Katie Meyler, Liberia, and the “white-savior industrial complex”

Hundreds of Liberians marched through the streets of the capital city Monrovia late last week, clad in black and waving placards that read “No excuse for rape,” “Fix the system,” and “Shame on you Katie Meyler.”

The name on that last sign was the focus of the crowd’s anger. Katie Meyler is a young American woman who, until recently, ran a charity in Liberia called More Than Me, a nonprofit that took in and educated poor Liberian girls at high risk of sexual exploitation.

For years, Meyler was celebrated in the media and philanthropy world for More Than Me’s work. She raised more than $8 million, including almost $600,000 from the US government, and opened 19 schools responsible for more than 4,000 students. But a ProPublica investigation published October 11 found that amid that success, the girls her charity was supposed to be protecting were being raped by the man who helped found it.

That man, Macintosh Johnson, had AIDS when he died in 2014. One of the girls who ended up testifying against him in court tested positive for HIV.

In a statement following the ProPublica report, More Than Me said: “We are deeply, profoundly sorry. To all the girls who were raped by Macintosh Johnson in 2014 and before: we failed you. We gave Johnson power that he exploited to abuse children.”

MTM’s Liberian advisory board recommended an independent investigation, and in a letter to the board, Meyler wrote that stepping “aside while the investigation is underway will further the goal of a thorough and impartial review.” She added that she was “confident that the results from this investigation will outline the best way forward for More Than Me.”

Looking back, Meyler’s trajectory is staggering. She went from being a 26-year-old intern at an evangelical charity during her first trip to Liberia in 2006 to receiving $1 million in 2012 to start her own school from the American Giving Awards, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase. By 2014, the Ebola outbreak would hit Liberia and Meyler would be named one of Time magazine’s People of the Year for her role in the response.

It’s shocking now that no one seemed to question, at least publicly, whether a young American woman with no experience in education or health was qualified to be running a school and a medical center serving thousands of Liberians. But if you’ve spent time in Africa in proximity to the Western charity machine Meyler was a product of, then it’s not shocking at all.

I was a young, white American woman living in Kenya during her rise to fame, and I was often asked, both in the US and in Kenya, whether I was going to start my own NGO, despite the fact that I was a journalist with little experience or interest in the nonprofit world. Such questions evinced a presumption of my innate moral fiber — not to mention a complacency in the belief that any white Westerner was capable of starting an NGO, regardless of qualification or mission.

I have no doubt that at 26 years old, I could have gotten funding to start my own NGO, even though I had no experience in nonprofits. I knew many other young Americans who got funded. If people tell you enough times that you’re qualified to do something, sometimes you start to believe them.

In a 2012 Atlantic piece, Teju Cole called the phenomenon the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” It is “a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”

We should be upset by Meyler’s story. But we should be more upset with what her story is emblematic of: a Western charity machine, propped up by an eager media, that valorizes inexperienced American do-gooders and that values heartwarming stories over impact.

Rewarding inexperience and ignoring warning signs

In a tale that would become central to Meyler’s narrative, spun dozens of times in speeches across the US, Meyler herself questioned whether she was qualified to start her own NGO. But a friend told her, “Get over yourself! It’s not about you!” and that tough-love pep talk quashed her doubt.

Meyler would have done well to heed her own alarm bells. In retrospect, the cracks in Myler’s organization were glaring. If she had tried to do the same thing in the US, it never would have gotten off the ground.

Myler had no experience in education or management herself, and the board she recruited only compounded the incompetence. According to ProPublica, it included an Italian prince who sold cosmetics on the Home Shopping Network; his wife, who was a friend of Meyler’s and ran a perfume company; a Liberian American who had a fair-trade clothing business; and an American whose startup organized entrepreneurship trips to Africa for young Americans. The Liberian American was the only one who lived in Liberia even part time. None of them had experience running a school or working with vulnerable children.

The school was staffed mostly by American teaching fellows and, barring one position, no teaching experience was required when it started hiring. The first principal was a 31-year-old high school English teacher with no administrative experience. These low standards, particularly for staffers, might sound surprising, but in my experience they’re not actually uncommon for charities started by foreigners in Africa.

Warning signs cropped up quickly: The charity’s country director wrote a memo in the early months documenting her concerns about girls being taken from their homes without guardian consent and spending the night at staff houses, including Meyler’s and Johnson’s. Money was going missing.

Then there was Meyler’s foray into Ebola relief. When West Africa was hit by a widespread outbreak of Ebola in 2014, Meyler started organizing Ebola-relief efforts in Liberia: complex work that requires high levels of expertise and is better left to the professionals.

