09/07/2010 02:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eyeball-To-Eyeball with Hybrid Poverty Solutions

The poor live in a complex world of competing and unmet basic needs. It is a world of few choices, and many hardships.

Macro statistics abound, but what are the defining elements of poverty on the ground? What does "ending poverty" mean at the so-called bottom of the economic pyramid (BoP)? What are the implications when the poor are sliced and diced into ever narrower customer market segments (or policy silos)? Does anyone really talk, let alone listen, to the poor?

Does a poor person with no money for medicine need a public health system or a job? Is a struggling subsistence farmer a victim of global trade barriers or does he lack the financing to buy a manual water pump? The lines blur.

The blurring is what VisionSpring is bringing into focus.

In the Third World, if you can't see well, you can't work well. For lack of a $5 pair of glasses which an American can buy in any retail pharmacy, a poor person in the developing world is stopped from sewing, cutting hair, reading a sign about safe sex, sorting seeds to plant -- virtually any productive work.

In Nicaragua, Dionicio Torrez-Hernandez, a father of seven with blurry vision, inefficiently inspected his shrimp harvest with a handheld magnifying glass. After his neighbor, a young woman (one of 6,200 individuals, mostly women, selling VisionSpring glasses), sold him a pair of low cost reading glasses, his on-the-job productivity has doubled.

The two over-arching lessons from VisionSpring are (a) a targeted, low-cost tool, in this case a simple pair of eyeglasses, can leverage massive opportunity for individuals in the developing world and (b) the social change organizations worth backing are hybrid models which focus on multi-disciplinary solutions.

Dr. Jordan Kassalow, an Opportunity Collaboration Delegate, captures the idea:

"This is not just charity, although the intention is charitable; it is a nonprofit organization. The mission is to improve people's lives through better vision and economic empowerment. It's not a health organization as much as it is an economic development organization. We use the health product to help economic development along."

VisionSpring, itself a nonprofit, needs charitable donations, but deploys a self-supporting franchise business model around the world to distribute and sell glasses. Local, self-sustaining jobs are created while eyeglass customers keep the delivery system responsive to local needs. Optical health and personal quality of life improves while economic life extends.

The organizational model is a blurry hybrid, but the vision is clear and compelling.