The tyranny of good intentions

Scandals like the one at More Than Me—the US charity that failed to protect school girls in its care from rape by staff—are common in even the most elite aid organizations.

Former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Katie Meyler, More than Me founder. (Credit: Meyler's Facebook page.)

In July 2011, I found myself in the office of Ellen Margrethe Loj, a Danish diplomat who was then the top official in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia, which was then less than a decade removed from its civil war. I was a member of a small team of graduate students from Columbia University who’d been assigned to carry out research into the impact of a massive post-war influx of foreign capital into natural resource extraction there. Towering above the grit and hustle of Monrovia in her glass-paneled office, we delivered our findings.

Across the country, the new projects were causing chaos. Multi-billion-dollar mining and plantation ventures—owned by the Chinese, British, Russians, and everyone in between—were creating bitter land disputes, marginalizing increasingly frustrated forest communities, and fostering rampant corruption among local officials. There had been minor riots in some areas, and in nearly every region we’d visited, the anger was palpable. It was, we warned, a volatile situation that could easily erupt into violence.

Throughout our presentation, Loj sat in her chair, listening intently with a dour expression. When we finished, she looked at us from above her glasses, and said, “Thank you for this, but I expect you’ll hold off on publishing until after the election. You wouldn’t want to be known as the students who brought conflict back to Liberia, would you?” It was just a few months before Liberians were scheduled to head to the polls, where they’d decide in November whether to give a second term to then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, darling of the international donor community.

Young, inexperienced, and not really in charge, we deferred to her request despite our reservations. Sirleaf was subsequently re-elected in a runoff. And during her second term, much of what we’d worried about came to pass. There were bloody riots at the palm oil plantations and iron mines we visited, clashes between security forces and villagers, and only a fraction of the jobs and social services promised by the companies ever appeared.

The report we wrote was covered by the media when it was released a few months later, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the decision to hold it until after the charged election period, when it might have been used by the local press to force Sirleaf to answer tough questions about the impact of her economic policies. Whatever reception it might have gotten, why did Loj think it was appropriate to keep information from Liberians that might have helped them hold their leaders accountable in a rare moment when they had some leverage?

I’ve been contemplating this moment, which marked the beginning of nearly five years I spent working in and reporting on Liberia, since reading ProPublica’s investigation of a US-based charity called More Than Me in October. The investigation detailed how the organization failed to protect dozens of young Liberian girls at a school it operated from being sexually abused by a staff member. I knew More Than Me well. I lived just a few blocks from the school for a stretch and I first met Katie Meyler, its founder, years before she won a million-dollar grant from JP Morgan Chase. The awful story has rightfully provoked outrage and calls for accountability both inside and outside of Liberia. But it’s been instructive to note where the boundaries of those calls seem to have fallen.

ProPublica’s investigation has largely been received as a cautionary tale about the archetype that Meyler represents: white saviors. And it’s understandable why. More Than Me’s portrayal of the girls in its school was exploitative and crude from the beginning, selling an absurdly simplistic and depoliticized solution to the problem of girls’ education in West Point. Pitching donors on the idea that a little bit of elbow grease and American optimism could work as a substitute for strong institutions in Liberia, Meyler often seemed like she’d emerged from a Hollywood casting call for white saviors in Africa. (The joke in Monrovia for years was that More Than Me really did seem to have a lot of “Me” in it.)

But the cringeworthy aesthetics of white saviorism aren’t the great offense here—the harm done to the young girls is—and in this, the focus on Meyler herself obscures rather than illuminates the deeper lessons of the scandal.

A great deal of commentary about the ProPublica story has explained the abuses as a result of Meyler’s amateurism, framing her as an unqualified intruder into the world of aid work. Vox, for example, pointed to her “inexperience,” arguing that the tragedy would have been avoided had she left the complexities of humanitarianism to the cadre of trained professionals who found her so distasteful for so many years in Liberia. “Altruism that isn’t fortified by rigor or metrics can lead to disastrous results,” writes Abigail Higgins.

The problem with this analysis is that it completely contradicts everything we know about the aid and development industry. The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan had more than its share of “rigor,” but that didn’t prevent its peacekeepers from sexually abusing minors, nor were Oxfam’s “metrics” a firewall against its staff hiring local sex workers for orgies in Haiti. Glittering resumes at the WHO didn’t keep top officials from looking the other way while the Guinean government downplayed its Ebola epidemic in order to keep investors in the country, and it didn’t stop the UN from causing a cholera outbreak in Haiti. In fact, scandals very much like More Than Me’s are common in even the most elite aid organizations.

