Generations are Being Lost to Displacement. That Can – and Must – Change. A Conversation with David Beasley and Henrietta Fore

Fall 2021

Generations are Being Lost to Displacement. That Can – and Must – Change.

– Stephanie Bowen

A conversation with David Beasley and Henrietta Fore.

When the Wilson Quarterly decided to take a deep dive into human displacement, two humanitarian and development leaders were top on our list to interview: David Beasley, who heads up the World Food Programme, and Henrietta Fore, who leads UNICEF. Both UN agencies, lead proudly by Americans, work closely with displaced populations, delivering a wide variety of assistance, from urgent needs in emergencies, to longer-term support to create resilient communities. The numbers – and the programs – are impressive.

On 3 March 2020 in the Syrian Arab Republic, World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley (left) and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore (standing, right) meet third grade children at Tal-Amara school in southern rural Idlib. The 9-year-old students have witnessed nothing but conflict, as they are the same age as the crisis.
Omar Sanidiki/UNHCR.

The World Food Programme, or WFP, works in around 80 countries, assisting 115.5 million people. Almost one-third of whom – 33.1 million people – are refugees, internally displaced persons, or returnees. The goal of the WFP is clear: end world hunger. Its work ranges from traditional food handouts to more innovative programs that support people buying their own food and establishing sustainable agriculture practices for long-term food security, even in the midst of displacement. WFP is also the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, commonly known as UNICEF, works in more than 180 countries and territories around the world, helping over 300 million children from early childhood to adolescence. They focus on providing the essentials: nutrition, health, education, water and sanitation; and protecting children’s rights. With nearly 35 million children who are migrants, refugees or displaced worldwide, assisting children on the move, is a core part of their work.

The drivers of human displacement and migration – conflict, poverty, political upheaval, climate-related disasters – are also the drivers of hunger; these same events put the most vulnerable children at even greater risk. This makes WFP and UNICEF central to global efforts for a humanity in motion, and to identifying solutions that will effectively address this growing crisis. 

So, we turned to Wilson Center Director, President and CEO Mark Green, who worked closely with both Beasley and Fore during his time leading the U.S. Agency for International Development. He interviewed the Executive Directors separately, but the two leaders, whose agencies frequently operate side-by-side and in close collaboration, touched on similar themes. We have edited the conversations into one for added clarity, and hope you learn as much about the complexities of the human migration crisis as we did.

Mark Green: When you go home, how do you answer the question of what does the World Food Programme and UNICEF do?

David Beasley: You know, it's really quite amazing how many people don't know that much about the World Food Program. Those who are engaged in human suffering around the world do, but if you're not in that sphere you just don't realize that the World Food Program is the world's largest humanitarian operation. We're feeding about 120 million people on any given day, week, or month. And if we were not out there, you would not have just famine or the starvation of millions of people, but you would have destabilization of nations and mass migration beyond your furthest imagination. And guess what? It's going to cost a thousand times more to deal with it after the fact than it is to do what we do. It’s probably the best investment that the American taxpayer can put to any strategic foreign aid program on earth, bar none. I wouldn't have said that 10 years ago because I didn't know how strategic the World Food Program was.

Henrietta Fore: A lot of people know the name UNICEF, but they don't know what we do. So, I talk about the fact that we help children, that means 18 and under, so it includes adolescents. We work in nutrition, health, education, water and sanitation, and protection. And we are feeling all the pressures of the day, through young people. They care a lot about getting a modern education and having digital connectivity, so we care about it. They care a lot about climate change, so we care about it. They care a lot about mental health, so we care about it. We respond to where young people are, what they're thinking about, and what they're dreaming about. I also tell them that we are part of the United Nations, but we collaborate with USAID and many of the U.S. government agencies, and the United States is our biggest supporter.

MG: What was your biggest surprise? What were you not prepared for?

DB: I think the massive scale of hunger and suffering around the world, primarily driven by conflict was probably the biggest surprise. You just can't believe, in today's world – and this is pre-COVID – with so much wealth and so much excess, that there could actually be people dying from hunger. And then you realize that every four seconds someone's dying from hunger, and you just say, “You've got to be kidding me. That just can't be real.” And then you see the ripple effect of that reality in nations. When you go into some of these refugee camps that have been there for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, it is a disgrace to humanity that we have just totally forgotten about these people and are not doing everything we possibly can to reintegrate then back into the communities, because you’ve got children two, three generations, who know nothing but a refugee camp.

