Shooting for the moon

Hong Kong philanthropist James Chen on catalytic giving and taking risks.

“There are not enough resources to tackle all the world’s problems. You have to make the biggest impact with what is available through innovation and doing things differently,” explains James Chen, who likes to use the term “moonshot philanthropy” to describe his approach to giving – and the risks involved.

“Without the tangible possibility of failure, and without embracing the risk of testing unconventional out-of-the-box ideas,” Chen adds, “we would never be able to shift the paradigm on the complex issues we each seek out to resolve.”

Philanthropists often like to talk about taking risks and innovating in order to scale solutions. And Chen, through his commitment to improving eye health in Africa, has really walked that talk.

His pilot scheme to train healthcare workers in Rwanda, delivered in parallel with the distribution of low-cost glasses, grew to become part of a nationalised system that was adopted regionally, sparking a global campaign that culminated last year in a UN resolution. It doesn't get much more catalytic than that.

Chen is the definition of a global citizen. He was born in Asia (Hong Kong) and raised in Africa (Nigeria) where his father worked, and studied in the United States, doing a Bachelor's in behavioural science at the University of Chicago.

Today, he lives between the US, the UK, and Hong Kong, chairing the family’s Wahum Group Holdings, and running Legacy Advisors Ltd, a family office he set up to manage Wahum’s profits, and in 2019, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath.

It’s a long way from the Shanghai factory floor where his grandfather, Chen Zao Men, started out as an enamelware apprentice aged just 16. But from those humble beginnings, the Chen family grew to become extremely wealthy, first through the factories Chen Zao Men opened in China and Hong Kong, and then thanks to expansion into the newly independent West African countries of Ghana, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire, led by his son, Robert.

Over his lifetime, Chen Zao Men made regular philanthropic donations to the communities in which the family worked, supporting schools, hospitals, and other public works initiatives.

Robert was also a keen donor and in October 2003, with his wife, daughter, and son, he established the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation with a view to spend his retirement stewarding a strategic giving programme.

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James's late father, Robert Yet-Sen Chen. Picture supplied.

Tragically, however, Robert died just one month after the foundation had been set up and the responsibility for its management dropped down a generation, to James. Returning to Qidong in China’s Jiangsu Province, the birthplace of his Chen Zao Men, the Chens set out to restore the city’s library, which the recently-passed Robert had previously financed.

Working in partnership with local groups, the foundation restocked the shelves, but insisted that local parents and children were directly involved in choosing the books.

“Their excitement, their yearning to learn was what made me realise we were onto something big,” says Chen, who describes this moment as the “first independent step along the road to catalytic philanthropy”.

Subsequent childhood literacy initiatives led by the foundation have included: The Stone Soup Happy Reading Alliance, which is today promoting a reading culture on more than 40 school campuses across mainland China; and Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, giving children easy access to quality books and engaging volunteers to support community learning.

It was through this focus on literary that Chen became aware of the issue of poor vision, which is particularly prevalent in China, but affects some 2.2 billion people globally.

For Chen, correcting people’s eyesight is the “golden thread” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “It’s the enabler,” he says. “Governments are trying to create productive jobs, give people good education and achieve gender equality, but how are they going to achieve these goals if 2.2bn people can’t see properly?”

"It was hard to get people to think about vision outside of a health silo."

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Eye tests used to be hard to access in Rwanda due to a shortage of trained ophthalmologists. Photo: Tom Merilion

Chen’s belief in the importance of improving vision and his desire to do something about it, took him to Rwanda, which in the 2000s was a country crippled by decades of conflict and a genocide, and where poverty levels were high, the economy was in tatters, and healthcare provision was limited.

It was also a place with big ambition and President Paul Kagame’s Vision 2020 development plan set out a path for how the country could become knowledge-based and middle-income. To do this, it called on global actors and NGOs to help. Chen was only too happy to take up the challenge. This was his moonshot moment.

