Resilience, Peace and Security

We're blind to the global cost of poor eyesight. But this can change

An Afghan refugee has his eyes tested at a health clinic set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to mark World Refugee Day in Islamabad June 20, 2014. World Refugee Day, an occasion that draws attention to those who have been displaced around the globe, falls on June 20.

The world economy falls short by $227 billion every year from lost productivity among adults who need glasses Image: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Rosamond Hutt
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

For many people, wearing glasses can mean the difference between working and being unemployed, or learning to read and being illiterate. Yet today there are 2.5 billion people – 80% of whom are in the developing world – living with poor vision unnecessarily because they do not have corrective eyewear. It's a situation that is not only robbing them of their educations and livelihoods, it’s also costing the global economy.

 Eyeglass need v distribution in Latin America, Africa and Asia (2015)
Image: Eyeglasses for Global Development: Bridging the Visual Divide

The world economy falls short of $227 billion every year from lost productivity among adults who need glasses, according to a joint report from the World Economic Forum, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and EYElliance.

 The global need for eyeglasses (number of people)
Image: Eyelliance

Providing affordable access to reading glasses alone would boost productivity by up to 34%, and would also help bring down levels of illiteracy, which costs the global economy $1.19 trillion each year. In fact, almost three-quarters (74%) of illiterate adults failed one or more parts of a vision screening, the report found.

Without glasses, children with poor eyesight are at a big disadvantage in school because 80% of all learning occurs through vision. Correcting their vision with properly prescribed glasses would lead to better test scores and have a bigger impact on academic performance than any other health intervention, the report says.

Eye test
Image: Eyelliance

For adults with poor eyesight, having glasses could enable them to get jobs or remain in the workforce for a longer period of time and improve people’s chances of overcoming illiteracy. There are also other less obvious benefits of correcting people’s vision, such as road safety and increased participation in the digital economy.

Despite the huge social and economic benefits, just $37 million, or 2 cents per person affected, was spent on solving this problem in 2015 – less than 1% of the resources allocated to other global health and development problems, such as river blindness, malaria and access to clean water and energy.

The report argues that the problem can be tackled through political will, investment and by bringing the private sector on board. And it calls on governments and businesses to work together with development organizations to make access to affordable glasses a global development priority.

“Solving this problem is within society’s grasp, but it needs to seize the opportunity to harness market forces for accomplishing the task,” the report says.

“Although eyeglasses have existed for hundreds of years, scaleable distribution models have now emerged and new technologies are being tested to accelerate access.”

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