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Making a Difference: How To Contribute to Healthy Vision in the Developing World

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What I was in my 20s, I spent some time living in Guatemala. I worked at an eye care mission and saw first-hand how even the most basic care could make an unbelievable difference in someone’s life, particularly someone living in a developing country. My experiences in Guatemala played a huge role in my decision to become an optometrist. I saw an opportunity to do some good, and I wanted to take it.

Guatemala Street View

A overhead view of a street in Guatemala

Obviously, Airdrie is not Guatemala. And I love serving people and families from all over Southern Alberta. But I still haven’t given up on my dream of making an impact in developing countries.

I know I’m not alone in my desire to bring quality eye care to developing nations. People come into our office all the time asking for places to donate old frames and other opportunities to help. And honestly, nothing makes me happier than to see our community think globally. 

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with local professionals and humanitarian organizations around the world. And in that time, I’ve learned a lot of things about how we, in a privileged country like Canada, can contribute to healthy vision in the developing world.

A lot of the things I learned where a complete shock to me, and I’m willing to bet they would surprise you too. So today, I’d like to share some of the things I think everyone should know if they want to empower developing nations with healthy vision.

Let’s Talk About the Developing World

What exactly is a developing nation? Well, you may have heard the term “third world country”  at some point in your life. For decades, we used the term “third world” to essentially describe nations that were poor and often socially struggling. But this sort of number classification system is antiquated.

The term “developing world” or “developing nation” isn’t necessarily free of judgement or assigned-value either, but at least it leaves the possibility of future progression on the table.

The developing world includes middle to low-income countries, often (but not always) with poor access to education, adequate food, clean water, and access to quality health care. 

Geographics

A large portion of the developing world is located in Africa, however, there are developing nations in Asia, South America, and the Carribean.

Mountain Shanty Town

What is Vision Like in the Developing World?

With early diagnosis and the appropriate treatment, a lot of eye diseases and vision problems can be corrected or managed before they cause significant and permanent vision loss. In Canada, this isn’t necessarily an issue. Most of us have access to free universal health care, and even though provincial health care doesn’t always cover visual needs, they sometimes do cover medically necessary procedures and treatments.

Of course, in developing nations, people often don’t have access to this type of care. Countries with less economic stability cannot afford to subsidized healthcare in many cases. What’s worse is that many eye health issues develop without any noticeable symptoms. Without regular eye exams, the disease can go undiagnosed for years. And by the time the patient realizes their vision has changed, their eyes have been irreversibly damaged. 

For context, let’s look at some statistics:

  1. Cataracts are responsible for 50% of blindness around the world, despite the fact that cataracts can be removed with a relatively simple surgery. According to Seva Canada’s Dr. Ken Basset, blindness due to cataracts is purely an issue of poverty.
  2. One study states that 30 million people around the world are unnecessarily blind. The research goes on to say that 200 million can’t participate in the workforce due to unnecessary or uncorrected vision issues.
  3. The World Health Organization says that 1.1 billion people have a condition that could be corrected with a simple pair of eyeglasses.

How to Help

Obviously, vision is an issue in the developing world. The exciting news is that all of us can do something about it. The trick is that some of the most obvious ways to help can have some rough unintended consequences. Doing something that’s truly beneficial for the developing world requires a little bit of research.

Developing Nation Optometry

Posing with a patient during a mission in Jamaica

I’ve done a lot of digging myself, and here’s what I’ve learned over the past few years.

Donating Used Frames May be Better for Local Causes

This one is a tough pill to swallow. I know a lot of us have seen donation boxes where we can recycle old frames. Sometimes the box says that our frames will be packed up and sent to a developing country, where they will be given to people who need them.

Unfortunately, experts in global eye care believe this could actually be more wasteful than it is helpful.

When you purchase a pair of frames and have an optician put your prescription in them, the frames are adjusted to your face. You wear them for a few years and eventually replace them, either because you want to try out a new style, or because your old glasses are bent or scratched or damaged in some way.

Old Discarded Glasses

When you donate glasses like these, they aren’t necessarily restored or fixed up before they’re given to anyone else. The best-case scenario is your used glasses find their way on to the face of someone with a slightly different prescription whose face isn’t shaped quite the same way yours is. 

On the other side of that same coin, if the glasses you donate are unusable, either the company donating them will have to pay to send them to a recycling facility, or they will be sent to a developing nation. Developing nations also don’t have the right facilities to dispose of the eyewear they can’t use, so we may just be contributing waste that they are unable to process.

Of course, people in developing countries absolutely need access to affordable glasses. There are organizations that provide pre-made glasses in these sorts of situations that cost less than $2, which is less expensive than collecting, sorting, and shipping used custom-made glasses.

I am not trying to discourage you from doing something good. You can still donate your glasses. However, you may be able to find a local optometrist or optician who will accept used eyewear, restore them for free, and donate them to someone in need. You should also try checking with local poverty and homelessness organizations, as they may accept used glasses as well.

Ensure Your Donation Are Making a Difference/Reputable Organizations

Before most people buy anything online, they read as many reviews as they can find to make sure they know what they’re buying, the company they’re buying from is trustworthy, and there won’t be any surprises when the product comes. I think that’s pretty common practice.

But a lot of us, myself included, don’t necessarily do that when getting ready to donate to a charity or not-for-profit organization. It makes sense. We are trusting that people will do what they say they will with our money. But even though it’s a donation rather than a purchase, it’s still our money. So we should still take a few minutes to make sure we understand where it’s going, right?

There are some organizations that spend a lot of their donation income on advertising or weekly television campaigns. While they undoubtedly do a lot of good for the people they claim to help,  people are donating with the impression that their money will go directly to a specific community or cause rather than being split into a larger-than-strictly-necessary marketing budget before helping the community.

In other cases, organizations can sometimes misrepresent the truth or choose to focus on certain facts in an attempt to get more donations or sympathy. If you think back to 2012, you may remember the organization called The Invisible Children, who was responsible for a lot of the Kony 2012 campaign. 

The Invisible Children managed to garner a lot of financial support, unfortunately, sometimes instructed some of their employees to say things they didn’t agree with or believe in, and ended up spending income in ways that donors hadn’t necessarily agreed to support when they gave.

Again, the last thing I want to do is discourage you from giving. But I would encourage you to do your research. Find organizations that speak to you and mean something to you. I have organizations that I’ve worked with personally in the past, and I love supporting them. I would be happy to give you some recommendations if you need a place to start. 

Guatemalan Eye Health

Meeting the team at a Guatemala City eye hospital.

Every Bit Helps

I spent a lot of this article telling you what not to do. But really, the most important thing is that we all do something. The world is a scary place, but literally every single one of us could change the world, even if it’s the world of one person. Whether it’s donating money, time, or used frames, you are capable of being a force for good.

Written by Heather Cowie

In addition being one of our optometrists, Dr. Heather is also the owner of Airdrie Family Eye Doctors. Dr. Heather grew up in Red Deer, Alberta and completed her Bachelor of Science at the University of Calgary. She received my Doctor of Optometry degree from the University of Waterloo and spent an ocular disease rotation at a Veteran’s Hospital in Oklahoma. Dr. Heather was elected Class President and received the Canadian Optometry Association leadership award. She currently sits on the Calgary Society of Optometrists and was awarded the 2013 Service Award from the Alberta Association of Optometry.
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