When I began my studies as a severely myopic doctoral candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology, I envisioned a future academic career as a university professor, as teacher and researcher. I went on to achieve that ambition and now, nearly fifteen years on, I remain one of the resident anthropologists at Utrecht University’s honours college, University College Roosevelt, in The Netherlands. What I didn’t at all anticipate, however, was that my doctoral research on political imagination.
As an American, and now European, I have never had much of an issue correcting my otherwise disabling visual impairment. I began wearing contact lenses at the age of twelve, and thereafter had no further need for glasses, that is, until I began my fieldwork some two decades later. Kaokoland is a dusty and dry part of an already arid country, and, soon after my arrival there, intense eye irritation forced me to set aside my contact lenses in exchange for a pair of new glasses, which I acquired at the nearest optician’s shop… 550 kilometres away!
The implications of this silent epidemic, for both the individuals affected and the world as a whole, are quite staggering. Children who cannot see clearly do not achieve their learning potential; recent studies show that the provision of glasses to children improves learning by 33-50% per year. Those with glasses learn more, stay in school longer and increase their chances for a productive and healthy life. Similarly, adults who do not see clearly do not achieve their economic potential. Clear vision increases people’s earnings, and increased earnings reduces poverty. In fact, uncorrected visual impairment costs the developing world economies more than $400 million per annum.