Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley was in Niger on Friday when he learned the United Nations agency he leads — the World Food Program — won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Reacting on Twitter, he quickly pointed to the many members of the staff stationed around the globe who every day move tons of food by ship, plane and truck to some of the most inhospitable, war-torn places on the planet.
"I mean this is the first time in my life I’ve been speechless," said Beasley, who took over leadership of the program in 2017 on the recommendation of then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
"This is unbelievable," he continued. "Talk about the most exciting point in time in your life, it’s the Nobel Peace Prize. And it’s because of the WP family. They’re out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world. Whether it's war, conflict, climate extremes, it doesn’t matter, they’re out there and they deserve this award."
We are deeply humbled to receive the #NobelPeacePrize. This is an incredible recognition of the dedication of the @WFP family, working to end hunger everyday in 80+ countries. Thank you @NobelPrize for this incredible honor! pic.twitter.com/bHcS0usWQa— David Beasley (@WFPChief) October 9, 2020
Beasley followed up with four "wows” in a row.
"I can't believe it," he said.
The Nobel committee named the World Food Program the 2020 peace recipient based on its efforts to combat hunger in regions facing conflict and hardship, and at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has driven millions more people to the brink of starvation.
The Rome-based U.N. agency has long specialized in getting assistance to some of the world's most dangerous and precarious places, from air-dropping food in South Sudan and Syria to creating an emergency delivery service that kept aid flowing even as antivirus restrictions grounded commercial flights.
It provided assistance to almost 100 million people in 88 countries last year.
Beasley, whose title is executive director, isn't the sole designated recipient. Experts said the decision to name the WFP collectively — and not because of his leadership individually — in that the committee is making a statement about the type of global cooperation needed to address the state of hunger in the world.
"With this year's award, the (committee) wishes to turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger," said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announcing the award in Oslo. "The World Food Program plays a key role in multilateral cooperation on making food security an instrument of peace."
Beasley may be one of the very few native South Carolinians who can be associated with winning the Peace Prize. President Woodrow Wilson, of Virginia but who lived in Columbia for four years during his childhood, won the prize in 1919 for his efforts to create the League of Nations after World War I.
University of South Carolina history professor David J. Snyder, who teaches a course on the Peace Prize, said one of the deep ironies is that an American is in charge of the program at a time when President Donald Trump has been hostile to the United Nations.
Beasley also arrived to run the program as an Evangelical Christian, Snyder said, drawing skepticism and concern in an arena where he would be dealing significantly in non-Christian areas.
"It's a remarkable thing," Snyder said, adding that the process of naming a winner includes numerous investigations, background checks and whittling down of nominees.
"They go into the weeds," he said.
Beasley, a Republican, of Society Hill in Darlington County, served one term as South Carolina's governor, from 1995-99, and was voted out of office largely on his opposition to a state lottery and his unilateral call to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse.
In Niger's capital city Niamey, WFP staffers greeted Beasley on Friday with cheers and applause as he emerged to address a crowd after the announcement.
"Two things," he told them. "I can't believe I'm in Niger when we got the award, and No. 2, I didn't win it, you won it."
The Nobel Committee said that the problem of hunger has again become more acute in recent years, not least because the pandemic has added to the hardship already faced by millions of people around the world.
"In 2019, 135 million people suffered from acute hunger, the highest number in many years," it said. "Most of the increase was caused by war and armed conflict. The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to a strong upsurge in the number of victims of hunger in the world."
Beasley is one of the millions who has contracted COVID-19, confirming his diagnosis when he was home in March.
In total, WFP estimates that 690 million people suffer some form of hunger in the world today.
It was the ninth award for the U.N. or one of its agencies. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was delighted the award went to "the world's first responder on the front lines of food insecurity."
"In a world of plenty, it is unconscionable that hundreds of millions go to bed each night hungry," he said. "Millions more are now on the precipice of famine due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
The Nobel Committee called on governments to ensure that WFP and other aid organizations receive the financial support necessary to feed millions in countries such as Yemen, Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan and Burkina Faso.
A logistics juggernaut, WFP this year created a global emergency delivery service for humanitarian aid. Officials said the unprecedented effort involved nearly 130 countries and was key in ensuring that aid for the pandemic kept flowing in addition to other assistance, like the drugs and vaccines needed to combat other diseases. Its success was even more marked in a world where commercial air travel nearly ground to a halt.
There was no shortage of causes or candidates on this year's list, with 211 individuals and 107 organizations nominated ahead of the Feb. 1 deadline.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee maintains absolute secrecy about whom it favors before the announcement of arguably the world's most prestigious prize, but WFP had been on the shortlist of Dan Smith, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The award comes with a gold medal and a $1.1 million cash prize that is dwarfed by the funding that WFP requires for its work. So far in 2020, the organization has received almost $6.4 billion in cash or goods, with more than a third — over $2.7 billion — coming from the United States.
Beasley's trip to Niger, where he has been meeting with leaders and visiting villages in the field, follows a three-day visit to neighboring Burkina Faso.
The Sahel region, a band south of the Sahara where both countries are located, is "under attack by extremists and climate extremes" and going through "a devastating" time, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.