October 26, 2018 / 11:23 AM / 21 days ago

When do-gooders do harm: Liberia rape scandal shifts aid sector spotlight

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A rape scandal at a U.S. charity in Liberia has exposed the dangers of small, unregulated organizations escaping scrutiny over sexual abuse in the aid world, humanitarian experts said.

One of the founders of the More Than Me (MTM) charity, Macintosh Johnson, was accused of raping multiple girls in the group’s care over several years, according to an investigation by U.S. news website ProPublica published earlier this month.

Johnson was arrested in 2014 and died of AIDS two years later while awaiting re-trial for alleged rape.

Co-founded by an American woman, Katie Meyler, MTM gained popularity on social media and received millions of dollars in funding even though its managers had little experience in international aid or child protection, according to ProPublica.

The Liberian government last week launched an investigation into MTM, which runs 19 schools in Liberia. MTM said last week in a statement that it would cooperate fully with the probe.

From Oxfam workers using prostitutes in Haiti to Save the Children staff reporting misconduct by bosses, the global aid sector has been rocked by revelations of sex abuse this year.

But while big-name agencies are in the spotlight, industry experts fear that smaller ones slip could through the cracks.

Small charities like MTM sometimes lack the mechanisms and oversight needed to spot sex predators and effectively respond, said Dorothea Hilhorst, a professor of humanitarian aid at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands.

“There is abuse everywhere ... but with the bigger agencies you see more standards, learning, reporting, action, more eyes on the ball,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Small charities can also have advantages over big ones, often connecting better with people on the ground, but they need certain safeguards in place, such as an oversight board and staff training in core humanitarian standards, Hilhorst added.

“I think small, unregulated, highly celebritized charities ... probably have more capacity to do harm,” said Alexia Pepper de Caires, co-founder of Safe Space, a Britain-based group fighting sexual harassment in the aid world.

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

The ProPublica report sparked outrage among Liberians, with groups this month protesting against MTM.

“The rape of girls could have been prevented if More Than Me and the government of Liberia, in its oversight role, took security and safety seriously,” said Facia Harris, a member of the Liberia Feminist Forum, which staged a protest this week.

Liberia’s minister of gender, children and social protection declined to comment with the government investigation ongoing.

Several experts said that while host countries should regulate charities, responsibility also lies with donors.

More Than Me received more than more than $600,000 in financing from the U.S. government, according to ProPublica.

“I cannot stress enough how much we believe this violates what we stand for,” said Mark Green, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

USAID since last year has held sessions with its partners around the world on the prevention of sex abuse and exploitation and is changing its contracts to require that they adopt policies to the highest standards, the U.S. aid chief added.

“This is not a one-off. We are going to stay on top of it every single day,” Green told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But for some, policies and procedures are not enough.

Andrew MacLeod, a lawyer who co-founded the charity Hear Their Cries to fight sex abuse in the aid sector, said failure to prevent or report such exploitation should be criminalized.

“When a child sex offense takes place, an organization should have to establish that it took all reasonable steps in prevention, training, detection and prosecution,” he said.

“This problem is not going to be fixed unless senior people start going to jail.”

“PERSONAL SAVIOUR”

MTM declined to speak to the Thomson Reuters Foundation but pointed to a statement on their website. It said that as soon as they learned of the abuse, the charity reported it to Liberian authorities and took action to prevent it from happening again.

“We are deeply sorry... and regret that we were unprepared for the magnitude of the challenges we would face when we opened More Than Me Academy in 2013,” the charity said on its website.

“We were ambitious but also naive.”

One risk factor for MTM was that it was largely driven by a sole individual, Meyler, said Pepper de Caires of Safe Space.

Meyler, who has 83,000 followers on Instagram where she often posts photos of children, was celebrated as an ‘Ebola Fighter’ in Time Magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year award and has won praise from the likes of Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

She has taken a leave of absence from the charity, according to a letter posted on MTM’s website.

“I think it’s all about staying away from the personal savior,” Pepper de Caires added.

Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Additional reporting by James Giahyue in Monrovia and by Thin Lei Win in Rome; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

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