A disturbing documentary released by ProPublica on 15 October shows how twisted, ill-informed and unaccountable foreign charities operating in Africa can be, and how Western donors are hoodwinked into supporting causes that may actually be doing more harm than good.
Unprotected tells the story of More Than Me (MTM), an NGO founded in 2008 by Katie Meyler, an American who has received several awards and accolades for helping poor Liberian girls go to school. The documentary’s main focus is on the MTM Academy in Monrovia, where female students were not just getting an education, but were also being systematically raped by none other than the NGO’s co-founder, Macintosh Johnson, a streetwise Liberian who recruited the girls from Monrovia’s poorest slums.
The story first surfaced after a Liberian nurse who worked at the MTM Academy found that many of the girls who came to see her were suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, that they had contracted from Johnson. She initially did not report what she suspected to be sexual abuse by Johnson for fear of losing her job. And the girls did not complain about the abuse because they feared losing their scholarships. However, in 2014, a year after the academy opened, the nurse informed the school’s management, who according to MTM’s website, reported the allegations to the police. Johnson was subsequently arrested and tried but died of AIDS in prison in 2016 while awaiting re-trial.
Unfortunately, such incidents are not unique to this NGO. In recent months, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the staff of many NGOs and charities, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have been implicated in sexually exploiting women, girls or boys in countries where they operate. Recent cases, such as that of Peter Dalglish, a Canadian who is being tried in Nepal for sexually abusing boys, have highlighted the fact that paedophiles often use the cover of charity work to abuse vulnerable children in poor or strife-torn parts of the world.
However, while Unprotected does a good job of exposing the abuse carried about by Johnson, it also raises important questions about the nature of Western philanthropy in Africa. The documentary – which was also published as an article by TIME magazine – lays out in considerable detail how a young white woman with no experience in humanitarian work or in the field of education managed to raise millions of dollars for an NGO that claimed to be operating 19 schools and teaching 4,000 girls in Liberia. Nobody questioned why this large outfit was being managed by unqualified and inexperienced American administrators and teachers, and a US-based board, most of whose members had never been to Liberia.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the staff of many NGOs and charities, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have been implicated in sexually exploiting women, girls or boys in countries where they operate.
In the documentary, Iris Martor, the nurse who worked at MTM Academy, explains how white privilege allowed Meyler to get away with things that would have not been tolerated if she had been a black Liberian. “They think we are stupid, with little or no education, and our system is fragile, and they can get away with things because their skin is white,” commented Martor.
It is a phenomenon familiar to those who live in Africa: A 20-something white man or woman, looking for adventure in his or her gap year or because life back home is too comfortable or predictable, arrives in an African country for the first time, gets terribly moved by the poverty he or she sees, and decides to form a charity to help poor Africans. Before you know it, the charity manages to raise thousands, if not millions, of dollars and the young man or woman is touted as a saviour. Awards follow as do more donations. (Meyler was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine in 2014 and even had the ear of billionaire philanthropists, such as Warren Buffet, Opray Winfrey and Bill Gates.)
Iris Martor, the nurse who worked at the More Than Me Academy, explains how white privilege allowed Meyler to get away with things that would have not been tolerated if she had been a black Liberian.
Meanwhile, the Africans who are the object of these donations remain as poor or vulnerable as they were before because the intention of these NGOs is not to make them self-sufficient but to create dependency and to make the do-gooder feel good about him or herself.
The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole dubbed this phenomenon “The White Saviour Industrial Complex”, which he says is not about justice but about having “a big emotional experience that validates privilege”. In an article published in The Atlantic in March 2012, Cole wrote: “Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can be conveniently projected. 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 saviour or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”
Most of these charities have little oversight – they are rarely monitored by the governments of the countries where they operate and their board members, if any, are usually citizens of the charity founder’s country, not citizens of the beneficiary country, which means they have little knowledge of the culture, norms or laws of the country whose people are being helped by the charity.
Moreover, most of these charities are less accountable to the host country governments than to their Western donors, who for the most part do not care how the charities they fund carry out their day-to-day operations. This means that the charities are not bound by the rules and laws that govern public or state-run institutions and so can essentially make up their own rules. This leaves the recipients of their largesse completely at their mercy.
