Peek co-founder and CEO Andrew Bastawrous proposes an ambitious new mechanism for Commonwealth governments to meet the vision needs of all citizens.
Thirty-six million people in the world are blind, but four in five of them don’t need to be, says Andrew Bastawrous, head of accessible eye-care organization Peek and a TED Fellow. “In most cases, blindness and visual impairment can be prevented using simple, cost-effective treatments — surgical procedures, antibiotics, even a simple pair of glasses.” The problem is, he says, most people affected by blindness and visual impairment simply don’t have access to the services they need.
The 53 countries of the Commonwealth, home to almost a third of the world’s population, encompass a comprehensive cross-section of low-income nations, high-income nations, huge countries like India and tiny island nations. Yet across the board, its citizens are in urgent need of eye care.
“The Commonwealth has more than 85 million people affected by blindness and poor eyesight, with 900 million needing a pair of glasses,” says Bastawrous. “Shockingly, these numbers are set to triple by 2050, so there’s a huge imperative to act now and avert this crisis.”
Last month, Bastawrous stood up in Westminster Abbey during the Commonwealth Day service and delivered a speech in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, members of the royal family and the UK Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing the importance of universal access to eye care. “It was amazing,” says Bastawrous of the experience, “but it wasn’t enough for me to stand up and talk about an important issue. I wanted this to be an opportunity for us all to act and to establish a way of changing the way eye health is funded.”
That’s why he’s been hard at work on bringing together the Vision Catalyst Fund — a $1 billion fund established with the support of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust that will allow every country in the world to move towards providing eye healthcare to all its citizens. “In March, a group of eye health organisations and banks proposed to raise $1 billion to make it possible for governments to commit their own budgets to serve the needs of the people in their own countries,” says Bastawrous.
Here’s how it works: donors contribute to a central catalyst fund, which provides start-up funding for comprehensive eye health projects. Meanwhile, governments establish national eye-care goals and pledge their own national budget to meet the vision needs of their citizens. For example, in Botswana, the government has just committed to screen and treat every school child in the country for eyesight issues — a world first. The program will use Peek technology, and was funded by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust—one of the inspirations for the proposed catalyst fund.
“The catalyst fund bridges the gap over the next few years so governments will only be putting their money into projects that have been proven to work in their own country towards the national goals they’ve set, and commit funds to support sustainable eye health programs that support them,” explains Bastawrous.
This new financing mechanism is intended to help solve the challenges of the current model, which leads to inconsistent and unequal access to visual health care. “Eye care is usually delivered on the ground by civil society NGOs and private organizations, who have to work to raise funds individually from donors,” Bastawrous explains. “This is a huge barrier because NGOs are constantly competing to meet both the needs of funders and patients, dividing their resources and energy. Another problem is that there’s simply not enough philanthropic funding to change the billions of lives of people who need assistance.”
Meanwhile, if an organization doesn’t get funded, the need doesn’t get met. “For example, when Botswana transitioned from being a low- to middle-income country, more people became blind,” says Bastawrous. “The country had been reliant on NGO providers for much of its eye care, but when the country became middle income, many NGOs left.” These are the kinds of scenarios that Bastawrous hopes the Vision Catalyst Fund will help avoid.
The mechanism also helps governments and NGOs work in coordination to meet needs according to overall targets. “Each individual organization typically comes in with their own piece of expertise, but it doesn’t always fit into an overall, big-picture plan, so the government doesn’t take it on,” says Bastawrous. “Also, NGOs and other service providers tend to work on a specific eye care problem or level of health service, but populations have a whole range of vision issues,” says Bastawrous. “So the focus of the Vision Catalyst Fund will be on a national plan for accessible eye care, taking the emphasis off funding specific diseases or projects.”