July 4, 2016
Correcting people’s vision with eyeglasses advances socioeconomic development. Vision correction for children, for example, has been proven to lead to better test scores and improved academic performance in primary school for those affected,1 thereby increasing the chance of having a better educated populace. For adults, correcting vision represents an even more immediate economic return by supporting increased productivity of the working poor. This also allows adults to remain in the workforce for a longer period of time and can help overcome illiteracy.
Today, 2.5 billion people live with poor vision unnecessarily because they need yet do not have eyeglasses. Of these, 624 million require corrective lenses so strong that they are classified as visually impaired or blind without glasses; and, 80% of those with poor vision live in less developed countries. In 2015, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and inclusive businesses collectively distributed less than 8 million pairs of eyeglasses in those countries. Those with the fewest opportunities in the world are further disadvantaged by persistently poor vision. This is today’s world; it does not have to be tomorrow’s.
Without glasses, children with poor vision are at a major disadvantage in school because 80% of all learning occurs through vision. Today, a pair of eyeglasses could correct the poor vision of 239 million children. Myopia, or shortsightedness, is commonly diagnosed at 8 to 12 years of age; if current trends continue, an estimated 4.8 billion people, or about half the world’s population, will have myopia by 2050.2 Research shows that correcting myopia and poor vision with properly prescribed glasses results in a greater impact on academic performance that any other health intervention. In addition, correcting vision has the potential to improve learning environments for all children in the classroom and decrease non-completion rates due to underperformance. School-based eye health interventions are a cost-effective approach to identifying children with vision problems. Therefore, providing glasses for schoolage children is a high-impact educational and economic investment. National governments should collaborate with development partners to fund school eye health initiatives.
The global economy loses $227 billion every year from lost productivity among adults who need eyeglasses.3 Providing affordable access to reading glasses alone would boost productivity by up to 34%. Illiteracy costs the global economy $1.19 trillion each year; in fact, research reveals that 74% of illiterate adults failed one or more parts of a vision screening.4 Secondary benefits of correcting vision in adults include safer drivers and safer roads, as well as increased participation in the digital economy. Fortunately, market-based approaches to eye care in less developed countries have emerged and demonstrated the viability of cost recovery models and sustainable solutions. To fully realize the potential for market-led development, finance institutions, foundations and development banks should offer financing options, including impact investment and social impact bonds, to de-risk the optical private sector’s entry into less mature markets.
New developments in technology could accelerate the ability to reach consumers at a significantly lower cost and on a larger scale. Coupled with burgeoning momentum within the eye care community to align efforts, this means the time is now to collaborate across sectors to bring better vision to the world.
Political will, investment and the engagement of private sector actors can overcome barriers to solving the problem at scale. In 2015, only $37 million, or 2 cents per person affected, was spent to solve this problem.5 That amount is less than 1% of the resources allocated to address other global health and development problems, such as river blindness, malaria and access to clean water and energy. An infusion of philanthropic investment could stimulate government investment in school eye health and attract capital investment for market-based solutions. Such efforts would serve base-of-the-pyramid consumers and yield exponential returns in socio-economic gain.
Solving this problem is within society’s grasp, but it needs to seize the opportunity to harness market forces for accomplishing the task. Although eyeglasses have existed for hundreds of years, scalable distribution models have now emerged and new technologies are being tested to accelerate access. In a year marked by a renewed commitment worldwide to reduce inequalities, shouldn’t this achievable and highly impactful goal be added to the global development agenda?
Equitable access to eyeglasses is in the best interest of governments and businesses. Accordingly, both sectors should work with development partners to ensure that providing glasses is appropriately prioritized as a key part of global development. Helping all individuals live up to their potential is a great justice, but great injustice occurs when neglect hinders them from reaching their full potential. The time to pay attention and solve this problem is now.