A key strand of Rwanda’s economic recovery strategy was to revitalise the country’s coffee sector to boost exports. But there was a problem: more than two thirds of coffee bean sorters suffered from some form of eye disorder and half had trouble working. This was not only affecting national productivity but as pickers’ eyes failed, families were pulling their children out of school to do the work, trapping the next generation into poverty.

The common eye conditions experienced in the country at this time were things like cataracts, myopia (short-sightedness), and infection-related trauma – most of which were preventable, treatable, or able to be managed with prescription lenses.

The issue, Chen recalls, was there were only a handful of people trained to do eye examinations in Rwanda and for the majority of the population, this service was either unaffordable or too hard to access.

Through his initiative, Vision For A Nation (VFAN), which later became a UK-registered NGO, Chen partnered with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to create the country’s first national eye care programme.

Earlier attempts by overseas funders to train Rwandan eye doctors had not worked, according to Chen, who says few that went overseas to study ever returned home. In response, it a micro-version of the course to last just 18 months was suggested, but VFAN decided to instead create a protocol to train nurses in three days to do what he describes as “a good enough” eye test.

“This had probably the biggest impact out of all of it,” notes Chen, who says health professionals were suddenly able to identify those people that either had simple allergies or bacterial infections like conjunctivitis, those with more serious – but treatable - conditions like trachoma or cataracts, and those who simply needed glasses.

Defending the “good-enough” approach, which can be divisive in development circles, Chen says: “In the developed world, when it comes to healthcare, people strive for perfection, but in a low-resource world, it can’t be about perfection, it has to be about what is good enough. We can’t give someone perfect vision in all senses, but we can give them functional vision so they can thread a needle, pick the tea leaves, sort the coffee beans, and drive a vehicle with less chance of having an accident.”

For the Rwandans who didn’t have serious eye infections, Chen provided basic reading glasses or spectacles with adjustable lenses made by Adlens, a private optical company which he had co-founded with a team of scientists from the University of Oxford in 2005.

By 2015, VFAN had trained nearly 1,900 nurses to provide frontline eye care. It also created a distribution network to ensure glasses were available in all the country’s health centres.

VFAN sold the Adlens’ adjustable lenses for a nominal fee of US$1.50 (with the proceeds put back into the Rwandan Ministry of Health) but also gave many away at no cost to people on low incomes. All the scheme's reading glasses were also free of charge.

This model of eyecare pioneered by Chen’s Vision for a Nation NGO has since been adopted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and it is currently being rolled out in several other African countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Zambia.

Buoyed by his impact in Rwanda, and impatient to scale the approach, in 2016, Chen launched Clearly, an international advocacy campaign to put the issue of poor vision onto the global agenda. “I knew we had a good model that worked, but I also knew it would take too long to make a difference if it was just me or a handful of other philanthropists funding this one country at a time,” he recalls. “I needed to get the global community on board.”

Initially called Project Oversight, the Clearly campaign, began with a provocative full-page advertisement in the New York Times newspaper with the word “oversight” stamped in red over the top of the newly-agreed upon SDGs, referring to the omission of any vision-related targets within the new framework.

“When I started on this journey, the development world really didn’t get it,” Chen recalls, explaining how he’d struggled to get staffers at the World Bank and other large development organisations interested in vision-related projects.

“When people are dying of AIDs and malaria or malnutrition, blurry vision is automatically pushed to the bottom of the pile,” he says. “It was also hard to get people to think about vision outside of a health silo.”

To get people to listen, he realised he needed evidence. So, he funded a study tracking a group of 750 female tea pickers in India. Half the group had their eyes tested and received corrective glasses, the other didn’t. At the end of the picking season, the group who had the eyecare had a productivity increase of 22 percent. The results were peer-reviewed and published in the Lancet, a respected UK-based medical journal.

