In the past week, the eyes of the world were opened to some of the harsh realities and darkness that exists in the aid/humanitarian sector. Liberia, being one of the poorest nations in the world, is exposed to the darkness of these realities, as it lies vulnerable and open to exploitation. The poverty of the people leaves them helpless, and ready to receive whatever aid they can get, despite the source or the rightful amount. White-owned organizations see the need for aid, as well as Liberians and other Africans — prompting the opening of several orphanage homes, schools, NGOs, businesses, etc. While Liberians and the world largely focus on the downsides to White faces using the African story and poverty to raise money and funds, we question, what happens, when those faces are actually Black. Do we still see their work as exploitation, or does it now become something else?
Over the years, Liberians have become traumatized from the ways in which their stories have been used by NGOs and individuals to gain fame and money, with the Liberian people getting nothing in return except shame and empty promises. A few years back, VICE news filmed a now infamous documentary in WestPoint, one of Liberia’s poorest communities. The people welcomed the VICE crew into their community, and told their stories of drug abuse, rape, sex work, poverty, and trauma. They told their stories with hopes that VICE would share it with the world, and somehow bring change to their situations. VICE, instead, told their story in a degrading manner, which painted WestPoint as one of the worst slums in the world, rather than a community needing support and aid.
The aftermath of this documentary was shame for Liberians, as yet again, the country was painted in a negative light to the world. More White photographers, videographers, and curious do-gooders took interest in WestPoint, trying to paint their own picture of “one of the world’s most dangerous slums”. WestPoint became a tourist haven for poverty porn, while on the other hand, Nigerian Photographer, Yagazie Emezie spent her time in Liberia showcasing the beauty of the people of WestPoint.
Moving on to more recently, the people of Liberia saw another dark twist to trusting individuals and NGOs to provide them hope, and services, when the world learned that over 30 girls ages 10-16 from the same WestPoint community, were sexually abused under the roof of their school, More than Me Academy, which was established as an NGO to protect survivors of sex work and sexual abuse. The ousting of this tragic incident raised questions about the regulations of humanitarianism and aid in Liberia, as it highlighted all of the lapses within the system that are prone to exploitation. It also raised questions of how much the nation relies on Whites to save it, and prompted angry feelings about White saviorism in Liberia, and how Liberian children are often left exposed for world consumption in the name of doing good. These conversations prompted us to look across the board into the aid sector in Liberia with a sharper lens, beyond Whites, and onto Liberians ourselves.
While it can be agreed that White saviorism does indeed exist, as some non-blacks come to Liberia to help the people but rather take advantage of the lack of regulations, it cannot be ignored that there are Liberians who also take advantage of the nature of the country, using the stories of the people to gain fame, money, prestige, among others. Except, those people and their organizations are celebrated for their work, with their exploitation of the people going unnoticed. Liberia is a highly vulnerable nation, however, it is up to Liberians ourselves to change the narrative and the world’s perception of the country, rather than perpetuate those perceptions in the stories we tell, and images we use, when fighting for our various causes, and acquiring donor-funding.
Some major Liberian-owned organizations and business in the aid sector which benefits the Liberian people are; Face Africa, founded by Saran Kaba-Jones, the Checago Bright Foundation, founded by Checago Bright Sawo, and Liberty and Justice/Uniform, founded by Chid Liberty. Both Face Africa and the Checago Bright Foundation are championing bringing clean and safe drinking water to rural Liberia, which otherwise remains vulnerable to water-borne diseases. Liberty and Justice/Uniform is an apparel company that is championing the need for apparel manufacturing in Africa, which will financially empower the people, especially women. The brand, Uniform, a subset of Liberty and Justice, provides uniforms for students in Liberia with every purchase of their garment. All of these causes are incredibly crucial to the development of the nation, and Africa at large, and it is commendable that these organizations and their founders have taken the task to champion such causes. However, they and the many other Liberian-owned organizations in the aid sector bare a responsibility in how they tell the Liberian story, and how they use the funds acquired in the name of the people.
