David Beasley and Pope Francis

Former S.C. Gov. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, shakes hands with Pope Francis inside the Vatican.  Provided

David Beasley tells a story about a recent trip to war-torn Yemen.

He had to pass through front lines and battle zones and negotiate access for World Food Programme deliveries.

At one of the few hospitals still open in the country, he saw children "waste away before my very own eyes."

He asked a doctor who was also the hospital's administrator how many similarly malnourished children come in daily.

Fifty, was the answer, which was followed up by the dire warning there's usually space to handle only 20.

"What do you do (about) the other 30?" Beasley asked.

"He said, 'We send them on to die,'" the doctor responded.

"One of the first times in my life I had to walk out of the room, around the corner and just literally weep," Beasley told Palmetto Politics earlier this month from his home in Darlington before flying back to Rome, where the program is headquartered.

"And I like to think I'm a pretty tough guy," he continued. "But when you watch those little children die unnecessarily, it's heartbreaking."

Beasley is South Carolina's former one-term Republican governor who was thrown out of office in 1998 largely because of his opposition to the state adopting a lottery and his unilateral move backing removal of the Confederate flag at the Statehouse.

But he has witnessed so much more on the world stage long after exiting state politics, taking over as executive director of the United Nations' World Food Programme two years ago.

He's logged tens of thousands of miles visiting more than 50 countries, from a war zone (Syria), to world capitals raising money (Berlin, London, Washington), and then back to another point of global conflict, drought or famine (South Sudan) and so on in circular fashion. 

Yemen, caught in a bloody civil war influenced by rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, he says, is among the worst he's seen so far.

But he adds "I don't know if I can tell you the worst, because there are a lot of worsts."

With former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley stepping down as U.N. ambassador this month, Beasley, 61, is now the highest ranking South Carolina face on the U.N. stage. It's a weird twist given Haley recommended him for the job, which comes with a five-year appointment running to 2023.

Quick to rattle off statistics about the money and need, Beasley says this one is perhaps the most important: more than 90 million people a day are being assisted by the WFP.

"Seeing no food is bad enough," Beasley said. "Seeing people starve from the lack of food is horrible in itself. But to add on food being used as a weapon is just heartbreaking." 

Established in 1961 at the prompting of President Dwight Eisenhower, the WFP began more as an experiment to distribute food assistance through the U.N. system as a response to emergency global crises.

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Today, there is a presence in more than 100 countries or points of the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. A quarter of Beasley's time is in Rome; the other 75 percent is travel and more travel.

While the job is draining, what is making his work more difficult is the amount of media attention that is not being given to the wars and famine now underway. Those conflicts 10 or 20 years ago might have been given dominate play on network airwaves. Instead, most U.S. media today is dominated by President Donald Trump, he says, while most European media is focused on Trump and Brexit, the United Kingdom effort to break from the European Union.

That leaves little air time to bring the scope of global starvation home. Or in emphasizing the fact that ensuring the free flow of food is a means of providing peace on the ground and security to the West, since control and distribution is commonly used as a terrorist recruiting tactic.

Restoring a food economy can be a first line of defense against extremism, he said.

Still, there are reasons to be encouraged, Beasley says. Europe in recent times is giving more financial aid toward food initiatives, as is the U.S. through Congress, he notes, despite Trump's early threats against the U.N.'s funding.

"Not only did it not go down, our funding has increased from the United States," he said.

Beasley said the main positive thing that sticks with him is what happens when food gets through and a sense of normalcy is restored.

"You can be in the worst war zone there is and you'll still see the spark of life in the hearts and the eyes of children," he said, adding. "It doesn't take much to give people hope."

These are the things he'd rather focus on.

"Because otherwise, you won't sleep at all, any night," he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.