The Good Samaritans Who Saved Syrian Refugees
All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis, by Dana Sachs, Bellevue Literary Press, 304 pages, $19.99
There is a story about crisis relief that a lot of people believe instinctively, one that’s built into our institutions: Governments and major international organizations, armed with resources and authority, are best equipped to quickly help people harmed by war, hunger, and violence.
Dana Sachs offers a different narrative in All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis. A million migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the year 2015 alone. As the refugees reached shore in Greece, “traditional relief networks proved themselves incapable of delivering a productive response,” she writes. Major humanitarian groups such as the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “offered only limited support on the ground.” The European Union shelled out “millions of euros in aid but failed to disburse the funds effectively.”
Meanwhile, “thousands of individuals—Greek villagers, Swedish college students, Irish retirees, Italian lifeguards, and, eventually, refugees themselves—stepped forward to fill the gaps.” It was “individual Good Samaritans” who “averted disaster,” Sachs shows.
Her book stops short of explicitly saying governments and large organizations are not the most effective relief providers. The subtext is that the volunteer response was better because it had to be, not because it actually would have been preferable to a competent effort led by governments and major charities. But with its relentless focus on the ways individuals were best able to help each other through the crisis, All Else Failed offers clear evidence that motivated volunteers were ready, willing, and better suited to take the lead.
“Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation,” F.A. Hayek wrote in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” A centrally planned economy, he showed, could never be as efficient as a system in which individuals are free to make decisions using the knowledge they personally hold.
The same was true of the grassroots relief network that emerged in Greece. Volunteers like Jenni James were effective at addressing migrants’ needs simply because they could see what those needs were. James launched an aid team called Get Shit Done, whose chutzpah and makeshift methods led to big improvements in migrant camps. At one, the team built a metal-frame community
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