US charity ‘More Than Me’ serves as a stark warning against western savourism in Africa

Jan 4 · 6 min read
Via ProPublica’s film, Unprotected

American charity More Than Me has come under scrutiny after an investigative documentary, Unprotected, was released online by ProPublica, in October 2018. The film details the way in which the Liberia-based charity handled abuse claims made by young, girl students, against Macintosh Johnson, a Liberian co-founder of the charity. The charity was founded and run by US citizen Katie Meyler. The film highlights the failings of Meyler and her team serve as a stark warning against western saviourism in Africa, and should be a lesson to us all about whom we entrust to deliver on educational reform in the Continent.

Katie Meyler, a young woman from New Jersey founded ‘More than Me’ in 2008. Hailed by her friends as the epitome of altruism, Meyler spoke candidly of her own experiences of poverty and sexual abuse that had led her to find solace in helping these young children. She told a familiar narrative of wanting to save the world and spoke enthusiastically about wanting to help others by giving love.

Her work in Liberia began initially under an evangelical charity in 2006, but she would later return to build her charity. By 2010, Meyler had begun fundraising amongst friends on social media — sharing photos of street children in Monrovia. Within the next two years, she had successfully raised funds to place over 100 girls in school.

Meyler had a knack for storytelling — and her big break would come later that year when she won the popularity contest “American Giving awards”. The prize: an award of 1 million dollars towards the charity that collected the most likes on Facebook. Within a year, she opened her own school in West Point.

Katie Meyler was the cheerful young American girl with all the good development buzzwords: she talked of ‘empowerment’ and promised to educate her young students. Yet, like most of her volunteers, she had no experience in education or in the protection of vulnerable children.

Her charity, ‘More than Me’, would go on to raise over 8 million dollars, eventually opening 19 schools throughout Liberia.

Warren buffet kneeled down to her, and Obama invited her into the white house. Meyler would go on to be nominated as a ‘Time Person of the year’. It was the beautiful story of the American girl that had come to save Liberia from its plight.

It is the story we’ve heard countless times, and one the Western world enjoys revelling in. In this glorious success story: poverty, hunger, and all complex systemic issues are to be solved in simplistic and ahistorical ways. All it takes… is the right dose of enthusiasm.

This is the backdrop against which Finley Young’s investigative report is set. Young, a Scottish freelance journalist, legal consultant and researcher, had observed the charity since its inception from a distance. Young lived in Liberia from 2009–2012 and has since been working in the country for extended periods of time. The year-long investigation was done in partnership with Kathleen Flynn, a freelance photojournalist and documentary filmmaker — and is comprised of eighty interviews, and thousands of police, charity and court documents.

The documentary released in October uncovers the negligence displayed by the charity in response to the horrors perpetrated by MacIntosh Johnson. An individual recruited by Katie Meyler herself, and whom later she would initiate a romantic relationship with. She called him, the “Jesus of West point”.

We learn that both Meyler and her team had been previously informed of rumours of Johnson’s sexual abuses. Yet, chose to keep him as a guardian of the girls. The documentary similarly reveals that Meyler kept her relationship with the abuser after her students had come forward with accusations.

The documentary shows that from the moment accusations surfaced, in 2014, Katie Meyler and her board would consistently divert blame onto Liberia’s culture. In one of the enquiries, Meyler is heard responding: “Do you know what kinds of backgrounds these girls come from?” The school director would go on to claim that the responsibility was not of the organization, “This is Liberia. This is a different way of operating”. The board would go on to excuse the school’s lack of accreditation, calling the Liberian system a “mess”.

It is an uncomfortable, infuriating, and unfortunately unsurprising forty-four minutes of listening to the charity’s neo-colonial and paternalistic rhetoric. Those involved in the charity often resort to simplistic moralizations and explanations of their wrongdoing: blaming Liberia’s ‘chaos’. In doing so, denying the complexity of a country which fourteen years prior suffered a lengthy civil war.

Too often, her social media would be problematic in sensationalizing the girls’ lives for the purpose of fundraising. Young girls were seen at sleepovers with Meyler and MacIntosh Johnson or photographed at parties with western expatriates (with no parental consent). When enquired about this, Katie Meyler would go on to respond “I did not understand the culture”. In fact, her own recklessness was informed by a mentality of victimhood whereby Africans are still perceived as recipients of second-rate treatment. Certainly, this would not have been tolerated in her own hometown? Why then, should it be any different here?

Unfortunately, this is a prevalent discourse in the charity sector: where communities are perceived through imperialist and racialised eyes. Here, Africa is the savage land of colonial imaginings. A place of escapism, where chaos and poverty are normalized: usual rules do not apply here. Enticed by the continents’ exoticism, these are the brave, civilised westerners who come to help the voiceless and weak African. Often with no qualifications, or accreditation (as was the case of MTM), foreign do-gooders continue to be glorified as the necessary agents to mobilise the ‘passive’ African. Yet, as countless stories have told us: this is a naïve and infantilising illusion.

However, there is a collective responsibility towards the norm of glorifying ideas of the ‘western saviour’ throughout the African continent. Liberia’s own system of school privatization has suffered considerable criticism as a symptom of the fragility of institutions throughout the continent, which easily allow foreigners to intrude in their communities.

Disturbingly, there are multiple awards by wealthy donors and organisations that too easily empower and finance ideas of ‘helping’. An entire industry working to foment desires of helping the ‘other’ under feel good phrases of ‘saving the world’. Westerners enjoy the romanticized stories of poverty and evil perpetuated in far-flung places: where there is the relatable, white hero. These are feel good stories that can give great Hollywood blockbusters, but they are dangerous too.

In this case, this industry financed a naïve and under qualified girl who did not have the tools or the understanding of a community to intrude in it.

Regardless of how well-intentioned one may be, it is urgent we challenge these narratives of western exceptionalism.

Why would a young American woman with barely any experience in education be allowed to set up a school? Why have we normalised the idea that Africans should somehow be subjected to some sort of second-rate treatment? Also, why must Meyler be celebrated by the likes of Bill Gates and Obama for doing the work that countless Liberian women do?

The continent remains a place for western fantasies of heroism, saving and altruism. Anyone can ‘help’ and charity becomes a site of having ones emotional needs satisfied — under tropes and promises of making a change. In these politics of ‘elsewhere’, the receiver of the aid becomes neglected. In the case of ‘More than Me’, not one of the charity members returned to Liberia to testify against Johnson (who later died of HIV). At the time, the school failed to provide appropriate medical support for their students. The girls whom Meyler had vowed to protect were abandoned.

Today, Liberians are standing up for their country and the young girls who have been subject to these institutional crimes. Demanding justice against Meyler and her board, they personify the antithesis of the passive and victim personification the majority of western aid industry and media enjoy fomenting. There is hope that they will encourage their government in persecuting the organisation, and reclaiming a story that was far too long, monopolised by ‘More than me’.

A shortened and edited version of this article was originally published at gal-dem magazine. You can find it here:

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