Philanthropy gone horribly wrong- sexual abuse in Liberia

Published 9th November 2018

A few weeks ago,American founder Katie Meyler temporarily stepped down as CEO of the organisation More than Me (MTM).MTM is a charity registered in the US with operations in Liberia. It was designed to empower young girls in Liberia and provide them with access to education and save them from a life of sexual exploitation. What was meant to be a safe haven and a positive influence for the girls of the township of West Point, Monrovia, turned to be the source of their abuse as co-founder Macintosh Johnson repeatedly raped an estimated 30 girls, all between the ages of 11 and 16.

Meyler first arrived in Liberia as an intern volunteering with an evangelical charity. Inspired by the girls she met there she decided to save them from a life of exchanging sex for: food; water; and money. Her nobel objectives began to bear fruit when her scholarship programme was established and as the project developed they managed to open their very own MTM Academy in 2013. They were educating an estimated 150 girls. Meyler’s ability to fundraise, and dedication to her work saw her raise millions. She was named one of Time Magazine’s People of the Year for her attempts to assist victims of Ebola.

But all that glitters is not gold.

Meyler’s decision making, judgement and lack of qualifications would ultimately jeopardise what she sought to achieve.

Johnson, MTM’s Liberian co-founder, was left in charge of the recruitment process. According to investigations conducted by ProRepublica, an independent, non-profit investigative journalism outfit, Johnson’s became quite powerful in this small community as many saw him as the gateway to a scholarship.

Johnson used his power and influence to take advantage of already vulnerable children. In 2014 Johnson was charged with the rapes of only 10 girls, despite there being indications that there were many more victims.

The abuse came to light when one of the victims went to see the school nurse, Iris Mator. Judging by the symptoms, Mator, could tell that the young 13 year old had a sexually transmitted infection.

When probed as to who she was having sex with, the girl indicated that it was Johnson.

In a short documentary called “Unprotected”, produced by ProRepulica, and containing interviews from former staff members and students, Mator states that she could not immediately tell anybody as Johnson and Meyler were reportedly in an intimate relationship at the time. Mator feared for her safety, her job, and wondered whether Katie would “stand up for the girls, or stand up for her boyfriend.”

5 months later Mator reported to Program Director, Michelle Spada. After consulting the Board, Spada reported the story to the police and Johnson was arrested. After a mistrial, Johnson’s case was scheduled to be heard again but he died in prison of AIDS related complications in 2016. One of his victims also tested HIV positive.

A key component of the mistrial, according to ProRepulica, was that neither Spada nor Meyler testified in court despite Spada being listed as the main complainant.

According to phone records, Meyler remained in close communication with Johnson even during his incarceration. To make matters worse, some former members of the team say that Meyler, had previously heard rumours of Johnson having sex with young children before he became the co-founder.

The blatant violation of already vulnerable girls is beyond mortifying but the added dimension is the so called, “White saviour industrial complex” as highlighted by writers like Teju Cole.

Writer, Abigail Higgins describes the turn of events at MTM as “emblematic of a larger rot within a sector of American philanthropy: the fetishization of young and inexperienced do-gooders setting out to change developing countries, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so.”

This ”White saviour industrial complex”, explains how Meyer went from 26 year old intern to a CEO who had managed to raise $8 million, open 19 schools in total and reportedly educate over 4000 students all without the necessary qualifications or experience.

According to reports, when Meyler started the organisation she had no experience in education or management. Her Board consisted mostly of American entrepreneurs who also had no experience with girls education or any knowledge about how best to work with vulnerable communities.

According to ProPublica, the initial batch of teachers recruited from the US were fellows and no prior teaching experience was required to full a majority of the posts.

There is no doubt that Meyler has changed the lives of many young girls and given them the gift of education but pressing concerns about well-intentioned yet unqualified philanthropists and “activists” who do not do their due diligence remain.

The lack of qualifications all round and the problematic emotional connection between the two founders is compounded by the fact that, in the beginning of the project, Meyler reportedly only spent 2 months a year in Liberia spending the rest of the time fundraising in US. Meanwhile, Johnson was running the show in West Point and violating students. All of these factors paint a vivid and disturbing picture of how irresponsibly the charity was run.

Even in the most rigorously regulated institutions run by qualified professionals, something of this nature could still happen but all the more reason to have qualified professionals and effective oversight mechanisms.

As stated by Higgins, it is most unsettling that virtually no one questioned “whether a young American woman with no experience in education or health was qualified to be running a school.”

The required scrutiny has finally materialised. MTM has other woes including allegedly filing inaccurate tax returns, and operating with expired Liberian accreditation. A local Liberian Board has been established and an independent multi-party investigation is underway, this is what has prompted Meyler’s temporary resignation an entire 4 years after the abuse was reported. Hopefully those who were complicit will be held to account and the all the girls will continue to have access to education.

**A version of this article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 1 November 2018

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