Opinion: Go Forth and Responsibly Set the World on Fire
The views expressed herein represent the views of a majority of members of the Caravel’s Editorial Board and are not reflective of the position of the newsroom staff or Georgetown University.
ProPublica released a report on October 11 accusing celebrated NGO More Than Me of covering up dozens of rapes committed by its co-founder while operating a school for girls in Liberia. While these crimes are the responsibility of the perpetrator, the Editorial Board of the Caravel argues that the unconscionable behavior of the NGO reflects a broader culture that celebrates young—mostly white—Americans for, with arrogance and cultural insensitivity, attempting to solve problems far outside of the scope of their knowledge.
In 2008, Katie Meyler, a 26-year-old woman from New Jersey, founded the charity More Than Me to pay poor Liberian girls’ school fees. While Meyler fundraised by posting videos of slum children to Facebook, the day-to-day operations of the NGO were left in control of Macintosh Johnson, a local guide for aid workers who helped to identify girls—mostly former sex workers—who would benefit from More Than Me’s charity.
Johnson was popular in West Point, a slum area near Monrovia, and was praised for bringing Meyler and her money into the community. But over the next six years, dozens of girls accused Johnson of forcing them to watch pornography, raping them, and threatening to kill them if they exposed him. Parents and More Than Me administrators did not inform the police of these accusations. Meyler and Johnson, who were in a relationship, would regularly hold sleepovers with the schoolgirls, despite the concerns of the girls’ social workers. Members of the organization who called into question these practices were told that they simply “didn’t understand the culture” and that “that’s just how they do things here.”
By 2013, More Than Me was receiving several million dollars in donations annually and had opened its own boarding school for vulnerable girls in West Point. Meyler had no experience in education or organizational administration; the school’s board consisted of an Italian prince and cosmetics salesman, a Liberian-American owner of a fair-trade clothing company, and an American who organized trips to Africa for U.S. students.
In January 2014, a student told Iris Martor, the school’s nurse, that Johnson had raped her. Afraid of losing her job and being ostracized from her community for turning on Johnson, Martor waited five months before reporting the accusations to the police. During Johnson’s first hearing, a student identified 30 other victims—a quarter of the school’s population. When confronted by Liberian officials and curious journalists, Meyler called attention to the girls’ prior sex work and emphasized that More Than Me bravely “blew the whistle” in choosing to uncover the abuse.
While Johnson was awaiting trial, the Ebola crisis began. By August, Meyler was in West Point bringing girls into an interim care facility without notifying the Liberian government. When government officials learned of the facility, they refused to sanction it due to the pending rape cases. Despite the Liberian government’s criticism of Meyler’s operation, More Than Me’s Ebola treatment efforts were glowingly covered by the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and myriad other outlets. Meyler was named one of TIME’s People of the Year.
Johnson’s trial resulted in a hung jury. While waiting for another trial, he died of AIDS. At least four victims—and a victim’s baby—also tested positive for HIV.
More Than Me has also been accused of misallocating funds, bribing jurors during Johnson’s trial, and spreading misinformation. Despite these depraved actions, the NGO continues to receive over a million dollars a year in funding and plans to run 500 schools by 2021.
This story epitomizes an all-too-common chain of events. A young American, lacking experience but armed with enthusiasm and sympathetic pictures of African babies, enters a cultural context she knows little about in order to solve a very complicated problem. Rather than surrounding herself with culturally embedded or technically competent advisers, she turns to other white, wealthy, enthusiastic donors eager to make a difference. Together, they ignore the proper channels of their host country, cutting corners and taking liberties afforded to them by their money and the color of their passport (and skin). When the structures they create inevitably falter, they shift the blame to the host country’s culture, saying, “that’s just how they do things here.” While Johnson was the perpetrator and deserved to be brought to justice through the courts, his actions were made possible by a system that prioritizes white do-gooders over mechanisms of accountability.
This system—termed the “white-savior industrial complex”—encompasses so much more than More Than Me. In this decade alone, Invisible Children raised awareness and millions of dollars by stereotyping Ugandans before squandering the money on private planes; Oxfam and Red Cross employees were accused of demanding sex after the earthquake in Haiti in exchange for disaster relief and aid; and in August, a 24-year-old missionary from Oklahoma convicted of sexually abusing orphans in Kenya blamed “pseudo-tribal psychological voodoo” for his crimes. In all of these cases, “white saviors” blamed the culture of the host country for the harm they inflicted.
This editorial board does not seek to critique all international aid efforts. We strongly support the work of culturally-embedded aid organizations whose priorities align with the communities they seek to serve. Individuals can choose to support local NGOs through donations, capacity building, and technical assistance, thus efficiently using resources and making a difference in a responsible and respectful manner. We, the Editorial Board of the Caravel, urge Georgetown students to learn from the international community’s past mistakes, to prioritize local expertise, and to exercise humility when choosing internships or careers in developing countries.
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