AP Interview: WFP chief says 600,000 kids risk famine death

In this Sunday, May 21, 2017 photo, David Beasley, the new executive director of the World Food Program, speaks to The Associated Press, in Amman, Jordan. Beasley, a tough-talking former Republican governor with friends in the Trump administration has become the unexpected booster of the WFP, a United Nations agency, facing the threat of potentially deep U.S. funding cuts. Beasley told the AP Sunday that he will use his Washington connections to defend the cash-strapped U.N. agency in a "dog fight" over the 2018 U.S. budget. (Omar Akour/AP Photo)
In this Sunday, May 21, 2017 photo, David Beasley, the new executive director of the World Food Program, speaks to The Associated Press, in Amman, Jordan. Beasley, a tough-talking former Republican governor with friends in the Trump administration has become the unexpected booster of the WFP, a United Nations agency, facing the threat of potentially deep U.S. funding cuts. Beasley told the AP Sunday that he will use his Washington connections to defend the cash-strapped U.N. agency in a "dog fight" over the 2018 U.S. budget. (Omar Akour/AP Photo)

AMMAN, Jordan — A tough-talking former Republican governor with friends in the Trump administration has become the unexpected booster of one of the United Nations agencies facing potentially deep U.S. funding cuts.

David Beasley, the new executive director of the World Food Program, told The Associated Press that he will use his Washington connections to defend the cash-strapped U.N. agency in what he expects to be a "dog fight" over the 2018 U.S. budget.

The former South Carolina governor said stakes are high. One country, South Sudan, has been struck by famine, three are on the brink of it, 20 million people don't know where their next bite of food will come from and the WFP has received only $2 billion of $9 billion in needed donations for this year.

"You are looking at 600,000 children ... seriously at risk of death if we don't receive the funding we need," Beasley said in an interview. "And if we don't receive the funding we need, then we have to make some very hard decisions. We literally have to determine who lives and who dies, and that's not a decision any of us want to make."

Beyond the moral imperative, Beasley said it's a U.S. security interest not to slash funding for the WFP and other U.N. agencies, including those helping children and refugees. Such aid helps stop migration and contributes to the fight against terrorism, he said.

"If you want to spend another half a trillion dollars on military operations, don't fund the WFP," he said. "Because if a mother or father can't feed their child after a few weeks, they'll turn to terrorist groups and other operations."

Beasley's views seem to run counter to President Donald Trump's "America First" message. Trump has called for drastic cuts to U.S. funding for the U.N. and its agencies. He plans to release his budget blueprint on Tuesday, but an initial proposal in March called for a one-third cut to diplomatic and overseas programming while boosting the U.S. military by $54 billion.

The threatened cuts are a key point of contention between the U.S. and the Europe, Trump's next stop this week after a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank.

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, said over the weekend that such cuts "would create a major security issue worldwide, including in Europe."

The link between aid and migration has been highlighted by the fallout from Syria's 6-year-old civil war which has uprooted millions, including more than 5 million who fled their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have migrated from the region to Europe, in part because underfunded U.N. aid agencies had to cut back food and other support to refugees in overburdened asylum countries neighboring Syria.

Beasley said that while Trump is pushing for U.N. reforms, he believes the president will eventually support U.N. agencies that "really get the job done."

"It is my responsibility to make certain that he (Trump) sees that, and we have all the plans of doing that," he added.

Before taking the job, Beasley met with key decision-makers in the U.S. Congress who he said told him they are committed to supporting current funding levels and "hopefully more" in the coming year. He said the fight against hunger has bipartisan support, noting the lawmakers recently appropriated an additional $990 million for famine relief.

Like Trump, Beasley believes some nations need to contribute more to aid efforts. He said this includes Gulf nations, such as the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, engaged in a civil war in neighboring Yemen, one of the countries facing famine as a result of that conflict. Beasley said his message to the Saudis and others engaged in conflict is that "if you are not going to step up the humanitarian aid, then stop the war."

Beasley spoke to the AP on Sunday evening in Amman, the Jordanian capital, after visiting the kingdom's largest camp for Syrian refugees and a military airport from where WFP food shipments are flown to Syria.

At the airport, he crossed paths with Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and also a former South Carolina governor. Haley, an advocate of U.N. reform who recommended Beasley for the WFP job, on Sunday pledged more U.S. aid for Syrian refugees.

Beasley said he and Haley are friends and that "she clearly understands the value and the importance of the WFP."

"As I have said to some of my friends on the Hill that want reform, I've said, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, because the WFP is getting it done," he said.

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