Fitting easily into the most conservative wing of the Bush administration, Josette Sheeran was from the outset an unlikely candidate to run the World Food Program, the world's largest humanitarian aid organization, which has frequently been at odds with Washington.
She had already been appointed to senior roles in the government, with the A-list of connections common in that circle, from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Jack Kemp, the former New York congressman and free-market champion. But what made her more unusual was her long tenure as a major figure in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church — she left it in the late 1990s — a conservative church that many Americans distrust.
Facing questions about her background, Ms. Sheeran, now ensconced as the United Nations World Food Program's executive director, sighs in exasperation. She notes that in the past year she has served on a high-level advisory panel studying United Nations reorganization. She makes it plain that she is passionate about her new position.
"When you come to the U.N. you know you're representing all countries, and when you see a hungry child you feel you represent all humanity," she said, working late on a Friday evening in her new office on the outskirts of Rome. "That is a different perspective than representing a government, the U.S., and I understand that."
She said that her knowledge of the United Nations and her longstanding belief in "empowering people" to help themselves, rather than just handing out emergency food, is the right focus for the sprawling agency she inherited, and which she hopes to streamline. She refuses to discuss her affiliation with the Unification Church. "My faith is a deeply personal matter," she said.
She was appointed the World Food Program's executive director in November, having been nominated and aggressively promoted by the Bush administration over vociferous objections from the European Union. But it was not until April that she assumed her position at the agency, which feeds 90 million people worldwide.
Since her arrival at the World Food Program, Ms. Sheeran has generally impressed staff members with her enthusiasm and grasp of the issues. But many within the agency were initially "uncomfortable" and "nervous" about her appointment, thinking that her background was a "bad fit" for the mission of the agency, said one staff member who has worked in many postings over two decades. The staff member and all those contacted in researching this article spoke on condition of anonymity because they would be working under Ms. Sheeran.
Many people favored Tony Banbury, an American who has had a long run with the group's Asia operations, the staff member said, adding: "We know there's a lot of politics behind the appointment. We've worked with all types, so we're used to it."
The United States, as the largest donor, has traditionally exercised enormous influence on the selection of the group's director. But this time around, the European nations were dismayed enough by Ms. Sheeran's credentials that they tried to block the appointment. The European Union strongly favored a Swiss candidate, Walter Fust, a European diplomat said, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
Much of the antagonism centered on aid policy. The World Food Program and the United States State Department have long crossed swords over Washington's practice of donating surplus agricultural crops and requiring that they be shipped on American vessels and planes to the developing world — all in an effort to promote American commerce. The agency prefers cash donations that can be used for food purchases locally, which is cheaper and helps local economies. The European Union is the World Food Program's second largest donor, and its donations are all in cash.
After strong lobbying from the Bush administration, Ms. Sheeran's appointment was approved, the diplomat said.
Ms. Sheeran says that she was picked in a "rigorous process," and that she has been well prepared for the post. "I made a case for my leadership to all stakeholders," she said. "I think W.F.P. draws on so much of my background and many decades of thinking about how you break the cycle of poverty."
Ms. Sheeran is brimming with ideas about the terrain she has inherited, and she has been as good as her word on representing the poor, not just her government. She now says she "would prefer cash" donations to food aid, though, she adds, "We will take anything that will help."
She plans to expand the agency's school-based meals for children, giving them food to take home for the evening as well. She is studying the impact that global warming and the diversion of crops to biofuels will have on the availability of food in the developing world. "There could be challenging times ahead, and we want to have an effective toolbox ready," she said.
Ms. Sheeran was born in 1954 and educated at the University of Colorado. Shortly after college she joined the Unification Church, and was a powerful figure in the organization until she left, moving up the mastheads of newspapers owned by the church, and finally of the conservative Washington Times, one of its holdings.
She spent more than a decade at the paper, eventually becoming its managing editor. During that time, she gained a large measure of recognition, serving as a Pulitzer Prize juror for foreign news in 1996 and chairwoman of the cartooning jury in 1997.
But her tenure was not without its quirks. In April 1992, she became the first and only American journalist to interview the North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung, whom she described as a "reflective, confident elder statesman." At that moment, Mr. Kim's policies were propelling his country into a decade of famine, which ultimately killed at least half a million people.
Before she left the paper, she was named by Washingtonian magazine as one of the capital's 100 most powerful women.
She says she was inspired to a life of public service by her father, Jim Sheeran, a highly decorated World War II veteran and New Jersey state official who died in July. In particular, she recalls how her father, upon returning from the war, organized a food drive to assist the same European villages he had helped to liberate. When Ms. Sheeran was sworn in to recent government jobs, her father was unfailingly at her side.
But they did not always see eye to eye. A 1976 Time magazine article about distraught parents trying to deprogram children who had joined the Unification Church described Mr. Sheeran's efforts to "rescue" Josette, then 21, from a church-run school that he accused of "cruel and exotic entrapment" of "minds, souls and bodies."
After leaving journalism, she became the head of Empower America, a Reagan-era conservative research organization that is dedicated to fighting poverty through free-market forces and individual responsibility. Later, she moved to the Bush administration, where she specialized in programs aimed at moving developing nations toward economic self-sufficiency.
"This has been a passion of mine since I met Jack Kemp on a plane, about how economic policy ideas can have an impact in Harlem or in developing nations," she said.
She said, for example, that her agency needed to fill the chasm between emergency food aid — it feeds 2.1 million people a day in the Darfur region of Sudan, for example — and long-term development.
"Once we have a peace, that doesn't mean that grain is growing and roads exist for farmers to get crops to market," she said. "We need to help people with returning to self-sufficiency, too."