On their part, African governments are only too happy to hand over a job they should ideally be doing to these do-gooders. Their thinking is along these lines: Why spend money on a hospital or a school when rich Westerners are only too happy to do it? Who cares if the people who are supposedly being helped by these charities get exploited? At least they get to go to school/do not starve/get free medicine.
It is only now, after the release of the ProPublica documentary, that the Liberian government has launched an investigation into MTM. Meanwhile, Meyler has “temporarily” resigned from MTM and a US-based law firm has been appointed to audit the organisation’s governing structures and administrative policies.
Robtel Neajai Pailey, who used to work for the Liberian government when Meyler started MTM, says that often African governments willingly cede responsibility towards their citizens by encouraging foreign NGOs and charities to do the work of government in their countries. Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf not only endorsed MTM but also donated an abandoned government building to the NGO so it could build the MTM Academy. The Liberian Minister of Education also recruited Meyler to help Liberia privatise government-run schools.
“What qualified Meyler to a run a number of ‘partnership’ institutions is anyone’s guess,” Pailey wrote in a scathing opinion article published in AlJazeera. “A lot can be said about the failures of More Than Me and its reckless founder. However, Meyler is a symptom of something much more sinister. The biggest disappointment rests with us, Liberians, who neglected to protect the academy’s students from one of our own. We must accept this child rape saga as emblematic of our deeper, societal pathologies. Pathologies of secrecy, paedophilia and impunity. Pathologies of constantly looking outside of ourselves for solutions. Of pandering to clueless foreigners.”
Foreign charities and NGOs operating in Africa also fail to address the systemic and structural causes of poverty in Africa, and conveniently forget that the West contributed to making the continent poor. Slavery and colonialism robbed Africa of its human and natural resources. Neocolonial policies and aid dependency ensured that even after independence African countries were tied to Western capital. And Western corporations and the Bretton Woods institutions have created a situation where African countries are net creditors to the rest of the world.
“What qualified Meyler to a run a number of ‘partnership’ institutions is anyone’s guess,” Pailey wrote in a scathing opinion article published in AlJazeera. “A lot can be said about the failures of More Than Me and its reckless founder. However, Meyler is a symptom of something much more sinister. The biggest disappointment rests with us, Liberians…
“Honest Accounts 2017: How the World Profits from Africa’s Wealth”, a report published last year by a consortium of NGOs, including Global Justice Now and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, found that $134 billion, mainly in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid, enters Africa every year. However, $192 billion, mostly in the form of profits made by foreign companies and tax evasion, is taken out of the continent, which means that Africa suffers a net deficit of $58 billion every year. The report states that in 2015, African governments received $32.8 billion in loans but paid $18 billion in debt interest and principal payments. Africans in the diaspora remit $31 billion to the continent every year, almost the same amount that multinational corporations repatriate to their home countries annually. “The figures show that the rest of the world is profiting from the continent’s wealth – more so than most African citizens. Yet rich country governments simply tell their publics that their aid programmes are helping Africa. This is a distraction, and misleading,” concluded the report.
$134 billion, mainly in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid, enters Africa every year. However, $192 billion, mostly in the form of profits made by foreign companies and tax evasion, is taken out of the continent.
Foreign aid and foreign charities are, as Cole says, “a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.” While Africa is systematically being impoverished by the West (and now increasingly by China), aid organisations and foreign charities are working overtime to fill a gap that should ideally be filled by African governments. This leaves African citizens vulnerable to incompetent and predatory foreign NGOs like MTM that end up doing more harm than good.
Foreign aid and foreign charities are…“a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.”
African governments must bear the responsibility for this. They are the ones who enter into contracts with foreign mining companies that exploit Africa’s natural resources on unfair terms that mostly benefit the companies. They are the ones who take out huge, unsustainable loans that sink poor countries into debilitating debt. Much of Africa’s wealth is also siphoned by corrupt African leaders who deposit their loot in offshore tax havens. And because these leaders and their governments fail to provide essential services, such as education, to citizens, women like Meyler and her NGO fill the vacuum, often with devastating consequences.