Fighting poverty with eyeglasses

Without clear vision, people in the developing world may be unable to secure a job or support a family. VisionSpring offers inexpensive eyeglasses to meet the need.

Courtesy of Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
Eyeglasses from VisionSpring are priced around $4 and typically boost the wearer’s wage by an average of $108 per year – a significant amount in many developing nations.

We often take clear vision for granted, but Peter Eliassen knows that eyeglasses can be the difference between financial security and poverty for many in the developing world.

As the chief operating officer of VisionSpring, Eliassen travels the globe making reasonably-priced eyewear available for people who cannot otherwise afford them.

“Eyeglasses have been proven to be one of the most impactful public health interventions,” Eliassen said in an e-mail interview with Global Envision. “The challenge is simply how to optimize our distribution efforts to change the lives of millions of families.”

Eliassen’s work spans developing VisionSpring’s products, organizing its worldwide supply chain, and ensuring it achieves its operational and sales objectives. And success in its business model means VisionSpring’s annual sales have increased tenfold, and its products now reach more than 500,000 people each year.

Eliassen will explain the link between clear vision and economic security, how VisionSpring’s social enterprise business model works, and share stories of lives improved by eyeglasses in the developing world at 7:00 p.m. April 2, 2015, at the Mercy Corps Action Center in Portland, Ore.

VisionSpring estimates more than 703 million people around the world need eyeglasses. Without vision correction, people are unable to secure employment during their prime working years, and supporting a family becomes almost impossible.

This deficit costs the global economy an estimated $202 billion annually. VisionSpring’s eyeglasses are priced around $4 and typically boost the wearer’s wage by an average of $108 per year – a significant amount in many developing nations.

However, a worker’s clear vision can be life-changing to many people outside their family.

Most of the estimated 202 million unemployed people in the world live in the developing world and unemployment rates are increasing. Many of these individuals are unemployed due to their lack of access to corrective lenses.

VisionSpring estimates that 544 million people worldwide could have their vision restored with a simple pair of reading glasses, and don't require more invasive surgery.

The correlation between good public health and economic growth in developing nations is strong. If developing nations can reduce unemployment by solving on-going public health problems such as impaired vision, the socioeconomic benefits can improve the lives of a nation’s entire population.

In addition to employment, eyeglasses liberate people in the developing world in a variety of ways that people in the developed world may take for granted. For example, literacy is exceptionally important –- it’s difficult to learn to read when you can’t see the text. Without clear vision, millions are not able to get an education, an important building block of socioeconomic advancement that improves many aspects of society.

But for Eliassen, one of the greatest rewards of VisionSpring is much more personal.

“One of the most powerful lines we tend to hear all over the world is: ‘Thank you, you have given me my God back,’” he said. “With blurry vision, people cannot read their holy texts.”

VisionSpring has distributed more than 2 million pairs of glasses and has its sights set on distributing millions more. Through curating vision campaigns, supplying reading glasses, and providing optical exams in 26 developing nations, VisionSpring estimates its lifetime economic impact tops $269 million.

And VisionSpring continues to expand, bringing its unique form of aid to new locations around the world.

Mercy Corps is supporting VisionSpring’s expansion through the Innovation Investment Alliance, a partnership between USAID and the Skoll Foundation. The growth also enables VisionSpring’s operations to generate larger sales volumes and the economies of scale needed to become financially self-sustaining.

“A simple thing like a pair of affordable eyeglasses can quickly bring back the happiness that comes from seeing trees and natural beauty with more clarity,” Eliassen said.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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