According to the ProPublica investigation, MTM never received approval to have an Ebola care facility. In the early days of the outbreak the school itself didn’t even have accreditation from the Ministry of Education. One Ministry of Health official said at the time that Meyler appeared to have a “pattern of disregard for laws.” But that didn’t stop the media from hailing her do-gooding efforts.

More Than Me’s pattern of negligence is appalling — but it isn’t new

Taken together, the levels of negligence at More Than Me are shocking. But Meyler’s story is 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.

For evidence of the trend, you don’t need to look farther than some recent scandals that rocked international philanthropy.

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who, after failing to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain, promised a Pakistani villager he met on his descent that he’d return to build a school for girls. He went on to found the Central Asia Institute, which by 2010 reported that it had built more than 171 schools that provided education to more than 64,000 children, including 54,000 girls.

He fundraised by speaking to audiences at churches, schools, and philanthropic dinners across the United States, much in the same way that Meyler did, and chronicled his story in the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea. He was also written up in glowing terms by publications like the New York Times and NPR, and given millions of dollars to continue his work.

His was an incredible story — and a lot of it was a lie. Multiple investigations revealed not only that Mortenson lied about his origin story but that he had allegedly misspent millions of the organization’s dollars.

An even more notorious recent example was the Invisible Children NGO, which came to public view through its viral campaign in 2012 to “Stop Kony.” The organization was founded in 2004 by a group of young American filmmakers who wanted to stop Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda.

The video was viewed more than 100 million times in one week, becoming at the time the most viral video ever. It helped the organization raise more than $30 million and had a profound impact on US foreign policy in the region. One of the founders claimed the organization had lowered the number of internally displaced people (IDP) in Uganda by 98 percent.

But the film dangerously oversimplified events in the region, including the fact that Kony probably wasn’t even in Uganda at the time. And the organization’s impact is questionable (it certainly wasn’t responsible for slashing the number of IDPs to that degree). Donors accused the organization of misleading them by spending money on advocacy rather than actually helping LRA victims as their video claimed. Invisible Children denied this. According to the CEO, they spent all of the money raised by the video in 18-24 months.

These are just a couple of the more prominent examples. Meyler and More Than Me now take their place alongside them.

The “white-savior industrial complex”

The fallout over the ProPublica investigation continues to roil Liberia. The government has launched an investigation into the charity and the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Williametta Saydee Tarr said the government would be requesting Meyler’s cell phone records.

Meyler has temporarily resigned as CEO and the board chair has also resigned.

While Liberians work to unravel how More Than Me went so wrong, the rest of us would do well to examine the larger system that Meyler was a product of. In a 2010 article, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed the trend the “DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution.” He wrote that “it’s not only presidents and United Nations officials who chip away at global challenges. Passionate individuals with great ideas can do the same, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.”

But where some see a parade of goodness making the world a better place, others perceive more problematic scenarios. Journalist Courtney Martin refers to “the reductive seduction of other people’s problems,” in an essay in which she points out that it would be absurd for a Ugandan college student who saw a mass shooting in the US to decide to go to the United States to get gun legislation passed. Meyler being tasked with fixing girls’ education in Liberia was no less absurd.

Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Liberian academic, is more blunt: Meyler “reveals our warped tendencies to glorify foreigners for swooping into poor countries under the guise of doing good.”

For all the problems that she brought, Meyler (and the dozens of others like her) isn’t malicious. She and many others like her are driven by a genuine desire to help. But altruism that isn’t fortified by rigor or metrics can lead to disastrous results.

It’s the same impulse behind voluntourism, the widespread practice of Westerners traveling to developing countries to see the world and do some good by volunteering in orphanages or building schools while on vacation. (The practice is actually where Meyler got her start, when she fundraised in high school to send herself to Central America to volunteer with street children.)

Jacob Kushner, writing in the New York Times Magazine about the practice, argues: “Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer. Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills.”

Those are wise words, but they can be hard to heed when the White Savior Industrial Complex is constantly churning out new avatars. There’s a slew of awards, fellowships, TED Talks, and funds directed at people like Meyler. Many American readers are eager for simplistic stories with a relatable hero (read: white and middle class) and media organizations are slow to fact check international stories — particularly of the feel-good variety. (Marc Gunther, in a piece published Monday, went through the major sources of the millions of dollars in funds that flowed More Than Me’s way.)

There’s a lot of anger directed at Katie Meyler right now, and rightfully so. But we’d do well to zoom out a bit. Katie Meyler created More Than Me, but the white savior industrial complex created her — and there’s a lot more of us complicit in that than we’d like to admit.

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