While visiting the websites and Instagram accounts of some of these Liberian-owned organizations, it leaves one to wonder where we as Liberians cross the line when using our own people and telling their stories to raise money. Some of the websites feature the faces of Liberian children; some in torn up clothes, some hauling water, some showing big happy smiles. It also features some adults; women carrying wood on their heads, others on a farm with a baby on their backs, and then shows more smiling faces of happy Africans, which insinuates how happy they must be to receive the aid being offered by the organization. We get it, but do these images have to be used in order to understand the works of these organizations?
Some of these images, bore striking similarities to those of More than Me’s White founder, Katie Meyler, and her and the organization’s use of the faces of young Liberian girls to appeal to donors and raise money to open up her school. These same images have been condemned as “poverty porn” by many Liberians, so why is it different, when the user of such images, are Liberians? This comparative example is not to discredit the work of the named organizations, but to question the use of Liberian children in poor conditions, smiling or not, in order to appeal to donors and the world at large. These Liberian-owned organizations are not the only ones to do this in Africa, just as More than Me or VICE are not the only Whites. However, when will it be enough?
American Rapper Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian took a recent trip to Uganda, their first to the continent, and took to the internet documenting their trip. What was striking in these images, though, is the grave similarities to how visits to Africa are usually documented by White Western celebrities. More faces of African children, more use of the continent and its vulnerability for personal marketing, and more disconnect from our stories. West has been rightfully criticized for such irresponsible documentation of the continent, but unfortunately, he won’t be the last to do so; just as these Liberian-owned, or White-owned organizations won’t be the last.
When will it be enough?
When will we tell our stories without the exploitation or use of destitute faces for money? The need for water, or the need for education, or the need to shine light on a community is still just as important without painting said cause or community in a poverty-stricken light. For example, instead of using the faces of children, use images of the work itself. In the case of Face Africa or the Checago Bright Foundation, images of the hand pumps can be used, or even contracting creative directors to offer photography direction that tells the story of the organization without the cliché use of African faces – happy or sad. On the other hand, Liberty and Justice and their brand Uniform gets this right, as they use their Instagram and website to tell their story and that of their beneficiaries through the use of positive images. However, Chid Liberty’s silence and complacency in the rape and sexual abuse of the students at More than Me Academy while serving on the board of directors of the organization is condemnable, as he, as a Liberian native, carried a responsibility to those girls to be instrumental in reporting their abuse when his White colleagues chose to be silent. Instead, he also chose the path of silence until it was convenient.
The exploitation of the Liberian people through images or using their stories to raise money for causes that sometimes the subjects do not benefit from has led to insecurity among the Liberian people when faced with photographers and other well-meaning humanitarians. Trying to take photographs in the streets of Monrovia leaves one with angry looks, and comments from bystanders like; “don’t take my photo, because yall can take our pictures and go make money from it, but we can’t see the money.” While it can be frustrating to well-meaning photographers, the people are right to feel the way they feel, as that often is the case of what happens with their photos and stories. Money is raised in the name of these smiling, or crying children, but their situations remain the same, while the NGO or individuals who raise the money with their photos and stories are enriched and awarded for their causes.
Are the causes not valid by themselves without photos of smiling or sad children? How can this reality be changed?
For starters, the aid and humanitarian sector in Liberia needs to be thoroughly reexamined to ensure the right laws are developed and implemented. At the moment, there is no telling how the monies raised on behalf of the vulnerable people in the nation are used and allocated. There are no regulations as per the use of children’s images, with or without consent to raise money. There are no regulations on the percentage of monies raised being used for the purpose for which it was raised. This is dangerous.
The lapses in the regulation of aid in the country is why Katie Meyler of More than Me foundation had sleepovers with her pedophile boyfriend and the underage girls of her school, and why her and More than Me’s Instagram accounts are full of young girls, some of whom are survivors of sexual abuse. This is also why some owners of Liberian-owned NGOs are seen living lavish lifestyles, traveling, building new homes, etc. while the projects of their organizations remain stagnant. Likewise, this is why hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars are raised in the names of the Liberian people, while their situations remain the same, with little or no change evident in their communities.
Liberia must ensure more regulations in the aid sector to discourage such behaviors and ensure total transparency and accountability on how funds are used for the causes which they were raised. We cannot expect more from Whites in the aid sector on the continent, if we, as Africans, as Blacks, do not take bigger responsibilities in changing our own approaches to how we provide aid to our own people.