When you go into some of these refugee camps that have been there for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, it is a disgrace to humanity that we have just totally forgotten about these people and are not doing everything we possibly can to reintegrate then back into the communities, because you’ve got children two, three generations, who know nothing but a refugee camp. -David Beasley

HF: I think the most obvious one is that we weren't prepared for a pandemic. It was something that you did in your future scenario planning, but it seemed a remote possibility in comparison to what just unfolded. And we found that we're a big supply hub – half of the world's vaccines go through UNICEF. I didn't know that. I also didn't realize that you could listen to a generation, and see what was coming, and see what they cared about, and then you could organize all of your programs to make sure that you're meeting their needs. And that's a very different way to run a large, global organization.

Displacement Today: Beyond the U.S.-Mexico Border

MG to DB: Too many people, when we talk about displacement, are thinking about the Texas border and that’s it. I have been impressed with how the World Food Program has gone about its work in the challenging settings of refugee and displacement camps, but also the range of settings in which you work. And what I’m particularly interested in, is not only the traditional food assistance which I think people understand, but the work that you have done to maintain human dignity through the process. 

DB: You know, we used to do nothing but commodities, bringing trucks of food in, and there are a lot of places that we do that continuously. We feed 120 million people, we adopt every modality that's necessary, given the circumstances on the ground in every particular nation on the earth that we're in. So, where there's no food available, we bring in food commodities; where there can be a marketplace, we will do cash-based transfers.

March 6, 2020 at the Kahramanmaras Temporary Accommodation Center in Turkey, children play outside. The camp currently hosts more than 11,000 Syrian refugees, half of them children. It offers schooling for 3,700 children and training opportunities for young people. Onur Onat/UNICEF.

When I first came in, I was very hesitant about cash-based transfers, because how do you assure that the money's going to get to the children, to the people in need? We've developed protocols and systems in place that assure that the money and all the food reaches the beneficiary. I can tell you when you give the money to a mother, a penny doesn't get wasted. They make certain they get the best food, the best quality to the children. And when we do cash like that, number one, it helps stimulate the local economy. We're now putting in over $2 billion worth of cash-based transfers liquidity into the marketplace, which ends up helping more people than the beneficiaries we are directly serving. 

Number two, historically we brought food in from outside sources, and we still bring over a million metric tons of food from 20 states in the United States alone. But when we can buy locally in the region and help stimulate market opportunity to help the small holder farmers – in other words, develop a supply chain system – then we end up backing out and are no longer needed. That's our goal. 

But we've changed so much the way we operate in the last 10 years. We were doing $69 million worth of cash-based transfers less than 10 years ago. Now we're doing $2 billion and it's a game changer out in the communities. Because when you provide that financing to the family, they're now taking care of their family. And in a lot of places where women are oppressed and don't get to make any of the decisions that are critical to a family, and we put the women in charge of buying the food and give them the money it's amazing what happens. It’s remarkable to see how it's enhancing the stability of lives. We know when women have freedom and liberty and rights, that communities thrive all over the world. 

In a place like Cox's Bazar [in Bangladesh], we went from zero to a million [displaced] in just a couple of months, because of the atrocities that were taking place in Myanmar. When we were scaling up to a million people so fast, we were just trying to feed people, keep them alive. Then once we were able to stabilize in the refugee camp, we began developing market opportunities. And when the women can come in and choose which rice or which lentils, and then compare this store to that store, that competition keeps the prices really competitive. It means we get more bang for the buck and women can feed their children more. It's a healthy thing. And human dignity is a very, very important part. I haven't found a mother in the richest place in the world has a greater heart for her children than the mother in the poorest places in the world. 

In Khartoum, Sudan, a young woman shares challenges young people face during an informal meeting with UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore. Shehzad Noorani/UNICEF.

MG to HF: Are things different for those children who are in displaced settings, whether it be a scattered, community-based site or camps? Do they have a different set of priorities, and do they approach the future any differently?

