06/27/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

It Takes More Than a Village to Raise a Child

By Carolyn Y. Woo

Something important happened to you right after you were born. You don't remember it, but your parents do. You got a birth certificate.

That is such a simple act -- like flicking a switch and having a light come on -- that we forget how complex it is. Just as behind that switch there is a labyrinth of wires and filaments and circuits all connected to a huge grid that leads to power-generating machinery, so behind that birth certificate was a large interconnected system involving doctors and hospitals and governments and printing presses and the like.

The now-standard cliché is that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes these complex systems that, though they are usually unseen, support us from the first moments of our birth and deliver us through vaccines and health checks and nutrition lessons and schooling and all manner of education to our adult years when we are ready to take care of ourselves -- and our children.

Now consider the fact that there are still places in the world where newborns are not automatically given birth certificates, rural villages where births occur at home with a traditional midwife in attendance.

Not having a birth certificate might mean your child will not be able to enroll in school one day. It might mean there will not be enough schools or teachers because the government does not know how many kids are being born who will need an education. It might mean there are not enough vaccines or aid in emergencies for the same reason. Undocumented children are often invisible children. That puts them at great risk for human trafficking. As adults, they might not be able to open a bank account, obtain credit, or vote.

But registering your child's birth might mean traveling a day or two to the district government office. That takes money for transportation, and a day away from tending your farm or your other work.

Poor families are often forced to make tough decisions, and one of them is getting a birth certificate that you need to enroll your kid in school five years from now versus having enough money to feed your family today.

Catholic Relief Services was recently involved in bringing identity documents to people in a remote part of Lesotho, the tiny mountainous nation surrounded by South Africa.

We were working with Lesotho's new Department of National Identity and Civil Registry. The work involved local chiefs who knew the members of his community as well as civil servants and police officers who could certify the paperwork. Those without birth certificates needed someone 10 years older than them to affirm their details.

Sometimes CRS help meant assisting in organization. Other times, it might mean overcoming the bottleneck because there was only one printer available.

After the three-month campaign over 350 people got their certificates. Others got them after the project ended because once government and community members had been through the process they were able to complete the rest on their own. All told, over 1,000 people got national identity cards.

CRS is at work to see that such systems support children throughout their lives around the world, whether it's working in Vietnam to ensure that children with disabilities are afforded an opportunity for an inclusive education and full participation in their communities, or in Rwanda where adolescent girls affected by the HIV pandemic were given a wide range of support -- from vocational training to financial education to mentoring and counseling.

Often that work is through structures of the Catholic Church that has been on the ground for decades providing the kinds of services that in the United States and other developed nations are usually the responsibility of government.

The point in all of these programs was not just to help the beneficiaries, but to build the systems -- governmental, educational, medical -- that will remain in place for years to come, helping many more people that those reached by the initial program. Once they are in place, they will remain there, soon taken for granted by the citizens of their countries just as we take for granted that the light will go on when we flip the switch.

Just as every mother wants what is best for her child, so every community of the thousands where CRS works wants what is best for its children. It is by building up the ability of these communities to support their children, then linking the communities to each other, to regional and national governments, that we can ensure that children around the world have an opportunity to get the best for every child.

Carolyn Woo is the president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States.