Charity does not restore justice. Good intentions are not enough. Compassionate energy without discernment harms the people we try to “speak up for.”
Up to 30 Liberian schoolgirls fell victim to charity, good intentions, and unbridled compassionate energy when an American-based nonprofit school, More Than Me, failed to protect the girls it purported to educate and save from the streets.
Unprotected, a report and documentary by Finlay Young and Kathleen Flynn, recently resurfaced a story about the charity organization, which was built from a young woman’s crusade to lift girls from poverty and change the education system in Liberia. Within a year of the first school building opening, sexual abuse allegations emerged.
Founder and CEO Katie Meyler raised millions from big donors in the U.S., recruited staff with questionable levels of training, and gathered a director board of almost all white and wealthy marketers (this demographic has since changed). Her point man, Macintosh Johnson, was well known in the capital city of Monrovia and by several foreign reporters, aid workers, and ambassadors. He was also marked by his past as a child soldier in Liberia’s civil war. He was given unsupervised access to the girls in the school.
In 2015, 10 girls testified before court that Johnson raped students, some as young as 10 years old.
The report presented by ProPublica and TIME is thorough, its twisting narrative weaves voices from 80 interviews, MTM promotions and statements, and court documents, culminating in the question: Who is responsible and why were these girls left with incomplete justice – the whole truth of their stories unscrutinized until now?
Liberian and international commenters are outraged, talking about glorified outsiders swooping in to save poor countries under the guise of doing good. They call for the global #MeToo movement to stand up. Some demand stripping MTM’s power and checking the Liberian government that supported the charity.
A joint committee of Liberia’s ministries convened emergency meetings over the weekend, deciding to reopen the case and move to strengthen school monitoring, workplace policies, anti-stigmatization efforts for survivors and accreditation process of non-governmental organizations.
Wade Williams, a Liberian journalist now living in Washington, D.C., told Sojourners that More Than Me should be held accountable, and should no longer be allowed to run schools:
“We’ll be talking in Liberia,” she said. “I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to help these children. If anything is going to help it’s to hold More Than Me accountable. They’ve made millions on the backs of these children and they have to pay.”
Williams, who struggled with other Monrovia journalists to break the MTM story, says she is glad ProPublica was able to follow up and confirm most of the allegations, but the fact that it took foreign reporting to gain broader attention is part of the problem. The Liberian government, she says, gives preferential treatment to foreigners in most realms.
“You have to push really hard to be recognized in your own country,” Williams said. “So whether Katie Meyler or whoever, whether they have the qualification or not, once they have the connections and the money they could come in and do anything.”
MTM is an extreme example of what’s happening in many developing nations.
Foreign charities can tout success stories and yes, many people rely heavily on their support. MTM runs a large part of the controversially privatized schools in Liberia and hopes to open more and reach more students. But if organizations don’t delve into the foundations of their aspirations, why they’re able to lay claim on other people’s lives, they’ll construct or exacerbate power dynamics.
People with connections and resources gain favor for their altruism and then there’s a rush of anxiety to scale up their impact. It’s common to use othering techniques to enhance fundraising: “YOU can help US help THEM.” The very qualities that would be warning signs in a CEO – smooth talking and blind passion – are what help an organization rake in money from big donors and win contests like the Forbes 400. The justification for outsiders, Finlay Young concludes, is that “with greater expertise, resources and exposure, they can do better.”
I’m familiar with the mix of concern, zeal, affection, impatience, pride, and satisfaction that we see in a lot of charity leadership.
I am a wealthy white woman who celebrates the way God has connected my family to Liberian people. We have a small legacy of mission work through sending supplies, fundraising for school buildings, and helping with teacher trainings. As I wait on the results of the audit and ministry meetings, I’m convicted and compelled to question my sentimentality and my tendency to make Liberia’s story my own.
Instead of rushing in with lopsided aid agreements, I hope we can instead engage in building covenants. I hope we ground our grand desires to “do good” in God’s story of deliverance and redemption through the New Covenant.
Jesus began a Kingdom work with his revolutionary teachings that sided with the poor and vulnerable. In dying he established the New Covenant that promises the Spirit’s guidance toward acts that lead to eternal life, in service to the living God. (Jeremiah 31:33, Luke 22:20, Hebrews 9:14-15)
Have Christians misunderstood Jesus’ New Covenant to be a directive for personal salvation and a call to chase idealistic missions out of moral concern? What if Christians were more concerned about building a covenant people?
Charitable organizations, particularly those that encounter people from vastly different histories and cultures, could benefit from the process of covenant making.
It starts with understanding the stories that inform each party’s aches and attitudes. That means studying the root cause of problems — like those that girls face in Liberia’s West Point slums, which includes entrenched rape culture and assualts perpetrated by men like Johnson. That means confronting a notion that developed and underdeveloped countries are perpetual and therefore it behooves the wealthy to give charitably but not upend economic or political entanglements that continue to hold down the vulnerable.
A covenant establishes separate identities and finds ways to bring them together using their respective gifts.
It all comes together in recognizing common beliefs and casting visions for who and what they want the partnership to be and do. It’s important to remember that God’s plan for redemption in a developing nation’s story is not to hand over the position of narrator to the one with wealth.
When Jesus tells the rich man to give up his wealth in order to gain eternal life, he’s not asking for charity. He’s not endorsing how we feel justified giving from our savior platform to the poor who will wait for their blessings to come in heaven.
Jesus seeks equality where mutual affection and cooperation lead to an abundance together, where the covenant people know each others’ struggles and strengths so intimately they can commit to a shared vision. It’s a work not marked with pride or insecurities that could leave little girls feeling like they’d been taken so far only to be dropped, once again, not our priority.