“This kind of evidence is important,” Chen explains. “Because, as I came to understand over time, the development sector is ultimately focussed on improving productivity. When AIDS was killing people, it was initially seen as a medical tragedy, but when someone made the link to the high rates of HIV among South African gold miners affecting productivity, then it became a priority.”

The Clearly campaign successfully tapped into this sentiment and over the course of five years, secured vision a prime position on global development agenda. Chen himself has also moved from the fringes to become a recognised leader in the vision sector.

Recalling how, when VFAN had started, he had applied for membership of the IAPB - the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, a global alliance of eye health organisations - and been rejected, he said: “I think back then they thought I was just a guy with more money than brains, which is probably still true,” he laughs. “But after VFAN took off and we had the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine go in and test our three-day training programme, people started to take us seriously.”

In early 2021, the Clearly campaign became part of the IAPB and Chen was appointed an IAPB global ambassador. He holds this role alongside the UK’s Countess of Wessex and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder and president of “IMPACT – Eastern Mediterranean Region” an NGO focussing on the prevention of blindness and visual rehabilitation.

And in July that same year, all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted Resolution 75/310 enshrining eye health as part of the SDGS, setting a target for eye care for all by 2030, and calling upon international financial institutions and donors to provide targeted finances, especially to support developing countries, in tackling preventable sight loss.

"It’s about finding a route on the road less taken and pushing the frontier of possibilities forward towards ultimately solving an issue."

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Still keen to make the case for how vision correction can help countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation is currently funding a series of research trials led by Queen's University Belfast in India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe.

The $3.5m ENGINE initiative is examining the impact of glasses on promoting better living from childhood through to old age and is being co-funded by the Wellcome Trust. (see below).

This is not the first time Chen has worked with other funders. VFAN was also supported by grants from government agencies such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), as it was then, USAID, and other philanthropic foundations including UBS Optimus.

“If it's only me funding this, we won't get there,” he explains. “I think where I can be helpful is to continue putting up the seed funding for this sort of research, and then bringing in others, so we can build up a community of funders to help drive this forward.”

While Chen has put up millions of his and the family’s money to fund his work in vision, he is also keen to state he is not a billionaire. “When people hear about the work I do, they immediately tag me as a billionaire, which I find amusing because, you know, frankly, I'm not a billionaire,” he laughs.

“But there is an important message here,” he adds. “You don't have to be a billionaire to do the kind of work I do. Anyone who is ‘independently wealthy’ can take this on. It’s about finding a route on the road less taken and pushing the frontier of possibilities forward towards ultimately solving an issue.”

Chen says at the heart of moonshot philanthropy is a commitment to privatising failure and socialising success.

“With the Clearly campaign, we said we wanted to solve this issue before Elon Musk lands the first person on Mars. I feel if the world can step up to the technological challenge of space travel, everyone on earth should have the right to be able to see clearly.” - PA

About ENGINE (eyecare nurtures good health, innovation, driving safety and education)

Led by Queens University Belfast and supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, ENGINE will deliver four novel trials in four countries through the work of 29 organisations.

By giving people access to glasses, it seeks to transform lives by creating safer roads for all, financial independence and healthy ageing for the elderly and smart schooling for children.

CLEVER (cognitive level enhancement through vision exams and refraction) will explore glasses as a low-cost means to slow and prevent dementia in India, care for which currently consumes 1.5 percent of the national GDP.

STABLE (slashing two-wheeled accidents by leveraging eyecare) aims to combat Vietnam’s twin epidemics of uncorrected short-sightedness and motorcycle crashes among the young.

THRIFT (transforming households with refraction and innovative technology) will leverage improved vision to promote mobile banking and financial independence among elderly recipients of the Bangladesh government’s novel online social safety net payments.

ZEAL (Zimbabwe eyecare and learning) will explore how early identification and treatment of long-sightedness can improve learning opportunities for Zimbabwe’s children.

For more about the ENGINE trials, click here.