Over the past few days, Liberians on social media have been reacting to the documentary, Unprotected, by ProPublica in collaboration with Time Magazine. Unprotected shines light on how an American charity operating in Liberia, More Than Me (MTM), claimed to be “saving some of the world’s most vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation” while, from the very beginning of this organization, girls as young as 12 were being raped and abused. The charity was founded by Katie Meyler, an American from New Jersey who, before More Than Me, worked a little over a year with at-risk youths through Shine Foundation and volunteered with Samaritan’s Purse as a Program Coordinator for six months. Katie is described in her professional network as “the leader of an education network in Liberia helping to rebuild the broken systems.” How nice, right? Unfortunately, this is just another sad case of the “White Savior Complex” which undermines Africans and portrays privileged white personalities as heroes. The term ‘white savior complex’ was coined by a Nigerian- American novelist, Teju Cole. He defines it as “a confluence of practices, processes, and institutions that reify historical inequities to ultimately validate white privilege.” Ultimately, White Saviors are “usually rewarded for saving less fortunate people and completely disregard the policies they have supported that have maintained/created systems of oppression.”
As the discussion progresses on social media, a disturbing and insulting consensus that is being perpetrated by some individuals is that Liberians are not serious about handling their own issues. Who said we are not serious? Liberians are not as nonchalant about the problems that affect them as is often depicted. Maybe this was true before, I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is that the current generation of Liberians are movers who are continually engaged with the development and wellbeing of the country and are determined to create genuine and impactful change. We cannot continue to welcome and support ill-intentioned and/or ill-managed external organizations just because of the false premise that local organizations or Liberian-owned organizations do not exist. Someone even posted on Facebook that “Our own people are not willing to help” and that is just a perfect example of the aforementioned false narrative. We help perpetuate the need for a White Saviour because we fail to recognize and support initiatives by our fellow Liberians and we still firmly believe in the thinking, “the whiter, the better.” There are so many Liberians, women especially, that are champions for education, young girls and everything else More Than Me claims to be doing. To name a few, Gbowee Peace Foundation, KEEP (Kids Education Engagement Project) Liberia, HEAL Liberia, Sister Mary Laurene Browne’s numerous educational initiatives, TAG (Taking Action for Girls) and SMART Liberia. These Liberians work daily with a mission of uplifting Liberian children and preparing them for a better future. But these women do not get the support to enable them to attract the attention of wealthy white donors (i.e., Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates, etc.), probably because they have brown faces and do not misrepresent or embellish the facts, i.e., use poverty porn.
Let us now take a deeper dive into More Than Me. The Organization was founded with the mission to “provide a transformative social change for girls in Liberia.” According to statistics of the U.S National Center for Children Poverty, New Jersey (home state of Katie) has 32% of children, including girls, from low-income communities; however, Katie neglected all that and chose to focus on Liberia. There must be some very strong reasons in support of her rationale, which I may not know, but one thing to consider is that New Jersey would never allow any person to run a school or have access to little girls without vetting their experiences, skills, and commitment. However, it is unfortunate that our system in Liberia allows just that because it seems, we are in such dire need for White Saviors, we would take an unqualified one.
On the Organization’s website, the question “Why Liberia?” is posed and there is the whole page dedicated to answering it. MTM has a number of outdated information on its website from statistics of failing students at the University of Liberia in 2013 to uneducated teachers to an astounding number of women and girls that are illiterate (73%!) to paint a picture of Liberia’s education system. I do not know where they get some of their statistics, as the website does not make references, but these are the facts we are given. Another section on the website talks about “the kind of students” MTM serves. Students are said to be from households of about 12 or more people who work/sell in the streets to support their families as well as orphans and/or Ebola survivors. Wow, what a group of students! My heart just melted a little bit. But I guess my Kehkeh (motorized tricycles, a popular form of transportation in Liberia) driver’s daughter, who attends the MTM Academy, does not count. She lives in a one bedroom apartment with only her mother and father and does not have to sell to support her family because, City Boy, her father, owns and operates the Kehkeh while her mother, Jebeh, is a nanny for expatriates like Katie and her friends/associates in Liberia.
I’m pointing all this out to say that I find most of the assertions from MTM to be a misrepresentation of facts. MTM provides these embellished narratives to garner the funds they say they need to do the work they say they will do. They have to tell the world that the students they serve are poor orphans and Ebola survivors in order to get recognition and support from major media outlets and donors. Statistically, this vulnerable population is what sells. When women and children (mostly girls) are the supposed beneficiaries of aid work, hearts will melt and wallets will open almost automatically. If the faces of the beneficiaries happen to be little brown boys and girls, bank accounts, checkbooks, and even trust funds will fly open!
Personally, I worked with a group of young people in Rhode Island, USA for months helping to eradicate Ebola from Liberia. We collected materials and shipped a 40-foot container to Christ Center of Praise Church, from which MTM also benefited. Katie, on the other hand, sold the story of starving African children in Liberia all across America, to any donor willing to listen. People were cutting checks as a result of her sad stories and at one point, even celebrities were telling their fans to support her. I remember watching Jada Pinkett-Smith tell fans to vote for Katie to win the million dollars for the MTM Academy and change lives. Katie walked across the stage to receive the donation with the name of a little girl written across her forehead, Abigail. The story then was that Abigail was yet another orphan who was a prostitute at the tender age of 6! This led Exxon Mobile, Chase Bank, and other donors to give support. In all of this, no one thought to ask why Katie had exposed this innocent girl to the world. This clearly showed her lack of training about the risks involved with exposing the victims of sexual and domestic abuse or the psychological effect it might have on the child to have her name and face publicized to the world as a former child prostitute.
Katie’s work was supported by all of us because she sold a story that we are all familiar with and are a part of. At the opening of MTM Academy, former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf even confessed that “we need to expand more of Katie’s initiative in many communities”. Currently, More than Me runs 19 schools in Liberia through the Liberia Education Advancement Program (LEAP), a partnership through which Liberia outsourced some of her primary schools to private educational providers. I am not simply pointing out a problem without solutions; I am speaking as a person who worked both in the development and educational sectors of Liberia and thereby has an understanding of the challenges and needs we face as a nation. While there are a few cracks here and there, we are far from the picture portrayed by MTM, and there are many other Liberians who are making significant contributions to the transformation process.
I do not know Katie. I am not angry at her or her associates for flying into Liberia to be a part of our rebuilding process. Katie was playing her part in the tired old narrative- she came to help save poor Africa. Our government, people and community aided Katie in fostering yet another white savior narrative. The wealthy donors, media and the American public were all a part of this story. All the awards were given because she was helping poor African children; the funds and other donations that went to her cause, are all part of this white savior narrative. There is not a single person alive that has not heard about a sad story with a link to Africa. So, today I challenge you, and the world at large, to equally reward contributions and initiatives made by other Liberians and to share positive images of Liberia and Africa in general. My heart goes out to our young girls that were “unprotected” from Katie and MTM’s ill-managed and ill-equipped attempt to “save them.” I am so empathetic to the entire community and families that have been impacted by this horrid story. And this is my parting message to White Saviors, when talking about Liberia and the issues that affect us, please know we are aware of and understand our issues more than you ever will and now, Liberians are More Than Serious!