly be considered for an extension because of what I'd seen of his effectiveness in the world and in Congress," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) — a key Biden ally — told Axios.

  • "I've seen David Beasley in action around the world, making a difference, both raising funds for the World Food Program from countries in the Gulf and in Europe," Coons said.
  • "I made pretty clear to the administration you have somebody who has credibility on the Hill," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Axios.
  • "And you'd be making a huge mistake to try to replace him because he has a lot of support on both sides of the aisle," Graham said. "Between Ukraine and famine, it's a sh*tshow out there."
  • A White House spokesperson told Axios: "The Biden administration decided to extend his term by one year due to world events such as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's invasion of Ukraine that have exacerbated global food insecurity." A WFP spokesperson declined to comment.

The big picture: The WFP's executive director is one of several coveted international positions — like the president of the World Bank Group and the first managing director of the International Monetary Fund (the No. 2 slot) — that the U.S. effectively gets to fill.

  • The WFP's executive director's five-year term is out of sync with the U.S. presidency, meaning that presidents often inherit a leader who was installed by the other party.
  • The U.N. — with Biden's consent — gave Beasley a one-year extension in March.

"It's a fat job," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "There's a lot of pressure on the administration" to replace Beasley with a Democrat.

  • The president doesn't officially need congressional consent for the top job at the WFP.
  • Biden does need Senate approval for the U.S. ambassador to the WFP, however. He selected Cindy McCain, the wife of the late Republican Sen. John McCain, for the job.

The bottom line: Beasley has until April of 2023, but so does the White House to find a replacement who has international appeal and support on both sides of the aisle.

Go deeper