A terrible failure to protect school girls in Liberia

The privatizing and deregulating education in Liberia as much as white saviorism should take the blame for the sexual violence under an NGO's watch.

Image credit Ken Haper for Together Liberia via Flickr.

Liberia is reeling from a documentary and report by ProPublica, a global investigative journalism group, which  shows that a private Academy run by the charity More Than Me in West Point, Monrovia was the setting for the systematic rape of school girls by the organization’s co-founder and local administrator.

According to the report, the administrator, Macintosh Johnson, who died in jail of AIDS, raped a third of the schoolgirls, many at the school. Some of these girls have tested positive for HIV.

It goes without saying that the Liberian government must leave no stone unturned to ensure justice is done for the schoolgirls and their families in and around West Point, where More Than Me’s predator co-founder recruited his victims. The authorities must also detail the apparent cover-up of the crimes by the leadership of More Than Me in Liberia and in the US, and seek compensation for the physical and emotional effects of the organization’s negligence. This goes for the national government too: if the authorities in Liberia knew about the reported crimes and failed to act to remove the perpetrators and protect and support the victims, that also must be revealed and prosecuted.

School-Related Gender-Based Violence is a violation of human rights and one of the most serious barriers to education for millions of children all over the world, especially girls. Accountability for what happens to girls when they are trying to get an education matters, and must be systematic.

The day after the ProPublica report was released, More Than Me released a statement, in part apologizing to the victims, and acknowledging “the enormous complexity of being responsible for the care of children and that previously we were naive to believe that providing education alone is enough to protect these girls from the abuses they may face—strong institutions, safeguarding policies and vigilance are needed to do that.”

Institutions, policies, vigilance. Each was more absent than the next as Liberia ceded the education of some of its poorest and youngest students to private operators on the basis of a consistently disproven theory that privatizing education increases opportunity for students or their families and communities.

Starting in 2016, Liberia outsourced close to 100 of its primary schools to seven educational providers under what it called the Partnership Schools in Liberia program. By September of that year, the number had grown to 200, and the new government extended PSL for yet another year under a new name – the Liberia Educational Advancement Program.

Under either title, the defining feature of the outsourcing of primary education in Liberia was “experiment.” From the very beginning, the Liberian government “rigged” the trial privatization of primary schools with new operators and their schools being showered with resources the likes of which have never been seen in public schools. It’s little wonder that the government’s own commissioned review of the trial described it as failing “to demonstrate it can work in average Liberian schools, with sustainable budgets and staffing levels, and without negative side-effects on other schools.”

The Liberian government must reclaim responsibility for the provision and administration of its schools for the educational well-being of students, and it must resume its duty of care to children. The tragic consequences of outsourcing that responsibility to unaccountable, unqualified individuals has been laid bare before us.

But the Liberian government could and should go further.

A thorough review of laws, regulations and policies aimed at dealing with the scourge of violence against women and girls is clearly warranted. Where these do not exist, or are found to be inconsistently or not at all enforced, immediate action should be taken to remedy the situation. Implementing sound policies and programs aimed at redressing school-related gender-based violence is a big step towards securing the right to education for all of Liberia’s children.

Finally, let all actors, domestic and international, including intergovernmental agencies that have promoted and celebrated Liberia’s primary school “experiment,” think very hard about the meaning of accountability. This is particularly relevant given their support for amateurish non-state actors, whether they be acknowledged profiteers or sweet-sounding NGOs, who in the end care more about likes than rights in the provision of education.

In places like West Point, Monrovia, where the majority of people live in abject poverty, girls are the most vulnerable community members. “Leaving no-one behind”  means every girl in West Point, and other places like it around the world, must always be protected. When they are not, we are all accountable for that terrible failure.

Further Reading

Public funds for private gain

The planned global Education Outcomes Fund—the UN seems onboard—would create markets for “non-state” providers while guaranteeing profits for private investors that purchase “impact bonds.”