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Spotlight on EYElliance: 4 Questions with Elizabeth Smith 

Many people take their eyeglasses for granted. And yet, 2.5 billion people around the world, largely in developing countries, live with poor vision because they lack access to eyeglasses, hindering their ability to succeed in school or be productive at work. While the benefits are clear, providing eyeglasses to 2.5 billion people is a challenge, requiring multi-faceted action from a cross-sector group of organizations including healthcare systems, private sector eyeglass manufacturers and retailers, NGOs and social enterprises, and policymakers.

The EYElliance is a coalition of multi-sector stakeholders collaborating to address the global unmet need for glasses. Over the past several years, FSG has partnered with the EYElliance to support the development of the coalition’s strategy and to support research and analysis for Eyeglasses for Global Development: Bridging the Visual Divide, a report developed by the EYElliance and the World Economic Forum that outlines the opportunity for impact in addressing the eyeglass challenge. Following the official launch of this report at a World Economic Forum event in China, we caught-up with Elizabeth Smith, co-founder of the EYElliance, to discuss their journey, key findings from the report, and what lessons Elizabeth has for other global, cross-sector collaborations.

What was the initial motivation behind establishing the EYElliance?

The initial motivation for the EYElliance grew out of experiences working to address the problem via a social enterprise model with VisionSpring, an NGO that sells affordable eyeglasses to people in developing countries.

VisionSpring had sold its 1 millionth pair of eyeglasses, a huge accomplishment, but in comparison to the scope of the problem—2.5 billion people in need of eyeglasses—it was insufficient. I challenged Jordan Kassalow, founder of VisionSpring, to think about how we could tackle this global problem at scale with the understanding that the magnitude of the problem required engagement of a range of sectors. Out of that conversation, we created the EYElliance, asking ourselves, “How do we take learnings from over a decade of social enterprise work and apply it to tackling the larger problem?”

The EYElliance includes a wide range of cross-sector stakeholders. How are those stakeholders working together, and how do you and your team help foster their collaboration?

In our first convening, we brought together multiple stakeholders—NGOs, academics, research institutions, donors, and companies—to determine if there was an appetite for cross-sector collaboration. We spent several months involved in a highly consultative process to galvanize support for the mission of the EYElliance and ensure that our work would not be duplicative. We also engaged FSG to conduct a landscape assessment to help us understand the key actors and their activities. This helped us identify the gaps and where we could be most effective.

Moving forward, we envision working with organizations in adjacent issue areas affected by vision: education, literacy, workplace productivity, road safety, and mobile technology. We think taking on the scope of this problem will require us aligning with other initiatives and sectors to promote the importance of vision correction with glasses.

For example, we think there is an opportunity to work with international education initiatives to promote school eye health programs to advance our shared missions. In addition, multinational companies have begun to expand their commitment to responsible business practices to their value chains, from subsidiaries to suppliers—often located in developing countries.  The demonstrated increase in productivity associated with vision correction with glasses provides an opportunity to launch a coordinated effort with the private sector to more efficiently reach workers in need of glasses by engaging the multinational companies that rely on subsidiaries and supply chains based in developing countries.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine NGOs tackling a 2.5 billion person problem without the engagement of governments, public sector, and private sector actors. The enormity of the problem requires multi-sector engagement.

More and more global health and development organizations are recognizing the importance of these types of partnerships. What have you learned through your experience with the EYElliance that others developing global cross-sector partnerships should keep in mind?

  • I think the most important thing is to be just as clear on what you’re not going to do, as what you will do. It was critical for the development of our strategy to spend sufficient time understanding what roles other organizations are playing, where there are gaps, and where there is momentum we could catalyze. By taking time to understand where we add value, we positioned ourselves to affect meaningful change.
  • We knew we had to focus. There is a compelling case to be made that the impact associated with correcting vision with eyeglasses can have a profound impact on socio-economic development. Given that 2.5 billion people could be helped with a pair of glasses, we decided to focus only on glasses provision and not include other eye disorders or diseases in the scope of the problem we are addressing.
  • We were very clear early on why we were creating the EYElliance. We were not trying to build an organization just to build an organization; we were trying to tackle the problem at scale. We understand that the enormity of the problem will necessitate multiple approaches so we strive to be an inclusive organization. Being clear about this intention from the outset has helped us garner support from the sector.
  • We knew that relationship-building is crucial, and it’s not a quick process. We continue to spend significant time building the social capital among our partners. Taking the time to become a trusted honest broker is a critical piece of any collaborative initiative. There is no shortcut; it takes time to build collaborative relationships.

You recently launched a report with the World Economic Forum called Eyeglasses for Global Development: Bridging the Visual Divide in China. Why did you decide to write the report? What are the main recommendations?

One of our focus areas is to elevate the importance of this issue—that was the driving force behind the report. Our community articulated the need to make a comprehensive and compelling case to new audiences on prioritizing vision correction with eyeglasses. Through our partnership with the World Economic Forum, we hope to reach the diverse actors needed to make progress on this issue. 

The report consolidates the existing evidence base around the need, the gaps in eyeglass delivery, and the lack of funding directed towards the issue. It also highlights what is working and includes key elements of successful models. Finally, it outlines a series of policy, financial, and programmatic recommendations where multiple stakeholders could engage to overcome the barriers to systemic change and scale effective models.  

For example, one key barrier to scale is weak demand for eyeglasses. This is related to a lack of awareness about vision problems and misperceptions about the benefits of glasses. For example, some individuals fear that wearing glasses will worsen vision. While many NGOs already conduct awareness campaigns on proper eye health in the communities where they work, the entire ecosystem of eye care actors would benefit from increased knowledge-sharing on effective demand creation strategies and a large-scale, national, behavior change campaigns.

There’s also an opportunity for private sector actors to penetrate the base of the pyramid consumer market. We’ve seen sustainable optical shops run by inclusive businesses or eyecare NGOs and we think there’s an opportunity for other sectors to de-risk the optical companies entering less mature markets. This would require involvement from entities beyond the traditional eye care sector.

How will the EYElliance be moving forward over the next several years?     

In the short term, we are working in concert with partners to help deliver on the recommendations from the report. Over the next several months, we will conduct a mapping exercise to identify the lead agencies uniquely positioned to advance the recommendations outlined in the report, and collaborate with those organizations to distil the high-leverage activities required to achieve those recommendations. The outcome will be an action map that will outline a set of practical, investable opportunities and provide stakeholders with opportunities to engage in solving the problem at scale. This early work will lay the foundation for collaboration with global, regional, and country-level actors to prioritize this issue on the global development agenda, promote increased coordination, and mobilize new resources.

We are inspired to take these recommendations from the report and turn them into an actionable agenda for the field.

Kyle Muther

Former Senior Consultant, FSG

Elizabeth Smith

Co-Founder Eyelliance