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Hong Kong philanthropist James Chen on why he believes eyesight is a human right

29 July 2016

Founder of the Clearly campaign is spending his family’s wealth on giving the world vision

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON My dad was a sweet and sensitive man. When he retired from business he really wanted to give back to his home village in China (Qidong, Jiangsu province). My grandfather (Chen Zaomen) had taught him the impor­tance of philanthropy from an early age. That was not unusual with wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs of his generation but what made my father different from his peers was that he wanted to do more than just sign a cheque. I have no operational role in the family business anymore. My day job is investing for the family office and about 30 per cent of those are direct investments in social causes. I am in the privileged position of not having to do it for financial return only; I am also looking for a social return.

SEEING THE LIGHT Via a family office conference I attended in London, I eventually met a physics professor from Oxford University called Joshua Silver. His discoveries included a way to change the curvature of lenses in spectacles by filling them with liquid and allowing the wearer to vary the power with a simple dial. There are 2.5 billion people worldwide with defective vision, most of them in the developing world, so the potential was obvious. He said we could do well and we could do good. Having grown up in the developing world and having needed glasses as a teenager, I identified with this. I saw this as both a business and philanthropic opportunity. Glasses have been around for 700 years and simple reading glasses only cost a dollar so why hasn’t everyone got access to them? (Chen and Silver founded Adlens in 2005).

BLIND BUREAUCRACY When we took the technology to the agencies dealing with the developing world, everyone told us why it could not be done. From the developing-world perspective, they have to prioritise and, when it comes to health intervention, they need to look at life-and-death issues. If you go to the World Bank website, five of their top executives wear glasses but none of them could connect the dots to see how others might also benefit from glasses. They fund adult literacy classes in sub-Saharan Africa but poor vision is endemic in the over 35s in that area and they don’t fund glasses. How can you read if you can’t see? None of these organisations have risk tolerance but this is where we are different. It is my money, it is my family’s money and at the coalface we need innovative solutions not bureaucracy.

SETTING SIGHTS ON RWANDA We were determined to show that it could work. When I sent my team to Rwanda, I told them I would work with anyone except the government. They talked to everyone including Coca-Cola, Heineken and Christian missionaries but in the end they said that the Rwandan health ministry was the only realistic option. I said, “OK, let’s try it,” with very little optimism but, five years later, I am the No 1 ambassador for the Rwandan government. I love the health minister (Agnes Binagwaho); when we first met she just got it and has been supportive from day one. Any Rwandan today with eye problems can go to any one of 502 health clinics and they can see a trained nurse with a proven screening protocol and can be offered the adjustable glasses (when appropriate) for US$1.50. I get a real sense of accomplishment – everyone told us it was impossible but we just did it.

I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW If we do this one country at a time, we worked out it could take us 1,000 years, so we set up the Clearly campaign in April, to engage people and harness new ideas. At the last Clearly Lab (a brainstorming session held in Hong Kong on May 25), someone suggested lobbying the United Nations to make eyesight a basic human right. It is the most crucial of our five senses, so why not? We are at a point in history where this could be possible because the technology is there and if corporations want to “walk the walk” of corporate social responsibility, they need to get involved. We are working with an academic who has designed a proven technique for retina-scanning using a Smartphone. This could revolutionise the way we work. Access to vision correction for anyone in the world – that is the objective and I think that is achievable within our lifetime.