Leaders of the Commonwealth’s 53 nations meet in London next month under the entirely laudable banner of building ‘towards a common future.’
The aim of this unique, diverse organisation is to respond to global challenges and ‘deliver a more prosperous, secure, sustainable and fair future for all its citizens, particularly its young people’.
And who would argue with that? No one. But there is a stark fact of life, little spoken about, perhaps little known, that stands in the way of the achievement of those aims.
It is this. Eyesight. There are more than 900 million people in the Commonwealth who suffer from poor vision and have no access to glasses to put it right. That is 38 per cent — yes 38 per cent — of the total population.
Across the world there are some 2.5 billion people who suffer. That’s a third of the world. Their problem is usually short or long sightedness. We put that right by having an eye examination and acquiring a pair of spectacles. That is not an option open to the vast majority of the 2.5 billion worldwide, or the 900m in the Commonwealth. For all kinds of reasons — getting the glasses to the people who need them, a lack of trained professionals in the countries concerned, cost, and in-built cultural factors that deter the use of glasses — they have been ignored or neglected.
It is a scandal and an oversight of historic proportions. And why do I say that? It is because glasses — the answer to most of these people’s woes — have been around for 700 years. They were invented in northern Italy in the late 13th century. Now they must be deployed to tackle a growing worldwide vision crisis, while at the same time helping us achieve our development aims. Glasses are the golden thread that run through so many development objectives.
So today I argue that the heads of government arriving in London in mid-April should commit themselves to securing ‘Vision for the Commonwealth’ with every country committing to deliver affordable eye care for all their people. They can start to do that by becoming the first major international forum to recognize that there is a problem of the scale I have mentioned. The eye-care industry knows it, the charities and NGOs working in the field know it; and the time has come for our great world forums to act. The Commonwealth can be the first.
Two years ago I set up a campaign called Clearly to highlight what I called the biggest unaddressed disability in the world. In October my book Clearly was published, describing the problem, the sterling efforts being made by charities and NGOs to tackle it, and putting forward a blueprint for action.
Everyone I tell about this problem are shocked. How can this have been allowed to happen, they ask me. The answer is the world has largely looked away. In parts of the developing world charities and social enterprises are trying to get to grips with it, but world authorities have not discussed it.
Eye health did not feature in the United Nations sustainable development goals of 2015, and did not even rate a mention in the 169 targets that underpinned them. It is hard to see how any of those goals can be achieved when a third of the world is suffering from poor vision. Being able to see well is vital to the achievement of so many of those goals on health, education, poverty elimination, decent work and gender equality.
For the sufferers the cost to their quality of life is huge — affecting their ability to learn, work and contribute. The cost to the world in terms of lost productivity and health expenses runs into trillions of dollars a year. With aid resources scarce investment in this area should be a no-brainer because it quite obviously produces results. A report from a respected development think-tank to be issued shortly will show that the return on investment for providing access to glasses in two countries where progress has been made — Rwanda and Bangladesh — is strikingly high.
The Commonwealth has a unique chance to help put this problem on the map. What we want and need is Vision for the Commonwealth. In all 53 nations people should have the right to affordable eye-care. If they can only recognise this problem in the various communiques and papers that come out of their gathering for us that will be a huge advance. If that happens we have a trigger — a chance to keep pushing this issue further and further up the international agenda.’
Being able to see properly means you can work longer and more productively. If you are child you are more likely to learn well if you can see the blackboard properly. Women are being held back because they are less likely to get help than men.
But the time for action is now. Technological advance is happening at such frightening speed that the people left behind today because they cannot see properly will never be able to catch up.
I believe the answers are in sight. In the book I called for a radical shakeup of the eye-care world, allowing teachers, nurses and community workers to screen people for vision problems.
It is time for the eye-care establishment to drop its objections to simple sight test tasks being undertaken by workers other than lengthily trained optometrists. In any case there are just not enough of them in the developing world.
We must train hundreds of thousands more people from community nurses to teachers to entrepreneurs — to carry out basic sight tests. This would also free up the eye professionals to focus on more serious eye diseases which only they are qualified to address.
I have called for individual countries to scrap the often punitive import duties on non-branded glasses, which help to put them out of the reach of most. And I have argued restrictions should be ditched so that glasses, distance as well as reading, can be bought alongside a can of Coca Cola in convenience stores.
The answers are there. My aim from the start has been for the world to be able to see well before a human sets foot on Mars. Given that the solution has been around for 700 years, surely that is not too much to ask.
So next month let us set out on the road to Vision for the Commonwealth. And that will help us on the longer trek towards Vision for the World.