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UNITED NATIONS —American Cindy McCain will take over as executive director of the United Nations World Food Program when current director David Beasley steps down next month.
"Ms. McCain, a champion for human rights, has a long history of giving a voice to the voiceless through her humanitarian and philanthropic work," said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Qu Dongyu in a statement announcing the appointment.
McCain is a prominent Republican Party member who is currently U.S. ambassador to United Nations agencies in Rome, which include the FAO, the WFP, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
She has been active in U.S. politics for decades as the wife of Arizona Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer in August 2018. Since then, she has forged her own political profile, including backing Democrat Joe Biden in his presidential bid against then-incumbent Republican president Donald Trump in 2020.
Biden appointed McCain to the Rome post in November 2021. Typically, the White House is involved in nominating the U.S. candidate to head the WFP, which is often a U.S.-held post.
McCain has worked in philanthropy, starting the American Voluntary Medical Team in 1988, which provides emergency medical and surgical care to poor children across the world. She has also traveled in her personal capacity on behalf of the WFP, visiting mother and child feeding programs in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
McCain, 68, takes over the agency at a time of unprecedented global need. The WFP says 349 million people across 79 countries are acutely food insecure. The agency is attempting to raise $23 billion this year to reach almost 150 million people worldwide.
In 2022, the WFP reached 160 million people with humanitarian assistance.
"McCain takes over as head of the World Food Program at a moment when the world confronts the most serious food security crisis in modern history and this leadership role has never been more important," the president of the WFP's executive board, Polish Ambassador Artur Andrzej Pollok, said in a statement. "We wish her well and can assure her she will have the full support of the Executive Board."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered his congratulations and said Washington is "deeply invested" in the WFP's continuing success.
"I am confident that she will bring renewed energy, optimism, and success to the World Food Program," Blinken said of McCain.
The Republican chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, and the highest-ranking Democrat, Gregory Meeks, welcomed McCain's appointment saying she is "an exceptionally qualified leader."
"At a time when food insecurity and fuel costs are at an all-time high and there is soaring global hunger, the task of leading the World Food Program is more significant and consequential than ever," they said in a joint statement.
Former leader warns against partisanship
The United States is the WFP's largest contributor, providing about 40% of its budget or $7 billion in 2022, so McCain's political clout will be an asset in securing funding.
But former U.S. ambassador Ertharin Cousin, who headed the WFP from 2012-2017 and is now CEO of the Chicago-based Food Systems for the Future, cautioned that McCain is serving as an international civil servant, not as member of the Republican Party.
"She must serve on a non-partisan basis in order to effectively support the work of the organization," Cousin told VOA. "But having said that, of course, I am not naive that she will need to continue to work with both sides of the aisle in order to secure the commitment from the U.S. for the level of contribution that is required to meet the global food insecurity needs."
Cousin also said it will be important for McCain to keep the organization fit for its purpose.
"You are stewards of taxpayers' dollars from across the globe, and as a result you have a responsibility to make sure the organization remains the efficient behemoth that the world needs," Cousin said.
Outgoing chief Beasley offered his congratulations on Twitter Wednesday, a day ahead of the official announcement.
Outgoing WFP leader praised
Beasley said in mid-December that he would be leaving in April. He has served as the food agency's chief since 2017. In 2020, the World Food Program was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict."
Guterres and the FAO Director-General expressed deep appreciation for Beasley's leadership.
"He has led WFP with a deep compassion for the world's hungry and most vulnerable during what can only be described as unprecedented crises that severely impacted global food security," Guterres and Qu said. "He has humanized for the world the women and children most affected by hunger and has used his powerful voice to bring awareness and substantial resources to one crisis after another."
Beasley's tenure has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented droughts and floods in several developing countries, as well as a steady stream of conflicts, including Russia's invasion last year of Ukraine.
Despite tremendous levels of fundraising, a number of the agency's programs are hurting for cash and facing cutbacks as needs continue to rise.