Over the last few weeks, there has been some in-depth reporting by ProPublica around an NGO called “More Than Me” which is based in Monrovia, Liberia. The mission of the organization is to take young girls off the streets and put them in school.
The NGO was started by a young American woman named Katie Meyler. She was in her mid-twenties when she started the organization and her first school opened in 2013 when she was 31 years old. She was able to raise millions of dollars for the organization and was a darling of the philanthropic world. That is, until it was revealed that her Liberian partner on the ground Macintosh Johnson was raping the girls. And he had AIDS.
How does something like this happen? Well, having lived for over 2 years in Liberia, I can say that something like this can happen fairly easily. Liberia is a war-torn country which even to this day is still reeling from a savage civil war which ended in 2003. The informality of the country is ripe for western people without much (or any) experience to come in and try things that certainly wouldn’t fly in their home countries.
Now, this informality can really be a blessing. With all of the urgent messages we are getting from the UN and other organizations about how the world needs innovation, great ideas and courage from people around the world, the door is fairly open to people just trying things they are passionate about. The philanthropic dollars are there as well for these ideas especially when the founders are very charismatic – as was the case for Meyler.
This informality and lack of bureaucracy is also a curse in that so many things can go wrong. Therefore, all of the ambition and passion in the world still requires transparency, accountability and experience – especially in countries like Liberia. This isn’t to say that the founders themselves need to have doctorates in social justice, but rather (at a minimum) those people must be surrounded with a board, funders and a team which will ensure that progress is being made and the necessary oversight is in place. Otherwise, due to that informality in Liberia (and other places around the world) very bad things can happen. More Than Me didn’t have this oversight and the rest is very sad history.
I do think that we should encourage people like Katie Meyler to go after their dreams and to find new and more efficient ways to create a better world. However, there must be training and mentorship for these new founders to ensure they understand the risks of this kind of work and how to mitigate those risks. The funders have a responsibility to ensure that these new organizations have proper boards and that the teams are experienced. While all of this may seem very boring and heavy in terms of process, it is essential to ensure that harm is not done on the way to changing the world.