The best of us around the world have continued to support one another throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When asking what more can be done, it extends beyond the immediate crisis.

Altruism, in all manifestations, has been debated by ethicists and philosophers since Comte coined the term in the 19th Century. Many believe true altruism is impossible, claiming humans experience satisfaction in helping others such as endorphins after a charitable act. This 'selfless concern for the wellbeing of others', irrespective of religious, utilitarian or even scientific overtones, is a notion we would do well to contemplate. 2020 has been the year in which we ask what more we can do to help. Yet for those of us with little power, there is no indication or guarantee of an answer. Whether or not the path ahead is clear, it is always within our power to help, from the smallest to the greatest acts.

Children eating porridge during school

Whilst the pandemic continues, it has never been more important to support organisations like Bread and Water for Africa; ensuring clean water for handwashing, cooking and drinking. I was fortunate enough to meet John Sandy and everyone at We Are the Future School in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

"It is difficult to articulate just how significant the school’s positive impact is for the children’s education and nourishment, as well as for the neighbourhood. The school is built on a principle of helping each other and that is only being amplified as the region cautiously awaits COVID-19’s spread."

It is a popular and often altruistic choice among travellers to volunteer on projects abroad, but this can be wrought with complications. “Voluntourism” has become a contentious issue and with good reason. Though intentions can be selfless, there are plenty of reasons not to indulge in what cynics might call 'poverty tourism'. Avid discussion shows that the line between patronising and helping is thin, yet there are myriad organisations appreciating genuine support if applied with diligence. Volunteering for charities is fantastic for volunteer and organisation alike, so it is important to be aware of the impact one has in participating. My time in Sierra Leone revealed the best that travellers had to offer as well as some of the more unfortunate instances.

Children playing at We Are The Future schoolChildren playing at We Are The Future school

West Africa’s Atlantic coast is home to a dichotomy of historic fishing culture and rich marine biodiversity. Against all odds, however, the two have coexisted in relative harmony. In recent years, large trawlers operated by, and registered to, Chinese companies have been overexploiting these seas for fish. Not only has the disruption caused environmental damage but it entails a human cost in the community’s trade. Where jobs are compromised, it is only understandable that people search for other means to make a living.

Along the coast from Freetown, I saw a sea turtle shell leant up against a beach hut, perhaps accidentally caught in a net, an opportunistic meal and now a mere decoration. Some American missionaries arrived on the beach and, despite not being on sale, offered money for the shell.

"In insisting on purchasing this shell, these visitors inadvertently, irresponsibly created a market for it to be caught and sold again."

It was disheartening, being yet another example of exploitation in the region under the veil of 'helping', with damaging socio-environmental effects. If travellers and volunteers are not willing to consider what they might leave behind, be it positive or negative, then it is neither sustainable nor helpful in tourism or volunteering.

Part 1 of 2

In the second article of this series we'll look more closely at the positive outcomes COVID-19 may have on sustainable and responsible volunteering and tourism. 

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David RANDALL is a writer and traveller who visited the We Are the Future programme in Freetown on behalf of Bread and Water for Africa UK in November 2018.