Finding cures isn’t the primary obstacle for global health, delivering them is, says New America Foundation and Center for Global Development scholar Charles Kenny.

In a new article at Foreign Policy, Kenny points to advancements in eyeglasses as an example of how health can be better delivered and have a severe impact on poorer countries.

World Health Organization figures indicate that about 150 million people who need glasses are without them. Only about 5 percent of people with poor sight have glasses in sub-Saharan Africa. And an astonishing figure of 10 million Rwandans have only 12 optometrists and opthalmologists to turn to.

But Kenny, who works on the way technology can facilitate development, reports that significant advancements have been made to bring better eyesight to those who need it , some of which doesn’t require (or rely heavily upon) practitioners. And most of it at a very affordable rate in the $5-$15 range; some solutions are as little as $1.

One example is curing cataract blindness.

The approach uses a locally produced replacement lens costing less than $5, which is inserted through a small incision in the eye. A surgeon alternating between two different operating tables can treat 15 cases an hour for less than $15 total (a cost covered for 70 percent of patients by cross-subsidy from the 30 percent of customers who are wealthy enough to pay for it). Some 200,000 cataract surgeries are performed each year by the Aravind network.

But the greater potential is in the advancements in eyeglasses.

Mass-production technologies have slashed the price of glasses as well. China now produces readymade eyeglasses for as little as $2 a pair and made-to-order pairs for $5 to $10 retail. In India, the multinational firm Essilor has funded vans that tour towns and villages offering free eye exams and selling prescription plastic glasses (which cost an average of about $5) and ready-made nonprescription reading glasses (as little as $1), a project that has proved profitable in its pilot stage.


Another way of getting around the need for skilled eye-care professionals is “adaptive” eyewear. New lenses filled with silicon oil can be adjusted by the customers themselves to provide corrective vision, and cost about $19 a pair. And a new technology using two lenses which slide across each other to alter focus costs as little as $4, and if production can be scaled up the price could be reduced even further.