Former governor of South Carolina has dedicated his life to making a difference
By Jodi Helmer
David Beasley never ran for student council president in high school or participated in campus political organizations while pursuing a degree at Clemson University, but a lack of political experience didn’t stop him from running for the South Carolina House of Representatives when he was only 20 years old.
“Early on, I’d made a decision that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people, so I began to think about politics,” Beasley recalls. “I felt like politics was the best way to build systems that would outlive you—like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who built a system of government that perpetuated beyond themselves. Work that would be for the common good for all the people. It was, some would say, a naive perspective, but I believe it still is to this day.”
Beasley took advantage of opportunities to build systems and change lives while serving in the statehouse from 1979 to 1992—where his district included Marlboro and Darlington counties—and as governor of South Carolina from 1995 to 1999.
While in office, Beasley focused on economic development, education, welfare, and prison reform. His pro-business initiatives included the Enterprise Zone Act of 1995, which brought $11 billion in capital investments to South Carolina and created more than 50,000 jobs. Beasley also raised teacher pay and implemented a statewide educational technology plan.
“We put more money in education than any time period of South Carolina history without a tax increase, which was really quite extraordinary,” he says.
Public policy think tank The Cato Institute listed Beasley as a “premier tax cutter” who recommended annual tax cuts of more than 1% of state spending per year throughout his time in office.
Although Beasley earned numerous accolades for his efforts to bolster economic development and provide education, jobs, and other opportunities that would positively affect residents in his district, he also drew criticism for some of his initiatives. Along the way, he admits that a life in politics sometimes felt overwhelming.
“When I was 20 and told my mom that I was thinking about running for the House of Representatives, she chewed me out,” Beasley says. “She said, ‘It is dirty, is corrupt, it’ll get you. Don’t you do that.’ It must have been about six years later, eight years later, I said to my mom, ‘I’m getting so frustrated with politics and I’m thinking of getting out.’ She said, ‘Don’t you get out. You are the only one getting things done up there.’”
In 1996, during his first term as governor, Beasley asked the South Carolina Legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the dome of the state house where it had flown below the American flag since 1962. He made the request on live television, telling viewers, “A flag should be a symbol that unites all those standing below it … one that every South Carolinian can look up to with respect, admiration, and the unshakeable knowledge that the flag flies for them.”
Beasley initially opposed moving the flag, but changed his mind after a series of racially motivated violent incidents in South Carolina. In 2000—four years after Beasley suggested moving the flag to the Civil War memorial on the grounds of the statehouse—the legislature followed through. Beasley was no longer in office.
The controversial proposal may have been the reason Beasley lost the 1998 election to Democratic challenger Jim Hodges. Looking back, Beasley says he would have done the same thing.
“I have a lot of people that said, ‘If you hadn’t touched the flag, you would have been reelected,’” he recalls. “I knew before I touched the flag that it would cost me the seat as governor. The easy political thing would have been to wait until after the election, but that’s not my style. I felt it was the time to do it.”
In 2003, Beasley was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his “courage in stepping forward to address this controversial and divisive issue.”
Continuing a Life of Service
Although Beasley decided not to continue in politics, his commitment to public service remained strong. He served as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was involved in global peacebuilding and humanitarian missions throughout Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East.
Beasley declined several opportunities to return to politics during this time.
George W. Bush—a close friend who served as governor of Texas at the same time Beasley was governor of South Carolina—offered opportunities for roles as a cabinet secretary or ambassador. Beasley also received calls after Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
“I’d been there, done that, and didn’t need a title for my ego,” he says. “I just wanted to spend time with my family.”
A conversation with his wife, Mary Wood Payne, changed his mind.
A friend from the United Nations called Beasley to ask if he would be interested in a role as executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP) —a global humanitarian organization that delivers emergency food assistance and helps communities improve nutrition and build resilience.
“My wife, two days before I got the call, made a comment to me that ‘The world’s in trouble and leaders like yourself need to step up,’” Beasley says. “When this friend called, I immediately said there was not a chance I was going to work for the United Nations, and then I remembered what my wife said.”
Beasley called Tony Hall, a Democratic congressman from Ohio who had served as the ambassador to WFP, who told him, “If there was ever God’s work on earth, it’s the World Food Programme. It rises above liberal and conservative politics; it’s just about helping people and feeding them, and keeping countries stable and keeping people alive. It’s the most effective operation in the world.”
All the Democratic and Republican senators Beasley talked to about the organization encouraged him to accept the position. He stepped into the role as executive director in 2017.
In a world where one in nine people does not have enough to eat, WFP is part of a global mission to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition by 2030. In 2019, the organization assisted 97 million people in 88 countries—the highest number in the previous five years. The goal is to use food and food-related assistance to break the cycles of hunger and poverty. Its assistance is more important than ever.
“We are where there’s war and conflict, where climate extremes and weather patterns are causing people to starve to death and areas where, because of COVID, the number of people on the brink of starvation has spiked from 135 billion to 270 billion people,” Beasley says. “The world is at a major crossroads right now. If we don’t address this crisis that we’re facing, we will have mass starvation, destabilization, and mass migration next year. It’s all hands on deck right now.”
Beasley moved from South Carolina to Germany for the role. He spends one-third of his time in the office managing teams, providing guidance and leadership; one-third traveling to war zones and areas affected by natural disasters; and one-third in world capitals such as Berlin, London, Brussels, Paris, and Washington, D.C., raising funds to support global humanitarian efforts.
“When I arrived, we were raising $16 million per day,” he says. “My first goal was to raise more money. I set out a goal to raise $1 million per hour. I’ve reached that goal. Our fundraising went from $5.9 billion to $8.4 billion, but the needs are that much greater.”
In 2020, Beasley accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the WFP. In a press release about the award, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the WFP as the “world’s first responder on the front lines of food insecurity.”
“The fact that we were recognized for the Nobel Peace Prize for what we’ve done in bringing peace and stability speaks for itself,” Beasley says. “We’ve got to take advantage of it to sensitize the world to the issues we’re facing because 2021 is truly going to have famines of biblical proportions if we don’t get the monies and the access that we need.”
Although Beasley accepted the award, he credited his staff for their efforts in WFP’s success. In a video statement, he said, “It’s because of the WFP family. They are out there in the most difficult, complex places in the world where there’s war, conflict, climate extremes—it doesn’t matter. They are out there, and they deserve this award.”
Despite the dangers of traveling to wartorn countries and exposure to COVID— Beasley was diagnosed with the virus earlier this year, but has since recovered—he is committed to creating a legacy of peace.
“I’m an old NASCAR boy,” Beasley says. “I grew up around the NASCAR stock car races, and the last thing you want to do is be on the fourth turn and slow down. I’m 63 now, and I feel like I’m in the fourth turn of my life. I’m not looking to slow down. In the fourth turn, I’m going out in a blaze of glory in terms of doing everything I can to help as many people as I can. I still have the energy to take advantage of all of my relationships and experiences to do as much as I possibly can for peace and stability around the world.”