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Seeing Clearly

We can tackle the global problem of poor vision if we act now

By James Chen  

This article was produced in association with Clearly

Today, an estimated 2.5 billion people, just under the combined population of China and India, cannot see clearly.

Poor vision is the world’s largest unaddressed disability. In nine out of ten cases, lives could be transformed with access to a simple pair of glasses.

In a world of opportunity for those with clear sight, helping the world to see is about more than just health. It’s about children’s future, because a child who cannot see a blackboard cannot get a decent education. It’s about gender equality, because far more women and girls suffer than men. And it’s about productivity – not to mention dignity and mental health – because if you cannot see clearly, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to work.

In many ways, sight is the golden thread through the Sustainable Development Goals.

Why I founded Clearly

Everyone should be able to see clearly, but the global economy faces an estimated $3 trillion cost every year in health costs and lost productivity from poor vision.

The solution (glasses) is straightforward, the results are measurable, and research has shown that the returns-on-investment are exceptionally strong. That is why I founded the Clearly campaign.

The upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April provides an unmissable opportunity for 53 nations to act.

Impressive progress has been made in small pockets around the Commonwealth, which show that the challenge can be overcome. For example, Rwanda has become the first developing nation where all 12 million citizens have access to affordable eye care.

The time for wider action is now.

What can be done

Uncorrected poor vision affects 900 million people in Commonwealth countries. Clearly is calling on their leaders to commit to a Commonwealth that delivers vision for everyone and that each country takes one significant action by 2020 towards that goal.

In practice that means addressing the barriers to faster progress: the ‘four Ds’ – diagnosis, distribution, dollars and demand.

First, there are not enough eye doctors to diagnose everyone with poor eyesight. There is fewer than one ophthalmologist for every one million people in parts of the developing world. Instead, we need to train community nurses, teachers and even entrepreneurs to carry out sight tests and issue glasses.

Second, many countries only allow glasses to be sold by eye doctors, restricting their distribution. But if we can get a can of coke to every village in the world, we should be able to get a pair of glasses too.

© Sarah Day Photography/Clearly

Third, glasses can be manufactured for as little as a dollar, but unnecessarily lengthy supply chains and hefty import duties add dollars to the cost which put a pair of glasses out of reach for many people. Proper reforms of the international trade in glasses are necessary, as the World Health Organisation are considering.

Fourth, there is a social stigma around wearing glasses which affects demand. Much more can and should be done to educate people on the benefits of wearing glasses and to build cultural campaigns which change perceptions.

These steps have been taken in Rwanda where my charity, Vision for a Nation, worked with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to provide eye care in all 15,000 villages. Over 2.5 million have received a sight test so far so we know it can be done.

Support from every corner of the world

I recently chaired a roundtable discussion, co-hosted by Clearly and Prospect and attended by senior politicians and high-level representatives from NGOs, the technology sector and the world of eye health.

The eye health sector currently prioritises treatment for the 165 million people around the world suffering from preventable blindness problems – in the form of trachoma, cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. But we agreed that we did not have to treat one problem at the cost of tackling another.

Indeed, the way to tackle avoidable blindness and get glasses on people’s noses is to provide universal and affordable eye care systems. Thankfully, the evidence from countries like Rwanda, Botswana, India and Bangladesh is that the returns far outweigh the costs.

Individual Commonwealth countries have shown real vision on sight. The challenge now is for this group to lead on behalf of the rest of the world. It’s time to help the whole world see – starting with the Commonwealth next month.


James Chen is founder of Clearly and author of ‘Clearly: How a 700 Year Old Invention Can Change the World Forever’. 

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