Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is dead

Christopher Hitchens is dead. He died from pneumonia, a complication related to his esophageal cancer.

You can't say, "See, God punished Hitchens with cancer and death because he was an outspoken Atheist," because then, what are you going to say about all the devout Christians, devout Muslims, devout Jews and other devout religious people who have died from cancer or complications just like Hitchens?

I loathed Hitchens for his pro-war-in-Iraq stance and his pro George-Bush stance; had Bush been a Muslim, espousing exactly the same views about Christianity and the invasion of a nation made up largely of Christians, Hitchens would have foamed at the mouth. How Hitchens could be such a blind hypocrite regarding Iraq and Bush was astounding to me, because a few years before that, Hitchens had, literally, changed my life - for the better.

I will always be grateful to Hitchens for his exposing of Mother Teresa as a religious fanatic and a fraud in terms of truly helping people. I first read his criticisms back in the 1990s, after she died. It was the first time I had ever heard any criticism of her, let alone of any charity in the developing world. I was shocked. My first reaction, for several seconds, was, "What he is saying cannot be true." I remember my face feeling hot. Criticizing charity? Criticizing a woman whose name was seen as the definition of goodness by millions - and certainly characterized in the press that way?

But I kept reading.

(See an excerpt from a video from 1994, broadcast on the BBC, where Hitchens illustrates some of his criticisms.)

Over the months, as I read more and more, not only did my mind completely change about what Mother Teresa had done in India; my mindset about how to really help people living in extreme poverty changed. I realized that engaging only in charity, without addressing the reasons for poverty or a desperate situation, is mostly about making the giver feel good; a year later, all those poor people still need charity. Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. By contrast, changing political structures, educating people, EMPOWERING people - that changes things. That reduces poverty. That gives people options for employment, for health care, and for major life choices like marriage, pregnancy, moving... Pure charity, only charity, doesn't do those things. In fact, charity alone could even be said to keep people in poverty, forcing them to always be reliant on the kindness of others, never being able to take control of their own lives.

Five years after reading Hitchens' criticisms, when I found myself working for a UN-program and started my career in working for development agencies, my changed mindset helped me be much more effective in my job - and more effective to truly help others. To this day, I do not work the same way with nonprofits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nor donate to those organizations the same way, that I did before Hitchens' scathing criticisms of Mother Teresa. For instance, when I work with young people about volunteering, I don't just tell them how to do a one-day, feel good Habitat for Humanity build; I talk to them about organizations that are helping people learn to get out of debt, how to save, how to improve their job skills, etc., and how they could help those organizations as well. I'm outspoken about orphan tourism, and encourage those looking to volunteer abroad to engage in activities that don't take away local jobs and are focused on actually helping people in the long-term.

I'm not at all saying charity isn't a good thing to do. But it's not enough by itself. Hitchens played a huge role in my realizing that. I have to thank Christopher Hitchens for that start of the change in my mindset, and for helping to make me a better aid and development worker.

For a wonderful alternative to Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church's approaches to charity, which exploits the poor and doesn't change people's lives (but certainly raises a lot of money for their church), get to know Responsible Charity, which is working to raise some of the poorest people in India out of extreme poverty. Its Facebook page is a fantastic example of how a nonprofit can use the Internet to show its accountability and effectiveness.

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