This obviously doesn’t let More Than Me or Meyler off the hook—the calls for accountability in Liberia are loud for good reason. But it should tell us that Meyler’s lack of credentials isn’t an adequate explanation for the scandal, and that if we want to understand what went wrong and why, we have to go beyond a simplistic critique of white savior figures. If the harm that More Than Me caused in Liberia is our focus rather than how we feel about Meyler herself, it means we have to think critically about other forms of harm that the aid and development industry cause in places like Liberia—and how they might be connected to what happened to those girls.

Liberia is a complex nation, and no quick sound bite can do it justice. But it’s fair to say that there are reasons to be concerned right now. The economy is in free-fall, with skyrocketing inflation at least partially linked to an ongoing exodus of investors and aid workers who’ve departed in droves over the past few years along with the dollars they brought with them. Agriculture and education remain largely dysfunctional, and corruption is so pervasive that over a hundred million dollars in currency appears to have simply vanished from the port—with an official investigation offering the dubious explanation that it was simply never there in the first place. It would be wise for the world to take a moment now and evaluate what the impact of fifteen years of intensive aid—which included one of the most expensive peacekeeping missions in history—actually accomplished.

Liberia is often touted as an aid and peacekeeping “success story.” But is it? Billions of dollars were spent on the reconstruction effort during the post-war period. Through its control over these funds, the international community exercised vast influence in the Sirleaf administration, shaping and guiding the country’s post-war economic strategy and playing an outsized role in its present trajectory. This generational effort had its successes—nobody would deny Liberia is in better shape now than in 2004—but it would be hard to argue that it produced the kind of lasting systemic change that most Liberians were hoping for. Certainly, it should have more to show than an economy in shambles along with health care, education, and agricultural systems that continue to rank among the worst on earth.

The architects of this effort had every degree, pedigree, and piece of resume candy on offer in the Western world. But while they may have outclassed Meyler on credentials, what they shared in common with her were good intentions. Like Meyler, most of those in charge of aid efforts believed they were improving the lives of long-suffering Liberians. But good intentions are tricky. They can absolve us of the responsibility to engage in critical self-examination and provide cover for us to downplay or brush off our failures. And more importantly, they often serve to mask the ideology that underlies our efforts to “help,” blinding us to how conditioned those efforts are by our view of who we are and whether our solutions are, in fact, the right ones…

In the documentary that accompanied the ProPublica investigation, one of the only Liberians involved in the management of More Than Me presents a profound insight into the mentality of the charity’s funders—one which  cuts directly to the heart of philanthropy and aid work. “The customer for More Than Me isn’t the children, it’s the donor,” he says. “And our customer has no idea what’s going on with the kids in Liberia, nor do they really care.” For More Than Me’s funders, being able to celebrate a successful project was the priority. Whether that project was the best option for girls in West Point was an afterthought, as was any critical examination of whether it fit into a coherent vision of Liberia’s future.

The impulse to help is never value-neutral. Without exception, it is guided by ideology and shaped by power. More Than Me had a vision of change for young girls in West Point that reflected the ideology of its wealthy US donors, following a well-worn script for philanthropy that prioritizes the narcissism of Western elites over any kind of meaningful systemic change. Those donors could easily, for example, have demanded that the charity’s day-to-day management team included Liberians with a working knowledge of West Point and the country’s education system, structuring More Than Me to embed local staff at all levels of decision-making and operations. Instead they allowed Meyler to wield near-absolute administrative power, and to select her local partners with the sole criteria being how useful they were to her agenda—and thus, theirs.

But for donors to have made such a demand, their priority would have to have been finding local knowledge to support lasting change in Liberia rather than being able to celebrate their undeserved status as the gatekeepers of altruism. There were good intentions behind More Than Me, but they were channeled through a belief that the role of Liberians should simply be to help Meyler and her board implement their project, which existed to serve their egos as much as the lives of the girls they said they wanted to help. This is why there were no Liberians in the room at More Than Me with the power to say “something isn’t right here” without having to fear for their livelihood.

