With future economic prospects looking increasingly bleary, the possibility of a global recession has been brought sharply into focus. That’s the conclusion of new data from the World Bank, which reveals how global growth is set to decline in both developed and emerging economies.
In times of economic crisis, priorities are streamlined and objectives set in more prosperous times are often adjourned. Regrettably, global performance on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals SDG 1 “No Poverty” and SDG 8 “Decent Work and Economic Growth” remain below pre-pandemic levels in many low-income and lower-middle-income countries.
How can we attempt to address these twin problems of slowing growth and increasing poverty? For World Bank Group President David Malpass, any solutions must focus on boosting production via additional investment and improved productivity–a sentiment echoed by the authors of The Sustainable Development Report.
If this recommendation provides a broad framework for tackling these issues, then we need to identify specific areas in which to make a start. Agriculture and vision correction are particularly worthy of further exploration.
The potential of agriculture
The agricultural sector is absolutely crucial to international economic growth. The industry accounts for 4% of global GDP–and more than 25% in some developing countries. Moreover, the sector is two to four times more effective in raising incomes among the poorest compared to other industries, as in many countries agriculture continues to be the primary source of employment, livelihood, and income for the majority of the population.
Therefore, additional investment in improving productivity in the agricultural sector represents one of the most effective ways to tackle the looming recession and progress toward achieving sustainable development goals. Indeed, the authors of “Food for All: International Organizations and the Transformation of Agriculture” champion the importance of investment in food and agriculture and related growth-enhancing sectors, including education, health, infrastructure, and research and development. However, a simple intervention with the potential to rapidly provide substantial benefits without requiring burdensome levels of investment is missing.
Clear vision for growth
Evidence from the PROSPER trial in 2018, conducted with tea pickers in Assam, India, showed that eyeglasses can increase productivity by 22%, unlocking greater earning potential. What’s more, preliminary results from another trial still in the process reveal that reading glasses yield comparable or even greater gains in income across a wide variety of occupations in rural Bangladesh.
Further evidence, released in 2021, has been gathered and analyzed in The Lancet Global Health Commission on Global Eye Health. The report explains that eye health is essential to achieving Sustainable Development Goals, including those pertaining to poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality, and decent work. In addition, the report emphasized that “highly cost-effective vision-restoring interventions offer enormous potential to improve the economic outlook of individuals and nations.”
However, despite overwhelming evidence of its transformative potential, many populations do not have access to quality eye care or affordable eyeglasses. The World Health Organisation estimates, in its report on effective eye care coverage that 85% of people with refractive error in low-income countries do not have the glasses they need as compared to 8% in high-income countries. While the gap in coverage is enormous, it is solvable.
In recent years, eye care organizations, governments, and other stakeholders have designed primary eyecare programs in low and middle-income countries to address poor eyesight.
Along with the charity BRAC, VisionSpring has pioneered the Reading Glasses for Improved Livelihoods program through which community health workers have now screened the vision of 10 million people in Bangladesh, Uganda, and Zambia–and sold 2 million subsidized, ready-made readers to mostly rural customers seeking the immediate social and economic gains of seeing clearly.
In Rwanda, this approach which takes services to the people has been adapted and introduced on a national scale through a partnership between the UK-based charity Vision for a Nation and Rwanda’s Ministry of Health. In Liberia, there is a collaboration between EYElliance and the Ministry of Health, which also includes school-based programs for children with the Ministry of Education.
We estimate that correcting vision and providing eyeglasses in the communities VisionSpring targets has the potential to unlock more than $1 billion in new earnings. Even though the projects above made a substantial impact, more engagement is needed to harness the potential of vision correction for supercharged growth, which the world urgently requires.
A pair of glasses–a simple, 700-year-old invention–has the potential to bring clarity in the search for solutions to one of the worst economic crises of modern times.
Ella Gudwin is the CEO of VisionSpring.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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