The Observatory

Australia’s investment in a stronger region: Impacting lives through reducing avoidable blindness

Nami Nelson

Overseas development assistance provided by Australia produces substantial results that have influenced the lives of millions of people in our region. This influence can be seen in several areas. Whether it be through working in partnership with our neighbours to invest in education of future generations around our region; building infrastructure that facilitates faster, cleaner and better access to services; improving water and facilities or providing opportunities and developing skills to improve their agricultural yields and compete in a fairer market.

According to the Campaign for Australian Aid, Australia’s development assistance achievements from 2015 include:

  • 1.4 million more children enrolled in school
  • 35 million children vaccinated against measles
  • 4.3 million households now have safe access to clean water.
In 2007, a bipartisan commitment was made to increase the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI). While great progress was made in the years that followed, the aid budget did not match the commitments. Despite this, it is important to remember that Australian aid has impacted the lives of millions and supported strengthening of our neighbouring countries spending approximately just one per cent of our federal budget.

In 2016 we are faced with a situation where Australia has regressed from our progress towards the 0.5 per cent of GNI commitments, and is now investing a mere 0.23 per cent of GNI. While this is driving a review of how we can maximise the impact of the reduced resources and maintain an influential and supportive role in regional development, these reductions will begin to demonstrate significantly reduced results and impacts.

Importantly, Australia has had a leading role in mobilising the world to address what is a solvable priority— reducing avoidable blindness.


Australian investments in reducing avoidable blindness in the region

 
In 2000, the annual global cost of avoidable blindness and vision loss was estimated to be $42 billion USD per year and this was expected to rise to $110 billion USD by 2020.¹  These costs are a needless burden for any country, let alone a developing economy. The solutions to ending avoidable blindness were known and well understood. The gap sat in a commitment to investing in building systems and capacity to address eye health on an ongoing basis.

Recognising that reducing avoidable blindness was achievable was what sparked a catalyst for change in Australia. It generated a pre-election bipartisan commitment in 2007 from the then Government and Opposition, both agreeing to allocate funding to eye health as part of the overseas aid program.

Australia was also very active in the lobbying that resulted in the recognition that ending avoidable blindness was possible and could have flow-on benefits that would help drive economies and further growth. Australia’s efforts were a significant influence behind the World Health Assembly endorsing Universal Eye Health: A Global Action Plan 2014-2019 (the Global Action Plan) in 2013, which has been guiding global efforts to achieve a common goal of reducing avoidable blindness and vision loss by 25 per cent. 

In 2015, statistics began to emerge that demonstrated significant progress had been made toward achieving this goal, particularly in the Indo-pacific region.² 

While Australia is not alone in investing in eye health and avoidable blindness, Australia has been an influential and important partner supporting sustainable change in pursuit of the Global Action Plan goal.

In 2009, Australia established the Avoidable Blindness Initiative (ABI). Through this initiative, Australian government programs have invested in strengthening services to prevent and treat avoidable blindness and vision loss across the Indo-Pacific region. Australian organisations have worked with national partners to utilise eye health as an opportunity to develop a range of initiatives.

The ABI funded joint initiatives through the Vision 2020 Global Consortium, bilateral programs and direct funding to individual non-government organisations.

 

Investment that demonstrates results

Since 2010, ABI supported Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium programs alone have resulted in at least 870,000 people accessing eye health screening and 439,000 treatments provided to reduce vision loss in the region. Importantly it has also invested in over 4,000 training and skills development opportunities to increase the capacity, quality and independence of our neighbours to address and manage the ongoing eye health and prevention of blindness programs.
 
Beyond the numbers reported, we know that other ABI programs created new education and career pathways for women in Pakistan, established services for people who are vision impaired and created pathways for children living with vision impairment to continue their education in Vietnam. ABI investments also strengthened training institutions to provide better quality training and support that results in higher skilled graduates who will lead future eye health sector development and service provision. 