But this flawed approach isn’t the sole province of white savior figures like Meyler and their pool of naïve donors. In fact, it was mirrored in nearly every aid initiative implemented in Liberia during the post-war period, including the overall economic plan favored by Western donors as the centerpiece of reconstruction. This model—auction off Liberia’s land and natural resources, turn the country into a one-dimensional rentier state, and hope a domestic private sector emerged from the mist—was written in Western capitals and pushed by development professionals who were myopically unwilling to address any criticism of its logic, and who are now escaping accountability for what looks a lot like its collapse.

It’s fair to point out that this strategy was not entirely imposed on Liberia. Sirleaf was a former World Bank director, and she and her closest advisors shared the ideology of the donors who footed much of its bill. But had her ideas for change deviated significantly from the interests and economic ideology of those donors, it’s hard to imagine she would have had the carte blanche support from the international community that she enjoyed for her two terms. It seemed clear during much of that period that they’d thrown their weight behind Sirleaf largely because they felt she could be trusted as a custodian of their vision for Liberia’s future.

This, I think, is why Loj asked us to bury our report until it couldn’t present a risk to Sirleaf’s electoral prospects. When presented with evidence that her implementation of the world’s dogmatic reconstruction agenda in Liberia was causing harm, the impulse was to protect the project—and her—rather than deal head-on with the harm. In this, there are some parallels to how Meyler related with the suggestion that Macintosh Johnson, a staff member at More Than Me, might have been abusing young girls. Johnson was integral to Meyler’s ability to carry out her vision and fulfill the needs of More Than Me’s “customers,” just as Sirleaf was for the powerful donors financing Liberia’s development. And thus, it wasn’t in the UN’s interest to disrupt their partnership or place her at risk.

Liberia often seemed to reflect all the worst dynamics of aid delivery at once. On one hand, the imposition of a dubious top-down economic plan was placed entirely in the hands of Sirleaf and her advisors, with no effort to create space for dissenting voices to participate in planning or oversight. Reformers and watchdogs both in and out of government who grasped that the plan was breeding corruption and elite capture of resources were generally ignored so as to not disrupt high-level partnerships. Simultaneously, most on-the-ground aid organizations operated in a very similar fashion to More Than Me, implementing expensive pet projects with little coordination amongst themselves or meaningful guidance from Liberians who wanted lasting change.

What’s striking about More Than Me is how the organization encapsulated both of those dynamics at once, establishing its version of change with little to no local input or oversight, and then selecting its partners based on how well they’d follow the script rather than any genuine desire for guidance. It’s here, in the charity’s flawed approach to “helping” where we see the crucial lessons of the scandal, not in a critique of white savior amateurism that’s ultimately pinned to reverence for credentials—a particularly absurd response given the state of the world we live in and who’s been in charge of it.

It’s far more helpful to think about the abuses that took place at More Than Me in terms of what might have prevented them. That framing should lead us to examine how input into aid projects is solicited, who’s brought to the tables of power, and how we can keep good intentions from becoming a channel for self-interest. At the core of the tragedy is the way we conceptualize what it means to “help” people in faraway places. Are we doing our due diligence to create partnerships that include accountability and bottom-up oversight, or are we swooping in with the blueprints already written and insulating ourselves from any critique of the solutions we’ve decided to invest ourselves in? If it’s the latter, harm will continue to occur, and not just at the hands of small charities like More Than Me.

The scandal is a call for us all to be extremely cautious in how we translate our good intentions into action. Aid and philanthropy have become such an ingrained element of the flow of power in the world that we rarely stop to consider just how disruptive they can be. Structural disadvantages in countries like Liberia make disbursal of aid a life-or-death matter for people and the form it takes can shape politics, sideline or empower talented reformers, and exert far-reaching influence on the lives of those it affects. Rather than recklessly bulldozing ahead out of an impulse to do something about poverty or injustice, we have to start by seeing aid for what it should be—a shared project in which we sit at eye level with people working towards change in the societies we want to help, and whose guidance and oversight are necessary if we want to be of any use to their future.

This requires a different—and far more subversive—form of generosity than we’ve been conditioned to adopt: the willingness to abdicate and meaningfully share the very power that allowed us to be there in the first place, and not just with those who we deem useful in carrying out our agenda.

In the wake of ProPublica’s investigation, the brilliant Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola tweeted a famous quote by Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian activist: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This call to humility and collective action is one that we’d all do well to bear in mind. Meyler and More Than Me are facing their reckoning, but accountability is not a finite resource, and the scandal is a call for us all to honestly examine the consequences of our good intentions, in Liberia as well as the many other countries that have felt their sting.

Further Reading