HF: It's remarkably the same worldwide, what young people care about. The number one issue we hear about is, I want a modern education, and I want to learn something in school that could actually bring me a livelihood. There's an enormous amount of stress and anxiety that you're not learning anything relevant in school, and that you can't make a living for yourself, and as a result, what are you going to be doing? And then we older people seem to be sitting in all the jobs, and during the pandemic, they noticed a lot of the jobs were falling away, so it created a lot of anxiety and fear and stress for young people. That's global.

It doesn't matter if you are a displaced young person, or if you are one who's been living in your community. And it could be rural, or it can be developed, or developing. We think that if you're displaced, it means that you're a beneficiary of services, when what the young people are saying is, they want to be part of the solution. They want to be working on whatever it is. They're ingenious. 

You'll be walking around in a camp, and you'll see a mask cut in places to become a water filter for the faucet that, you know, they're getting water from for cooking and drinking. And it was just created by a young person who decided that that could be a good idea. Or you'll see something that they've done with a bicycle wheel. Or they've been ingenious about how to use whatever is around them. So, innovation, and frugal innovations, are something that creates a lot of interest and excitement. They're solving problems. And they're more ingenious than those of us who live in a world of plenty, where there's an automobile outside, where there's food in the refrigerator, that there is a refrigerator. They don't have that, so they're very creative. And that is a great entrepreneurial skill. And that is going to serve them well in the future.

Frugal innovations are something that creates a lot of interest and excitement. They're solving problems. And they're more ingenious than those of us who live in a world of plenty. -Henrietta Fore

Politics, Culture and Security: A Careful Navigation

MG to DB: I think one of the untold stories of your success in leadership has been about working in places that are difficult politically. The camps along the border with Venezuela, and Yemen, where people like me were always banging on your door saying, "You gotta make sure that none of this money gets into the hands of bad guys." Talk a little bit about some of those measures that you guys took.

DB: I know I've told you many times to keep the pressure on us. When you're global and you're spending $8, $9 billion over the year, things can go off track somewhere. And that's in addition to corruption issues. You’ve got diversion issues, supply chain disruption issues, then you’ve got severe conflict areas where you have ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and you’re figuring out how you move supplies in a war zone. I have a political friend, a leader in the United States who said, "You can't be talking to Al-Qaeda or ISIS!" I said, "Well, when you're driving that truck 150 miles down that road and all of a sudden ISIS shows up with a machine gun and three other soldiers, you got guns pointed at your head, you are going to talk to them, and we do." We sit down and explain what we're doing, why we're doing it and it's amazing most of the time even the most belligerent militants out there will allow us to move forward. Not all the time, but most of the time.

And when we don't have enough money to reach all the people we need, I use that as leverage against the countries in places where they want to play games with diversion of food. I say "If you are going to steal, divert, and create hassles, we'll shut it down here and move it over there. And when we shut it down and you haven’t any food at all, you’re going to have riots and protest." It makes a difference.

And the protocols and the systems that we put in place, not just with the commodities, but also with cash, with the artificial intelligence and the technology that we have, we can find [out anything]. And of course, we've got phone numbers [posted to] call us if you see a diversion of food. There’re so many things in place that will notify us there's something's going wrong.

And, when something does go wrong, what do you do about it? Do you address it immediately and transparently? We never would hide anything. I tell my team on the ground, "Look, we're in the hardest areas on earth, bad things are going to happen." The donors, the taxpayers want to know when it happens, did you address it? Did you bring it to our attention? Because if you do and you did, then we know we can trust you, going forward.

MG to HF: How does UNICEF interact with young people in camps? What are the services that you provide there, where obviously there are numerous challenges in those displaced settings? I remember vividly seeing your work firsthand in Cox’s Bazar, but in the early months after the flood of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, there was resistance from the host country government, about setting up schools and what we might call more traditional classrooms, which would imply a long-term crisis, more permanence.

HF: Learning centers is what we began with [in Cox’s Bazar]. Because we had a lot of children coming out of Myanmar, who were speaking in the Myanmar language, and had left a school system, and they were now in a camp. So, setting up learning centers was important. And there are classes that we are doing with some of the local NGOs, like BRAC, on skills training – you could become a tailor, or you can repair motorcycles, or you can try to repair cell phones. You'll learn trades. And that mix, of foundational education and skills, is very important. And the type of education evolved with the length of time that the children and young people were in the camp.

