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The Commonwealth has put vision for everyone on the world’s agenda— now we must act

London plays host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this month—bringing 53 national leaders to the UK’s capital. As Britain works to recalibrate its international ties in the wake of Brexit and the Queen’s tenure as head of the Commonwealth nears its end, the event will certainly draw the globe’s attention

By James Chen  

This article was produced in association with Clearly

But as those 53 global leaders gather for their ceremonial photographs, it’s not those headline-grabbing stories I am struck by. It’s that 39 of those 53 heads of government wear glasses.

It’s a detail not many would find surprising. But for me, it’s a striking symbol of an inequality that this gathering of nations has historically failed to address.

Today, an estimated 900 million citizens of the Commonwealth need glasses, but, unlike their leaders, don’t have access to vision correction.

The Vision Opportunity

Vision isn’t an issue that has traditionally made it onto the global agenda. However, solving poor vision is the golden thread that underpins many of the social and economic targets set to be addressed at this year’s Heads of Government meeting; from education to productivity to gender equality.

In fact, this month, a new report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) highlighted that there is an enormous 30:1 return on investing in vision. It’s estimated that the global agricultural economy alone could reap a productivity increase worth $180 billion annually if everyone who needed glasses had them – equal to $44 billion in potential gains for the Commonwealth.

On a global level, Access Economics estimates that current rates of poor vision cost the world’s economy $3 trillion every year – in lost productivity, healthcare provisions, road and domestic accidents and informal and family care.

Historically, however, tackling poor vision and unlocking that value has been held back by four factors – or the ‘four Ds’: a lack of diagnosis due to insufficient training; poor distribution due to outdated regulations; import duties and complicated supply chains adding unnecessary dollars to the retail price; and a lack of demand due to social stigma.

The Commonwealth Innovators

However, three Commonwealth nations, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Botswana, are proving that these historic barriers can be overcome. As captured in the ODI’s report, proving the returns available when investing in vision but creating a blueprint for nations across the world to tackle this problem on a global scale.

A charity I founded, Vision for a Nation, led the effort in Rwanda by working with the Ministry of Health to overcome the reliance on expensive, highly-trained experts. We trained local health providers – 2,700 nurses, to date – to administer basic sight tests and distribute low-cost reading glasses and adjustable glasses at local outreach clinics.

© Sarah Day Photography/Clearly

In Bangladesh, VisionSpring equipped 120,000 community health workers with the tools and skills to conduct vision screenings. VisionSpring paired this approach with social entrepreneurship, training thousands of women in both basic diagnostics and sales. Since launching the program, they have sold affordable, subsidized glasses to over 1 million people.

Today, vision treatment has reached all 15,000 villages in Rwanda and over 60 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts.

Following the leadership of these Commonwealth nations, I’m pleased to say that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is the first global gathering to put ‘vision for everyone’ on the agenda – and onto the global stage.

In the last year, leading politicians from across the political divides in the UK, including former Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Sir John Major, have got behind our cause – for example highlighting the opportunity to address this vital issue at the Heads of Government meeting.

The Next Challenge

As awareness of the magnitude and potential of this issue continues to grow, the next challenge will be in driving tangible progress and securing concrete commitments. To make significant change we need rapid action: from eliminating import duties on non-branded glasses to scrapping the strict regulations on the sale of eyewear.

Commonwealth Health Ministers will meet again on the 20th May ahead of the World Health Assembly and the UK Government will convene the Global Disability Summit for the first time in July 2018 – two further significant opportunities for leaders to advance our progress on this vital issue.

And, in October, my campaign Clearly, will mark World Sight Day with the first Sightgeist conference; a landmark event examining the powerful links between good vision, productivity, education and the quality of life of millions of people.

I hope, as those 39 Commonwealth leaders navigate London, read their briefing papers and check their smartphones, they’ll recognize the immense value of glasses to them and the people they represent.

Vision from leaders can provide vision for all citizens. The time is now.


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

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