Should philanthropy help people leave?

Timothy Ogden

Imagine a young woman with children in a dangerous domestic situation. Every moment she stays she risks further harm to herself and her children, harm that not even time can heal. Her abuser has promised time and again to change. Would you advise medical care and counselling, perhaps some training to equip her with skills to better make her case for why the situation should change? Or would you advise getting the hell out as quickly as possible? Which course of action do you think would be more likely to cause the abuser to change?

I think I know the answer. Which is why I am amazed that when the dangerous domestic situation is not interpersonal, but community-wide, philanthropy seems always to favour voice and never exit.

Albert Hirschman, a giant of social science, was the originator of the categories of voice and exit to describe the choices available when in a situation that must change. We can raise our voices to demand change, or we can leave.

Hirschman also had the insight that economists tend to focus on exit, as that is the primary way markets work (buyers exit by choosing a competitor). Political scientists, on the other hand, tend to focus on voice, because voice is a highly visible political process. It seems philanthropy is the province of political scientists in this regard.

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