And that’s a key understanding for the world of humanitarianism and development. You have to start where you can and begin. And that's what children need. School is just one part of that. But you then realize that you can formalize, and you can adapt. So now we have the formal curriculum. It means that students can take their exams. We’re also getting distance learning in place. So, it evolves, and to your point about being entrepreneurial between humanitarian and development work, many of the displaced will be there for years. Many of these conflicts that they're running from are more brutal, deeper, more serious. And they will last for years.

MG to HF: I think we have host country governments which are generous and hospitable. Early on, they don't want to believe that this could be a long-term presence, but sadly, as we see in nearly every part of the world, inevitably, it is. I remember telling people that Cox's Bazar is one of the good places in the sense that it is organized, and it is an actual place, when we have so many families who are displaced and scattered. They have to be harder to reach and harder to provide those services to. Isn't that right, that that's a challenge in and of itself?

HF: Reaching many of the families is terribly hard. It's what's so heartbreaking about the Tigray region, and Amhara, in Ethiopia. It's just very, very difficult. And that is geographic, so that we don't have access into areas. Sometimes it's because the territory is under a different line of control, so we are not allowed in by a certain party to conflict. As a humanitarian United Nations agency, we talk to everyone. It does not just have to be the recognized government, but we will talk to all of the parties who control territory, in which there are children and young people, so that we can try to reach them. 

Axum, Ethiopia - Feb 11, 2020: Ethiopian children seen on the road from Axum to Gheralta, Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, Africa. Rudi Ernst/Shutterstock.

Sometimes those parties don't want us to help the children, but oftentimes they do, because they see the need. Some of the hardest to reach, for us, are the children that are separated because they are recruited and used by parties to conflict, and sometimes because they are abducted to be used as child brides, and we can't reach them once they leave those areas. But then there's reintegration, and that's a whole other type of a service that UNICEF does all over the world. It's extremely important to get children who have been used or involved in fighting, or who are child brides – and maybe children who bear children – back in school, getting them reintegrated with their age mates, and with their society, so that they can be helpful in the communities.

Hope in the Chaos: No More Generations Lost

MG to DB: In calmer days before we saw the mass migration from Venezuela, and before Yemen truly fell apart, you were working hard to develop tools in places like the Sahel, where your goal was to create conditions to avoid further displacement and unraveling and famine. Let’s talk about that a bit. 

DB: Last year there were about 40 million short-term displacements. Thirty million were because of climate – flash flooding, drought, cyclone – whatever it might be. You might not agree on what's causing the climate to change, but when you go where we are, you see the climate is changing. 

In the Sahel, the Sahara's moving down about a kilometer per year that pushes the herders down into the farmers, then ISIS and Al-Qaeda exploit that destabilizing dynamic. And because of the lack of rain, people start moving. When I talked to members of the Bundestag in Germany or the UK parliament or the EU, it doesn't matter whether you're a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. I would ask, "If I could feed the people and engage the people in community improvement projects like food for asset and land rehabilitation, for no additional cost, would you be supportive now?" Most elected leaders around the world clearly get that. 

In the last five years, with food for asset type programs, our beneficiaries rehabilitated over 3.2 million acres of land that otherwise was not usable. Now they're feeding themselves, and no longer need outside support. We're trying to rebuild the communities, because I have not met a beneficiary yet that said, "Oh, I love, love sitting around getting food." I haven't met that person yet. Particularly the women. 

"When we do a program like that ... here's what happens: migration by necessity drops off the chart, marriage rates of 12-13 year-olds drop off the chart, teen pregnancy drops off the chart, recruitment by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab drops off the chart." -David Beasley

I remember we were on this hillside and a woman said, "Mr. Beasley, because of the World Food Program, I've got five acres of land and I'm no longer just feeding my children and my village. I'm now going to buy five more acres of land and we are going to sell into the marketplace." And that was based on land rehabilitation, capturing water, and harvesting water. When we do a program like that overlaid by a school meals program, work with the local small holder farmers, and the women to grow healthier, more nutritious foods, and create meals for the children at school, here's what happens: migration by necessity drops off the chart, marriage rates of 12-13 year-olds drop off the chart, teen pregnancy drops off the chart, recruitment by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab drops off the chart. So, quantify each one of those, just those alone economically compared to the little bit we're spending, it might be 50 cents, a dollar per week per person. It's a lot cheaper to come in with resilience programs. But we need to scale it up. And that's the great need because, if we do that Mark, we can end almost all displacement caused by climate extreme. Particularly in areas where we have long-term displacement because of climate extremes and conflict, places like the Sahel and other regions where we've got solutions. We just need leaders to provide the long-term comprehensive support and give us the flexibility to do it.

