A few weeks ago, we received an email from World Childhood Foundation, a Swedish organization that supports projects that give children around the world better lives. They were concerned about the inclusion of visiting orphanages in our story about how to do good while traveling. We were interested in learning more, so we asked Britta Holmberg, Childhood’s project director, to write an op-ed on why travelers should think twice about volunteering at an orphanage. Here’s what she had to say.

It might seem like a good idea to visit an orphanage: there are so many children at those facilities around the world. You have probably heard testimonials from people who have described it as one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of their lives, or something that reminded them about what’s really important in life—family. But visiting an orphanage when you’re abroad is not a good idea.

Some of these children are placed in care because of abuse or abandonment. What they need are secure, long-term relationships with staff who speak their language and hopefully reintegrate them in their communities.

But let’s stop for a second and think about what happens when travelers visit. Children learn that if they smile and hug a visitor as one comes through the door, they are likely to receive gifts or a short moment of attention. These visits are invariably short, proving to these kids that people will abandon you after a while, no matter how much they say they love you. It shows them that their worth lies in smiling to the cameras when tourists come and take a selfie with them.

These visits can cause long-term damage for the children’s ability to develop trusting and loving relationships with others, and it puts children at risk of being harmed by visitors and volunteers who do not have good intentions.

Most children are at orphanages because of poverty—poor parents who want to give their children a better future and see no other way than to give them up to orphanages where they are promised food, clothes, and an education. If more funding is channeled to organizations that support children and families instead of orphanages, poor parents might not be in a situation where they have to abandon their child in order to get help. The cost of raising a child in an orphanage is at least six times more expensive than supporting families directly, an option that gives the children a better future.

The bottom line: We would never dream of allowing tourist groups or unskilled short-term volunteers to work with vulnerable children in our communities. Why do we think this is OK in another country? If an orphanage does not ask you for relevant work experience, skills related to child care or teaching, or takes measures to prevent children from being alone with you, take these as red flags: it’s likely to be an organization that is not working with the children’s best interest at heart. So if you are considering volunteering at an orphanage, please think again, and check out thinkchildsafe.org for more information about how to be a responsible volunteer and child-safe traveler.

World Childhood Foundation supports local organizations in sixteen countries working to prevent children from abuse and exploitation. Children without a supporting network of family, friends and relatives are at higher risk than others to be abused and exploited. One of its main strategies is to support families at risk in order to prevent children from ending up on the streets or in orphanages.

Photo by Charlotte Steppling