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Rattling the Cages: Helping the world to see clearly

23 July 2021

In 1962 the idea of putting a man on the moon was considered entirely fanciful. Yet seven years later, the moon landing inspired an entire planet, giving way to new etymology around what it means to take risks: a moonshot – any challenge deemed all but impossible to solve, one that requires the investment of expertise, capital and time and where failure is a noteworthy threat but a necessary risk.

Now, space exploration is commonplace, and could play an important role in the perpetuation of the human species. When we started, a unanimous UN resolution pledging affordable eyecare for all by 2030 felt nigh impossible. Yet, today, we are celebrating exactly that.

My moonshot has unfolded over the past two decades, with much of my time and resources in recent years focusing on a singular campaign: Clearly, aiming to change perception among policy-makers and government leaders around eyecare. Vision is not just a low-priority health issue but, in fact, the key to unlocking significant progress across the sustainable development goals.

Philanthropists have a much greater freedom to accept the consequences of failure when embracing a risk-taking mindset. In my life, I have been blessed to be able to deploy that privilege. Inspired by my father – who spent his later life giving back to communities – I have committed to pursuing positive change as a responsible steward of family wealth.

From initial stumbles and failures, emerged our first successful endeavour – Vision For A Nation (VFAN). VFAN is a charity aiming to deliver universal eye care to the entire nation of Rwanda. It directly led to Rwanda becoming the first developing country to offer universal access to vision correction. We are now active in Ghana.

Looking to accelerate this expansion of vision-correction, I met Greg Nugent, the marketing and communications director of the London Olympics. In 2016, we decided to collate the learnings from my multiple initiatives in the vision space under the collective banner of ‘universal access to vision correction’. Clearly was born.

Beginning with a set of activations called the Clearly Labs, bringing together the perspectives of world-leading eyecare experts, innovators, NGOs and corporates, we established that we had to break through with policymakers in the first instance. Attending the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, we realised how easy it was to get lost in the noise of policy deliberation. While we could have let this setback hinder our progress, we instead persisted.

From this persistence grew the idea for our own summit in Murano, Venice. The summit presented an opportunity for a hyper-brainstorming session, where we successfully conveyed to all those attending that vision correction is the ‘golden thread’ running through all of the SDGs. 

Coming out of Venice, alongside my invaluable team, including Jennifer Chen, chief executive of my foundation, The Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation and Clearly’s Asia Lead, we had a plan. Universally affordable eyecare was our moonshot. Clearly was the vehicle to take us there.  And we concluded that the momentum our movement needed to be flung into orbit was The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), set to take place in London in 2018.

To get our idea on the table at CHOGM we needed to offer up a blueprint of our mission, this came in the form of an idea for a book that focused on our moonshot aims and objectives. With the help of Phil Webster, Will Straw, and our external communications team at Seven Hills, by 2018, with the credibility of the book in hand, we successfully put poor vision on the CHOGM agenda and went to make our case to these leaders.

This time our voice was heard. All 53 leaders committed to achieving the aim of ‘quality eyecare for all’. To provide irrefutable evidence on the impact of glasses on achieving the SDGs we conducted a study with workers in India, the results were unequivocal. Workers with glasses saw a 21.7 per cent increase in productivity, more than any other health intervention.

Eyecare sector – engaged. Book – written. World leaders – committed. Evidence – irrefutable.

The next move was to push a proposed initiative to the UN General Assembly. Whilst this was a big step, our aim to get a UN resolution on poor vision, it was a necessary one. With the formation of Friends of Vision at the UN championed by Ambassador Aubrey Webson, who is legally blind himself, the reality of a resolution began to take shape.

On 23rd July 2021, the resolution was passed unanimously by all 193 countries of the United Nations.

What began as a small campaign is now a global movement that has aligned the entire world around a single target of ‘eyecare for all by 2030’. Alongside this commitment a further two new goals are set to be added at the next review of the Sustainable Development Goals, with specific targets for eyecare.

The plan will mean that those 1.1 billion people currently living with poor vision, will have access to the support and treatment they need.

So, what’s next for Clearly? Following on from our 2020 campaign Glasses in Classes, focused on the vision crisis in schools, our next step is to implement the world’s biggest ever research programme into the life-changing power of glasses.

We are ideally placed to produce the gold standard in evidence of the link between vision correction and the SDGs. In 2021, together with the Wellcome Trust, we launched the five-year ENGINE research project, establishing this link with four global trials.

Having integrated Clearly with the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) in January 2021, our momentum is being amplified. Within my role as a global ambassador for the IAPB, my hope is that if we can do this, by the time the first person walks on Mars, the whole world will be able to see it.

We can reflect with absolute pride on what we achieved. We have rattled the cages of the highest offices in the world and made it clear that vision matters.


This is a shortened version of James’ ‘Rattling the Cages’ story. To read the full version, please go to: