Bringing Great Eye Vision To The Poor – A Hong Kong Philanthropist's Tale

Tom Burroughes Group Editor 25 July 2023

Bringing Great Eye Vision To The Poor – A Hong Kong Philanthropist's Tale

Chen’s philanthropy journey throws light on an important aspect of charity that can be overlooked. And his story also highlights lessons that advisors can share with clients on the topic.

In much of the developed world, hundreds of millions of people wear spectacles and contact lenses in order to work, travel, socialise, enjoy entertainment, play sports, and see the wonders of the natural and human-made world. But far too many people in poorer nations are not as fortunate.

Depending on some estimates, almost 2.2 billion people around the world struggle with poor vision – and 1.1 billion have uncorrected poor vision.

For a philanthropist called James Chen, who heads up the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, it might have seemed an easy “win” to encourage governments and other bodies to take eye care seriously in poorer nations. It turned out to be a harder sell when he started on his charity journey more than 20 years ago. Chen advocates what he calls “moonshot philanthropy.” It means the need for boldness.

“Glasses as a healthcare intervention can be developed in a high-resource world very effectively by the private sector. But it only works in a high-return environment,” Chen, based in Hong Kong, told this publication. 

Chen has campaigned and founded initiatives such as Clearly, Vision For A Nation and Adlens. He has also funded and backed organisations including Peek Vision, EYElliance, the Vision Catalyst Fund and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Poor vision is not just a healthcare issue. Correcting vision helps meet several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as access to education, earning a living, curbing inequality and improving the conditions of women.

Heading up a family office, philanthropy is what drives much of his energy today, a trait Chen inherited from his father, Robert Yet-Sen Chen, who overcame war, poverty, and famine to establish an international business enterprise, building schools, hospitals, and funding public works in his hometown of Qidong, China.

Chen’s philanthropy journey throws light on an important aspect of charity that can be overlooked by those who say these activities ought to be undertaken by governments anyway, or that they somehow “legitimise” the status quo. And his story also highlights lessons that advisors can share with HNW and UHNW clients about how to think about philanthropy.

Getting involved
Chen, who thinks philanthropy must be a hands-on process, not just about sending money, was inspired to address the issue of vision when he visited a school library which his father had financed.

In his early years, Chen lived in Africa; then moved to the UK and US and never quite got round to having an eye test. At that point he realised that he needed one. Coupled with other experiences, he also realised that people in poorer nations with poor vision faced a big problem. Without sharp eyesight, literacy, for example, is hampered – causing a massive impact on economic growth and job prospects. 

Becoming interested in the idea of obtaining funding to finance low-cost spectacles for the developing world, Chen told this publication that Julian Lambert, CEO of Adaptive Eyewear, a non-profit, approached the World Bank many times over a period of more than two years (2005 to 2007) to make the case for funding vision correction.

After getting frustrated, Chen said he decided to go to a specific country – Rwanda – and run a pilot project. Initially, he encountered scepticism from local officials. 

Vision problems
A problem for poorer nations is that the infrastructure for obtaining eye tests, screening, the many years required for training opticians and other specialists, is not in place and these services are out of reach, Chen said. 

Chen’s charity, Vision For a Nation (VFAN) went to Rwanda circa 2008 and spent more than four years engaging in stakeholder management, developing and testing a programme for primary eye care to reach the bottom of the pyramid in Rwanda. Then, from about 2012 to 2017, it delivered the programme, training more than 2,700 nurses in every one of the 502 health centres. It then sent the nurses to all the 15,000 villages in Rwanda to do screenings and dispense glasses, eye-drops or make referrals. 

After the Rwanda experience, Chen has campaigned, written, and spoken about the need to make access to eye care as one of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, it has argued that it is “critical that countries adopt a whole-of-government approach to vision and include eye health in their development plans and policies.”

Chen naturally agrees. Data is compelling: the IAPB said vision loss costs the world economy $411 billion per year in lost output. Almost 90 per cent of the world population will need eye care help during their lifetimes. Without a big rise in investment, there’s likely to be a serious gap in resources.

Family offices and ultra-high net worth individuals who can take a bold approach to philanthropy have an important role to play, Chen said.

“I feel that the ultra-high net worth community is missing a trick in philanthropy which is not harnessing this `superpower’ to deploy high-risk capital. This is also about building domain experience,” he said.

The task of making eye care more accessible and affordable also touches on the need for more scale and intelligent investment – themes that are attractive to entrepreneurs used to building successful enterprises, and philanthropic organisations, Chen said.

The boldness theme is a recurring one for Chen, who based his metaphor of “moonshot philanthropy” on the decision by John F Kennedy at the start of the 1960s to send men to the Moon.

As Chen’s foundation website states: “This is the superpower of philanthropists – the ability to take on the reputational and financial risks that institutions such as governments and corporates cannot.

“Why? Because institutions are agents of the ultimate capital providers, respectively taxpayers and shareholders, often proscribing their ability or willingness to make high risk bets. Whereas philanthropist capital owners have the freedom and ability to accept the consequences of setbacks and failure, learn from mistakes, improve on their theory of change, improve domain expertise, and try again.”

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