Utilising Australian expertise and influence

Australia fosters significant expertise and innovation in addressing eye health priorities. We have produced and supported leaders in the development of new technology, investors in eye health social enterprise initiatives to help make eye health services like cataract, refraction and optometry more affordable and accessible for the countries in our region. Investing in eye health and vision care in our region enables us to leverage our expertise to partner with our neighbours to address an issue that impacts national and regional growth and development.

Examples from the Australian Government-funded Global Consortium East Asia Vision Program that leveraged Australian expertise for substantial locally-led developments include:
 
  • Establishing the first ever Bachelor of Optometry and Vision Sciences that is now training a new generation of eye health service providers to meet the growing needs of myopia and other avoidable or treatable vision loss needs affecting the Vietnamese population.
  • In Timor-Leste, up until 2015, there was only one Timorese clinician qualified and capable of providing Cataract surgery. In 2016, there are now four individuals recognised by the Ministry of Health and national hospital who are able to provide cataract surgery as part of the National Eye Centre. A significant step in Timor-Leste’s efforts to reduce rates of one of the most common cause of avoidable blindness.
  • In Cambodia, the Australian Government has supported tertiary educators to develop their teaching and clinical skills and drive the improvement of ophthalmology residency training. As part of this same program, Australia has also supported the establishment of an active Cambodian Ophthalmology Society which is driving the development of its own formal Continuing Professional Development program which will support future growth and improvement of the profession, services and impact. 


Development as an ongoing journey

Development doesn’t start and end at any one point. It is a process that continues over time. Substantial impacts linked to sustainable change require time, flexibility and innovative thinking. It can often be difficult to balance demands for significant measurable short-term results and efficiency markers with the vision for big picture sustainable changes we and our partners are aiming to influence.  Effective development investment with vision does not always equate to investment with clearly defined, tangible economic outcomes for Australia.

Some recent examples include South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, which were all significant recipients of development assistance in decades past, all featured as top ten two-way trading partners with Australia in 2014.³  Not all countries who are aid recipients will result in becoming major trading partners. However, building relationships support and understanding between countries does enhance these possibilities and opportunities for trade in the long-term. The aid program is one mechanism that can facilitate this while simultaneously working with our neighbours to support development initiatives that impact the lives of the poorest in our region.


Sustainable change

Vision 2020 Australia is proud of the achievements of the Australian Aid Program and the influence it has had in strengthening the coordination of the eye health sector to achieve sustainable outcomes in the region. Investments in eye health in the region have supported the changes needed to have resulted in the recent data indicating there is a reduction in prevalence of people who are needlessly blind or vision impaired in our region. To be part of a movement that is committed to building capacity in our region to tackle the continuing reduction of avoidable blindness and vision loss, knowing that these changes have direct impacts on people’s lives are things we are proud of. We hope we share this sentiment with many others and that investments in eye health continue to be recognised as an important, effective part of the Australian Aid program.
Sources:
¹ World Health Organisation (2014). Towards Universal Eye Health: A Regional Action Plan for the Western Pacific (2014-2019), World Health Organisation.
² J.B. Jonas, R. George, R. Asokan, S. R Flaxman, J. Keeffe, J. Leasher, K. Naidoo, K. Pesudovs, H. Price, L. Vijaya, R.A White, T. Y Wong, S. Resnikoff, h.R Taylor, R.A Bourne, on behalf of the Vision Loss Expert Group of the Global Burden of Disease Study, Prevalence and causes of vision loss in Southeast Asia and Oceania: 1990-2010, Journal of Ophthalmology, Vol 98(5), p.586-91, Jan 2014.
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About the Author

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Nami Nelson

Nami has around 12 years of experience working in public health and international development. The Consortium is currently implementing the Australian Government funded East Asia Vision Program (EAVP) in Cambodia, Timor Leste and Vietnam. Nami oversees the implementation of the EAVP and facilitates the coordination and collaboration of the Consortium members. Read more by this author →

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