David Beasley visiting WFP resilience program in Ecuador. Photo by Anna Button, courtesy World Food Programme.

MG to HF: When we last spoke, I asked you if there was one thing that you could do, one policy or tool that we back here should be pitching for you, you said providing internet access to displaced families and communities. Does that still hold true?

HF: Yes, well, it can change the world. We are at a turning point in which half of the world is connected, and half is not. Young people are really attracted to digital objects and cell phones. They want it, and they want to learn on it. So, we ought to use that, as a signal to the world, and connect every school, every learner, every teacher, to the internet. We ought to provide the ability for everyone to get a good quality education online. If we could do that, this whole generation could have a level playing field – they could all learn together. If we do not do it, the haves will be rocketing away from the have nots, and we will have a world that is more divided than we've ever seen before. 

"We ought to provide the ability for everyone to get a good quality education online. If we could do that, this whole generation could have a level playing field... If we do not do it, the haves will be rocketing away from the have nots, and we will have a world that is more divided than we've ever seen before." -Henrietta Fore

I know in the last century, when many families saw the introduction of automobiles and of airplanes, it changed how the world looked to them. The internet will do the same. It's even more important for displaced children and families, because one of the issues often is the languages. But with online education, you can get it in your home language, and you can get your home curriculum. 

For example, when the Syrians came to Lebanon, you could see the Syrian students coming into the Lebanese schools. The Lebanese might be in the morning shift, and the Syrians might be in the afternoon or evening shift. But the families began to see each other, they began learning, together. They shared a common language, but it's very different if you were a Syrian that went to Greece, and now you have to learn Greek. You feel so unknowledgeable when you can't understand the language. And so, for displaced children and families, language becomes clear as an early need, and thus online learning, the ability to connect back to your home language and to begin to pick up the new language is extremely important. 

MG to HF: And, what I'm taking from what you're saying is that this isn't just about education. It’s helpful for delivery of health benefits, keeping records and treating people as human beings, right? And, I hear you saying it’s about socialization and civic education, so that young Rohingya girl who is in Cox's Bazar not only develops some basic skills in her own language, but also realizes what's going on in the world around her. 

HF: Absolutely. We do polio vaccines all over the world. We would wish to record the name of that person in a health data bank system. Every child that is born, we would like to register that they are born, so that they have a name and a nationality. And you can only do that if you have simple ways to get that information into a verified government system, so that they have an identity, and they have a nationality.

You want to open up opportunities for young people, and education is the best ladder we know out of poverty. So, if we can help to bring that to many of the young people who are in the camps, and who are displaced – which accelerates with internet connectivity – it gives them a hope, something to work toward. 

Charting a New Course: Final Thoughts from Mark Green

During my time as USAID Administrator, I had a view of human displacement that most do not have; a view that extends way beyond our borders yet impacts our lives in profound ways. The humanitarian work of the World Food Programme and UNICEF is essential, but it is an insufficient task. I fear that if forced migration and displacement is only seen through the humanitarian lens, and not one of development, we will have more generations of lost children. What does that mean? It starts with World Food Programme’s resilience work that David Beasley talked about and UNICEF’s efforts to ensure that displaced children are connected to the larger world around them, that we heard about from Henrietta Fore. It is through efforts like these that opportunities will arise and potential will be fulfilled, not just for the displaced, but for the world.

Stephanie Bowen is the editor of the Wilson Quarterly, Mark Green is the Director, President & CEO of the Wilson Center, David Beasley is the Executive Director of the World Food Program, and Henrietta Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF.

Cover art: The family of Venezuelan refugees Jaro Antonio Pacheco, 38, Araceli Del Carmen Petit Guerra, 35, and their children, Bryan, 14, John  13, Moises, 10, Roseily, 10, Chiquinquira Del Carmen, 7, and Adrian Jose Pacheco, 1, arrive at the Integrated Assistance Centre in Maicao, northern Colombia. © UNHCR/Nicolo Filippo Rosso.